Two People, Two Options: living healthy or dying prematurely

This weekend has been a challenging one, as I received two pieces of news. The first was of one client’s incredible success following the low carb high healthy fat diet and the shocked reaction of his doctor, and the other was of the death of a friend who had Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. In this blog, I will share how these two events embody the two options each of us have; (1) living a healthy life to the fullest or (2) living with diet-related disease and dying prematurely of ‘natural causes’.


“JP” – a Picture of Success

Last fall, I had a reasonably fit 35-year-old client contact me wanting to lose 15 pounds. He went to the gym twice a week for an hour, and ran 10 km per week, but had put on some pounds and wanted to lose them.

As I always do, I asked for a copy of recent blood test, assessing his fasting blood glucose, HbA1C (3 month average of blood glucose), cholesterol (lipid panel) and requesting his doctor-assessed blood pressure. (Sometimes people insist that I counsel them without seeing blood work, but I explain that they ran out of crystal balls when I was graduating, so I have no choice but to get labs.)  I gave my new client a Lab Test Request form to bring his doctor.  The GP scoffed at the Lab Test Request Form asking him to requisition a lipid panel for a young, fit 35 year old whose parents are both living. That changed when the tests came back, and this man’s triglyceride level was higher than I had ever seen anyone’s, ever. His non-HDL cholesterol was very high and his HDL was very low. LDL wasn’t even available because his triglycerides levels were through the roof. His ferritin was astronomically high – not a sign of excess iron, but likely inflammation.

His doctor called him into the office immediately and wanted to put him on statin medication right away and referred him to the Lipid Clinic at a major local hospital.

My client told his doctor he wanted to wait 3 months and first follow my dietary recommendations and see what would happen to his lipids, and was advised against it by his doctor. My client was insistent, so the doctor told him that his recommendations were for him to eat “decrease saturated fat and carbohydrates, increase fruit and vegetables, increase insoluble fiber and fish, make his plate 1/2 vegetables, 1/4 protein, 1/4 starch“.

After seeing me, he agreed to limit fruit to max 1 / day, preferably a few berries on top of 2 or 3 huge salads with plenty of good quality olive oil and to have most of his carbs as vegetables. He learned that “not all vegetables are created equal” and I taught him to differentiate between those he could eat as much as he wanted at each meal and those he should limit or avoid. We talked about milk consumption, and the health benefits of eating plenty of fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel and fresh sardine. And we talked about carbs. We talked a lot about carbs. Carbs in fruit, carbs in milk, carbs in bread, pasta and rice, and carbs in vegetables. 

I designed an Individual Meal Plan for him, making sure he obtained sufficient macronutrients (protein, fat and carbs) as well as micronutrients (especially potassium, magnesium, sodium, vitamin C and calcium, vitamin D and vitamin K) – and factoring in his desired weight loss. I explained that if he followed his Meal Plan, it is perfectly reasonable for his triglyceride levels to be <2.00 mmol/L in 2 more months. 

Three weeks later, his doctor ran his labs again.  His triglyceride level was almost a third what it was! His non-HDL was down substantially and his HDL was rising nicely. When he was seen at the Lipid Clinic, they were willing to give him 2 more months to get his lipids in the normal range before starting him on medication.

Friday, he wrote me telling me that his triglycerides we down well below 2.00 mmol/L and added;

“this amazed the doctor!”

My client left his doctor’s office without a medication prescription and with only the recommendation to keep eating the way I taught him. My client added that he was already within 2 – 3kg of his goal weight.

It’s not magic.

The doctor should not have been amazed that diet alone can be this effective – even for someone for whom high cholesterol has a genetic component. The literature documents the role of a low carb high fat diet.

But it is easier to write a prescription than educate a patient. 


My High School Friend – preventable premature death

Last night I learned that my friend since high school, died from natural causes. She had Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. She and I were the same age.

Three years ago, when my friend was first diagnosed as having Diabetes, she asked my opinion about having received Diabetes counselling in her province to eat 45 gm of carbohydrates at each meal and at least 15 gm of carbohydrates at each of 3 snacks – that’s 180 gm of carbohydrates per day.  A mutual friend of ours from the same province, who had also been recently diagnosed with Diabetes confirmed that she too was advised to eat 45 gm of carbohydrates at each meal and at least 15 gm of carbohydrates at snacks. At that time, I had explained to my friend what I had been learning about the role of excess carbs in Diabetes, hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol. While I provide distance consultations in my practice (using a combination of phone, email and fax), as Dietitians we are advised specifically not to provide dietary counselling to family members or friends. With my ability to help directly being very limited, I recommended that she find a Dietitian near her who could teach her about managing this triad (called “metabolic syndrome“) using a low carb high fat diet. She followed the standard dietary recommendations to the letter and took her multiple medications as prescribed. Her blood sugar levels came down using medication (but that was effectively treating the symptom of high blood sugar, not the cause which is the underlying insulin resistance). Her blood pressure kept going higher and higher despite medication, so more medication was added.  She then developed high       cholesterol.      

Today, my friend is dead, in what could have been an entirely preventable, premature death.

So I am left asking myself ‘could following the standard recommendations of eating 180 gm of carbohydrate per day with Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol — without treating the underlying cause (insulin resistance) have contributed to her death’?

The literature is certainly full of studies documenting the beneficial effects of a low carb high fat diet on metabolic syndrome – but she was never given that as an option.  She was prescribed medication for lowering blood sugar and blood pressure, but nothing was done to lower her insulin resistance.

A lifetime of work by the late Dr. Joseph Kraft with almost 300,000 people documents that it is the insulin resistance that underlies cardiovascular disease  not the high blood sugar. Furthermore, 65-75% of people with normal blood sugar levels still have insulin resistanceand the same elevated risk of having a heart attack. 

We keep treating the symptoms and people keep dying anyways – and those without any symptoms are walking around with elevated risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, and don’t even know it.

We are told;

“Diabetes is a chronic, progressive disease”

which means that once diagnosed with Diabetes, you’ll have it forever – and that eventually it will get worse, requiring medication, then more medication and finally insulin.

When people have bariatric surgery (“stomach stapling”), their blood sugars come back to normal within weeks and at the end of a year, they no longer have any of the clinical symptoms of Diabetes.  Their fasting blood glucose levels are normal and their HbA1C levels are normal. They are essentially as if they don’t have Diabetes. Their Diabetes is in remission.

So is Diabetes REALLY a “chronic, progressive disease”? No, it can be stopped.

If the reason people became Diabetic was because of how they were eating, why is it SO hard to grasp the concept that they could get well, but changing how they are eating?

At the end of the day, we have a choice.

We can do as my client above did and put everything we have into changing how we eat based on good, sound scientific studies and with medical supervision, or we can keep doing what we’ve been doing, expecting different results.

I made my choice a month ago tomorrow, and will write an update in the blog titled “A Dietitian’s Journey” tomorrow, for week four  (see Food for Thought tab, above).  Here’s a teaser; two days ago my blood sugar levels were several times at normal levels – and were overall much lower than a month ago. Last night (twice) and once this morning, my blood pressure was in the normal range.  One month!

I ask myself, what will my labs look like in 3 months or 6 months of addressing the underlying insulin resistance (instead of the symptom of high blood sugar?) What will be life be like, when I have normal blood sugar levels and normal blood pressure and normal cholesterol levels?

It will look better than the alternative.

Rest in peace, dear friend.