Does a New Diabetes Drug Reduce Heart Disease Risk?

diabetic mediterranean diet, Steve Parker MD

Pharmacist using her advanced degree to count pills

Larry Husten writing at CardioBrief mentions a recent press release alleging that empagliflozin reduces cardiovascular disease risk.

Larry points out a problem with diabetes drugs that I’ve been harping on for years: we don’t know the long-term outcomes and side effects of most of our drugs. As long as a diabetes drug reduces blood sugar and seems to be relatively safe in the short term, it will be approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Larry writes:

Until now the best thing anyone could say for sure about all the new diabetes drugs was that at least they didn’t kill people. That’s because although these drugs have been shown to be highly effective in reducing glucose levels, a series of large cardiovascular outcomes trials failed to provide any evidence of significant clinical benefit.

Cardiovascular disease is a major stalker of diabetics. I’m talking about heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, sudden cardiac death.

The aforementioned press release touts reduced cardiovascular disease risk in patients taking empagliflozin. What’s missing is any mention of overall death reduction. Even if the drug really prevents heart attacks and strokes, which I doubt, don’t you want to know about overall death rates? I do. For all we know, the drug could promote illness and death from infections and cancer while reducing heart attacks and strokes. The drug’s net effect could be premature death. 

I’m 99% sure the researchers doing the work have the mortality data. Unless they don’t want to know.

By no means am I against drug use. But if I had type 2 diabetes, I’d do all I can with exercise, weight control, and low-carb eating before resorting to new or higher doses of drugs.

Steve Parker, M.D.

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Filed under Drugs for Diabetes

New Study Suggests Low-Carb Diet Healthier Than Low-Fat in T2 Diabetes

This is an important report because most diet studies last much less than one year. Details are in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Study participants were 115 obese (BMI 35) type 2 diabetics with hemoglobin A1c averaging 7.3%. Average age was 58. So pretty typical patients, although perhaps better controlled than average.

They were randomized to follow for 52 weeks either a very low-carbohydrate or a high-carbohydrate “low-fat” diet. Both diets were designed to by hypocaloric, meaning that they provided fewer calories than the patients were eating at baseline, presumably with a goal of weight loss. The article abstract implies the diets overall each provided the same number of calories. They probably adjusted the calories for each patient individually. (I haven’t seen the full text of the article.) Participants were also enrolled in a serious exercise program: 60 minutes of aerobic and resistance training thrice weekly.

Kayaking is an aerobic exercise if done seriously

Kayaking is an aerobic exercise if done seriously

The very low-carb diet (LC diet) provided 14% of total calories as carbohydrate (under 50 grams/day). The high-carb diet (HC diet) provided 53% of total calories as carbohydrate and 30% of calories as fat. The typical Western diet has about 35% of calories from fat.

Both groups lost weight, about 10 kg (22 lb) on average. Hemoglobin A1c, a reflection of glucose control over the previous three months, dropped about 1% (absolute reduction) in both groups.

Compared to the HC diet group, the LC dieters were able to reduce more diabetes medications, lower their triglycerides more, and increase their HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol”). These triglyceride and HDL changes would tend to protect against heart disease.


You can lose weight and improve blood sugar control with reduced-calorie diets—whether very low-carb or high-carb—combined with an exercise program. No surprise there.

I’m surprised that the low-carb group didn’t lose more weight. I suspect after two months of dieting, the low-carbers started drifting back to their usual diet which likely was similar to the high-carb diet. Numerous studies show superior weight loss with low-carb eating, but those studies are usually 12 weeks or less in duration.

The low-carb diet improved improved lipid levels that might reduce risk of future heart disease, and allowed reduction of diabetes drug use. Given that we don’t know the long-term side effects of many of our drugs, that’s good.

If I have a chance to review the full text of the paper, I’ll report back here.

Steve Parker, M.D.

Reference: Jeannie Tay, et al. Comparison of low- and high-carbohydrate diets for type 2 diabetes management: a randomized trial. First published July 29, 2015, doi: 10.3945/​ajcn.115.112581    Am J Clin Nutr


Filed under Carbohydrate, Heart Disease, Weight Loss

Book Review: The South Asian Health Solution

Indian woman cooking chapati

Indian woman cooking chapati

Here’s my review of The South Asian Health Solution: A culturally tailored guide to lose fat, increase energy, avoid disease by Ronesh Sinha, published in 2014.

