ATLANTA - About 30 million American adults have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.
And the CDC says about 96 million are "pre-diabetic," meaning their blood sugar levels are too high.
For years, experts have assumed that once a person was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, it was a done deal; the only option was to manage the illness.
But a couple of small studies show that dramatic dietary changes may help some type 2 diabetics normalize their blood sugar levels.
So, Emory internist Dr. Sharon Bergquist believes it's not too late for diabetics and pre-diabetics to change course, by rethinking the way you eat.
"Studies show you can reduce average blood sugar, as measured by hemoglobin a1c by over 2 points, and that translates into over 100 blood sugar points," Dr. Bergquist says. "So, diet can be just as effective, and in some cases even more effective, than medication for managing blood sugar."
In one British study, a small group of 13 type 2 diabetic volunteers, all overweight, switched to a plant-based diet: eating lots of whole grains, vegetables (especially greens), fruits, and getting most of their fat from nuts and seeds.
The volunteers also cut back on animal products, getting just 10 percent of their daily calories from meat and dairy.
Bergquist says the most beneficial foods for diabetics fall into two categories.
"One is foods that are low in saturated fat," she says. "Because the underlying problem with diabetes is insulin resistance, and saturated fat seems to worsen insulin resistance."
And Bergquist encourages her diabetic patients to eat "good" carbs found in whole foods like whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.
She recommends steering clear of sugary foods like sodas, snacks and baked goods, and cutting back on refined (or processed) foods like white rice, pasta, and white flour.
And, contrary to popular opinion, fruit is fine for type 2 diabetics.
"You can have as much fruit as you want," Dr. Bergquist says. "And I think there is a common perception that you have to limit fruit because fruit has fructose, the sugar in fruit."
But Bergquist says fruit is packed with fiber, which binds to sugar, and slows down how quickly it's absorbed into the bloodstream.
"And, it's also combined with the plant nutrients, the phytochemicals, that in themselves are helping to reverse some of the changes that are happening in diabetes," she says.