Youth with Type 1 diabetes still may produce insulin with proper nutrition

June 24, 2013
The addition of foods rich in branched-chain amino acids and long-chain omega 3s could help youth diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes keep producing some of their own insulin for up to two years after diagnosis.

Dr. Mayer-Davis

Dr. Mayer-Davis

Those are the findings of a new study led by Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, PhD, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health. The study, “Nutritional Factors and Preservation of C-Peptide in Youth with Recently Diagnosed Type 1 Diabetes,” will be published in the journal Diabetes Care.

The study included 1,316 youths with autoantibody-positive Type 1 diabetes who participated in the multi-center “SEARCH for Diabetes in Youth” study, the largest study of childhood diabetes in the U.S. It is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Mayer-Davis is the national co-chair of the multi-center study.

“No one had ever examined whether these nutritional factors might help youth continue to produce some insulin after they are diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes,” said Mayer- Davis, the study’s principal investigator. “We were sure we could design and execute a study that would do exactly that.”

Her team’s hypothesis for the study lay in the etiology of Type 1 diabetes. Nutritional factors had been shown to lower risk for onset of the disease, but could nutrition influence and even slow the disease’s progression after clinical diagnosis?

There were indications of such a possibility. Mayer-Davis’ team knew that infant feeding practices, including breastfeeding and timing of introduction of complementary foods, have been linked with the development of diabetes autoimmunity, which leads to Type 1 diabetes. Studies also had suggested that vitamins D and E and long-chain polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids may produce protective effects against Type 1 diabetes. Branched-chain amino acids, particularly leucine, also are known to promote insulin secretion.

The observational study examined subjects, from toddler-age to 20 years old, who were diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. The researchers determined how much (if any) insulin the subjects were producing up to two years after their diagnosis and compared this with nutritional intake.The researchers looked especially for subjects who ingested foods containing the branched-chain amino acid leucine and long-chain fatty acids known as omega 3s. The results were analyzed with statistical models to find links between the nutritional intake of foods rich in these components, or blood levels of the fatty acids, and specific verified measures of insulin production.

“We found nutrition potentially could help those diagnosed with Type 1 in their youth,” Mayer-Davis said. “To be clear, adding more branched-chain amino acids and omega 3s would not replace the need to take insulin among this population, but it could help youth continue to produce some of their own insulin, which could reduce risk for diabetes complications.”

Mayer-Davis notes that the study involved subjects’ ingesting foods rich in these nutrients; they were not taking supplements.
To add more branched-chain amino acids to the diet, Mayer-Davis suggests that the best sources are dairy products (including milk, cheese and yogurt), meats, soy products, eggs, nuts and products made with whole wheat. To add omega 3s, include fatty fish, such as salmon, in the diet.
“Of course, this is just a preliminary study, and though we are encouraged by the findings, we know further work needs to be done,” Mayer-Davis said. “However, this does open the door for a new approach that really could benefit the lives of these children.”




Gillings School of Global Public Health contact: David Pesci, director of communications, (919) 962-2600 or