♦   ♦   ♦

Dr. Sinha practices internal medicine in northern California (Silicon Valley) and has a large dose of South Asians in his clinic. “South Asia” usually encompasses India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Maldives. It is home to one fifth of the world’s population. This book pertains mostly to Indians, which is Dr. Sinha’s ethnicity. I live in the Pheonix, AZ, area and we have a fair number of Indian engineers and physicians.


Because Dr. Sinha says they have unique genetic and cultural issues that predispose them to type 2 diabetes, abdominal obesity, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and adverse cholesterol numbers. For example, compared to natives who stay in their home countries, South Asian immigrants to the West have 3–4 times higher prevalence of diabetes, he says. Dr Sinha has a program that he’s convinced will prevent or forestall these medical problems in South Asians.

Dr. Sinha says South Asians eat too many carbohydrates and are too sedentary. Especially those who have moved to the West (e.g., US, UK, Europe, Canada). He notes that the core of the typical South Asian diet is flat breads, lentils, rice, fried crispy snacks (with heart-poisoning trans fats), culminating in 150–200 daily grams of carbohydrate more than he sees in other ethnics in California. Western fast foods, sodas, and sweets compound the problem.

He says “most South Asians are skinny-fat,” meaning skinny legs and arms but with a fat belly from visceral fat. This is also called sarcopenic obesity. The usual “healthy” body mass index (BMI) numbers don’t apply to Asians. The World Health Organisation classifies Asians as underweight if BMI is 18.4 or less, healthy at BMI of 18.5 to 13, overweight at BMI 23.1 to 25, and obese if BMi is over 25. These numbers are lower than those used for non-Asian populations.

Another issue in his South Asian patient population is vitamin D deficiency related to their dark skin (hence, less vitamin D production) and too much time indoors. He says vitamin D deficiency promotes inflammation and insulin resistance. More on this below.

Some South Asians have a K121Q gene mutation that causes insulin resistance, which in turn can cause disease. And whether it’s genetic or not (but I think it is), he says South Asians tend to have higher Lp(a) [aka lipoprotein(a)], which causes early and aggressive coronary artery disease. They also tend to have small dense LDL, leading to a lower-than-expected total cholesterol level which may be deceptively low.

Sinha notes a strong vegetarian preference in Indians but spends almost no time discussing it. From the book, I can’t tell if Indian vegetarians are lacto-ovo-vegetarians, pescetarians, or vegans. The author is not a vegetarian.

Gadi Sagar temple on Gadisar Lake, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India

Gadi Sagar temple on Gadisar Lake, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India



So, South Asians, at least in the West, have a high-carb diet, are too sedentary, and have genetic tendencies to heart disease and diabetes. How do these factors cause disease? It’s all tied together with insulin resistance. Insulin is the main hormone that keeps our blood sugar from rising too high after we digest a meal. Insulin drives blood sugar into our body cells to be used as energy or stored as fat or glycogen. If our tissues have insulin resistance, blood sugar levels rise. As a compensatory effort, our pancreas excretes more insulin in to the blood stream than would normally be the case. Whether or not that eventually lowers blood sugar levels, the higher insulin levels themselves can cause toxicity. For example, higher insulin levels raise blood pressure, which damages the cells lining the insides of our arteries, leading to chronic inflammation and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). Some of the arterial damage is mediated through small dense LDL cholesterols (aka type B LDL), which is promoted by high insulin levels (hyperinsulinemia). Insulin resistance also results in a defective and overactive immune system, which further promotes chronic inflammation. This inflammation is “…the root cause of almost every imaginable chronic disease…from heart attacks and strokes to Alzheimers Disease.”

Anyway, this is Dr. Sinha’s hypothesis, and there is some scientific evidence to support it. Sinha says that the concept of insulin resistance “weaves together virtually every chronic ailment currently afflicting South Asians.” That may be a bit hyperbolic: He carves out no exceptions for arthritis, asthma, eczema, migraines, glaucoma, macular degeneration, hearing loss, erectile dysfunction, hepatitis C, prostate enlargement, toenail fungus, or male-pattern baldness.

Dr. Sinha’s Grand Unification Theory of Disease Causation has some support among physicians and scientists, but is by no means universally accepted among them. As for myself, I think he’s over-simplifying (for his readership’s sake?) and getting a bit ahead of the science.

Most clinicians aren’t testing directly for insulin resistance. What are the indirect clues? Belly fat, low HDL cholesterol, high trigylcerides, high blood pressure, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes. These are components of the metabolic syndrome. Not everybody with one or more of these factors has insulin resistance but many do.


