Surender K Arora and Samy I McFarlane

Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Hypertension, SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and Kings County Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY 11203 NY 11203, USA

Nutrition & Metabolism 2005, 2:16     doi:10.1186/1743-7075-2-16


A low fat, high carbohydrate diet in combination with regular exercise is the traditional recommendation for treating diabetes. Compliance with these lifestyle modifications is less than satisfactory, however, and a high carbohydrate diet raises postprandial plasma glucose and insulin secretion, thereby increasing risk of CVD, hypertension, dyslipidemia, obesity and diabetes. Moreover, the current epidemic of diabetes and obesity has been, over the past three decades, accompanied by a significant decrease in fat consumption and an increase in carbohydrate consumption. This apparent failure of the traditional diet, from a public health point of view, indicates that alternative dietary approaches are needed. Because carbohydrate is the major secretagogue of insulin, some form of carbohydrate restriction is a prima facie candidate for dietary control of diabetes. Evidence from various randomized controlled trials in recent years has convinced us that such diets are safe and effective, at least in short-term. These data show low carbohydrate diets to be comparable or better than traditional low fat high carbohydrate diets for weight reduction, improvement in the dyslipidemia of diabetes and metabolic syndrome as well as control of blood pressure, postprandial glycemia and insulin secretion. Furthermore, the ability of low carbohydrate diets to reduce triglycerides and to increase HDL is of particular importance. Resistance to such strategies has been due, in part, to equating it with the popular Atkins diet. However, there are many variations and room for individual physician planning. Some form of low carbohydrate diet, in combination with exercise, is a viable option for patients with diabetes. However, the extreme reduction of carbohydrate of popular diets (<30 g/day) cannot be recommended for a diabetic population at this time without further study. On the other hand, the dire objections continually raised in the literature appear to have very little scientific basis. Whereas it is traditional to say that more work needs to be done, the same is true of the assumed standard low fat diets which have an ambiguous record at best. We see current trends in the national dietary recommendations as a positive sign and an appropriate move in the right direction.

The case for low carbohydrate diets in diabetes management

The epidemic of obesity and diabetes in our society over the past three decades has been accompanied by a decline in fat consumption and an apparent attempt to adopt the traditionally recommended low fat diet [1,2]. According to the USDA Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals (CSFII) [2], the absolute amount of fat and saturated fat consumed has decreased during the obesity epidemic although there is slight increase for women from 1994 to 1995. This apparent failure of low fat diets in curbing the obesity pandemic calls into question the effectiveness and long-term usefulness of such dietary recommendation and has led to renewed interest in alternative dietary interventions, notably those recommending reduced carbohydrate intake. Low fat diets are generally associated with high carbohydrate intake which in turn is associated with several metabolic abnormalities [3,4]. These metabolic abnormalities are more pronounced in the diabetic population, leading to worsening glycemic control, dyslipidemia and increased inflammation to name a few. In this review, we discuss the current evidence for a low carbohydrate diet versus a low fat diet in the management of people with diabetes, highlighting the potential role of low carbohydrate diet in ameliorating various metabolic abnormalities associated with diabetes.