If Sinha is correct, the South Asian Health Solution is a “low-insulin lifestyle” achieved through carbohydrate-reduced eating, exercise, and avoidance or resolution of belly fat. These help improve all components of the aforementioned metabolic syndrome. The backbone of the plan is carbohydrate restriction. For low-carb eating, avoid wheat bread and Indian flat breads (e.g., chapatis, naans, parathas, puris, phulkas), aloo (primarily potatoes and starchy vegetables), rice and other grains, beans, and sugar. Keep track of your net carbohydrates (he likes, which includes South Asian foods).

If you need to burn off body fat, limit carbs to 50–100 grams/day (digestible or net carbs, I assume). Aim for 100–150 grams/day to maintain health and weight loss.

You might be able to add “safe starches” later: white rice, potatoes. To replace your Indian flat breads, learn how to make them with substitutes for wheat flour: coconut flour or almond flour (no skins) or almond meal (skin included). Recipe on page 347. Rice alternatives are cauliflower “rice,” shredded cabbage, broccoli slaw, chopped broccoli, and chopped carrots.

He likes ghee, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, and butter. Avoid high omega-6 fatty acid consumption, as in vegetable oils. Of course, avoid trans fats. Good fats are saturated, monousaturated, and omega-3s.

He provides a few low-carb recipes, surprisingly without specific carb counts: chapatis, microwave bread, cauliflower pizza, coconut cauliflower rice, shredded cabbage sabji, gajar halwa (carrot pudding), and coconut ladoo.

Dr. Sinha doesn’t provide a comprehensive meal plan. He trusts his California South Asians to figure out how and what to eat. They’re smarter than average (he never says that, but that’s been my experience with South Asians in my world).

Dr. Sinha is also a huge proponent of exercise. He’ll tell you about squats, lunges, planks, burpees, yoga, and Tabata intervals. He agrees with me and Franziska Spritzler that “physical activity is the most effective fountain of youth available.”

Steve Parker, M.D., Conquer Diabetes and Prediabetes

Taking a rest from the fountain of youth


I skipped some of the chapters due to lack of time and interest: women’s issues (e.g., pregnancy, polycystic ovary syndrome, post-partum depression, osteoporosis), childhood, fatigue and stress management, and anti-aging.


  • He likes high-sensitivity CRP testing.
  • His metabolic goals for South Asians are: 1) keep waist circumference under 35 inches (90 cm) in men, under 31 inches (80 cm) in women, 2) keep triglycerides under 100 mg/dl (1.13 mmol/l), 3) keep HDL cholesterol over 40 mg/dl (1.03 mmol/l) for men, and above 50 mg/dl (1.29 mmol/l) for women, 4) keep systolic blood pressure 120 or less, and diastolic pressure 80 or less, 5) keep fasting blood sugar under 100 mg/dl (5.6 mmol/l) and hemoglobin A1c under 5.7%, and 6) keep hs-CRP under 1.0 mg/dl.
  • He says HDL cholesterol helps reduce insulin resistance via apoprotein A-1 (apo A-1), which increases glucose uptake by cells.
  • He likes to follow the triglyceride/HDL ratio. If under 3, it means low risk of insulin resistance being present.
  • He likes to follow total cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio: ideal is under 3.5.
  • Statins are way over-used.
  • Ignore total cholesterol level by itself.
  • Stress control and sleep are important.
  • The author had some metabolic syndrome components: high triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and type B LDL (small, dense particles).
  • He dislikes the usual-recommended low-fat, low-cholesterol diet.
  • 4 tbsp (60 ml) of extra virgin olive oil daily seems to lower blood pressure.
  • Magnesium supplementation may lower blood pressure.
  • The liver stores about 100 grams of glycogen and muscles store 300–500 grams.
  • Vanaspati is a “cheap ghee substitute” made from vegetable oil and widely used in Indian restaurants and many Indian processed foods. Avoid it since it’s a source of trans fats.
  • Aloo sabji is a potato dish.
  • Traditional Indian herbs/spices include turmeric, cardamon, ginger, and cilantro.
  • Find an Indian medication guide at
  • Coconut milk is a traditional fat in India.
  • Curry, curry, curry.
  • http://www.pamforg/southasian.
  • Non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH) is quite common in South Asians, seemingly linked to visceral (abdominal) obesity and insulin resistance related to carbohydrates.
  • The book has no specific focus on diabetes.


Overall, I like many of Dr. Sinha’s ideas. They seem to be supported by his experience with his own patients. I trust him. I bet many South Asians and non-Asians eating the Standard American Diet would see improved health by following his low-carb, physically active program.

Steve Parker, M.D.



Filed under Book Reviews, coronary heart disease, Heart Disease, India, Overweight and Obesity, Weight Loss

Should Carbohydrate Restriction Be the Default Diet for Diabetes?

Yes….according to a manifesto to be published soon in Nutrition. It may be published already since this post has been sitting in my draft stack for a while. The abstract:

The inability of current recommendations to control the epidemic of diabetes, the specific failure of the prevailing low-fat diets to improve obesity, cardiovascular risk or general health and the persistent reports of some serious side effects of commonly prescribed diabetic medications, in combination with the continued success of low-carbohydrate diets in the treatment of diabetes and metabolic syndrome without significant side effects, point to the need for a reappraisal of dietary guidelines.

The benefits of carbohydrate restriction in diabetes are immediate and well-documented. Concerns about the efficacy and safety are long-term and conjectural rather than data-driven. Dietary carbohydrate restriction reliably reduces high blood glucose, does not require weight loss (although is still best for weight loss) and leads to the reduction or elimination of medication and has never shown side effects comparable to those seen in many drugs.

Low-Carb Spaghetti Squash With Meat Sauce

Low-Carb Spaghetti Squash With Meat Sauce

The lead author is Richard Feinman. Others include Lynda Frassetto, Eric Westman, Jeff Volek, Richard Bernstein, Annika Dahlqvist, Ann Childers, and Jay Wortman, to name a few. Some of them disclose that they have accepted money from the Veronica and Robert C. Atkins Foundation. That doesn’t bother me. I’m familiar with most of the supporting literature they cite, having read it over the last decade. I agree with these guys wholeheartedly.

Read the whole enchilada.

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: The linked article is preliminary and may undergo minor revision over the coming months.


Filed under Carbohydrate

A New Artificial Sweetener: Advantame

Lumps of Diabetes

Sugar or advantame?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this last spring approved a new artificial sweetener called advantame. The press release calls it a high-intensity sweetener, which is a new term for me. Advantame joins five other artificial sweeteners:  saccharin (e.g., Sweet’N Low), aspartame (Equal and others), acesulfame potassium (Sweet One and others), sucralose (Splenda), and neotame (Newtame).

From the FDA:

High-intensity sweeteners, such as advantame, may be used in place of sugar for a number of reasons, including that they do not contribute calories or only contribute a few calories to the diet. High-intensity sweeteners also generally will not raise blood sugar levels.

Advantame is a free-flowing, water soluble, white crystalline powder that is stable even at higher temperatures, and can be used as a tabletop sweetener as well as in cooking applications. Advantame has been approved for use as a general-purpose sweetener and flavor enhancer and can be used in baked goods, non-alcoholic beverages (including soft drinks), chewing gum, confections and frostings, frozen desserts, gelatins and puddings, jams and jellies, processed fruits and fruit juices, toppings, and syrups.

I haven’t seen it in stores yet.

Steve Parker, M.D.


Filed under Sugar Substitutes

Preserve Your Hippocampus With Exercise

MRI scan of brain

MRI scan of brain

The NYT’s Well blog has the details. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical center for memory. Alzheimers disease is associated with a gene called apo-E4. Carriers of that gene who exercise regularly have less shrinkage of the hippocampus than non-exercisers.

To PROVE that regular exercise prevents dementia-related shrinkage of the hippocampus, you’d have to force some folks to exercise and stop others who wanted to exercise. A couple years later, scan their brains and compare the two groups. That study may never be done.

The Mediterranean diet also seems to prevent or forestall dementia.

Steve Parker, M.D.

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Filed under Dementia

Is There a Single Healthiest Diet?

Amby Burfoot has an article that asks, “what is the healthiest diet?”  for the general public. His answer comes from the Journal of Nutrition. Looks like there are four winners. Quoting Mr. Burfoot:

They differ slightly in the degree to which they favor, or disfavor, certain foods and food types, such as the following:

  • The Healthy Eating Index 2010: Considers low-fat dairy products a plus.
  • The Alternative Healthy Eating Index 2010: Considers nuts/legumes a plus, as well as moderate alcohol consumption. Trans fats, sugary beverages, salt, and red meat get a minus.
  • The Alternate Mediterranean Diet: Considers fish, nuts/legumes, and moderate alcohol a plus; red meat, a minus.
  • The DASH Diet: Considers low-fat dairy and nuts/legumes a plus; sugary beverages, salt, and red meat get a minus.

I think the Mediterranean diet has the most and best data to support it.

Steve Parker, M.D.



Filed under Mediterranean Diet