Today is World Diabetes Day and local researchers have placed Mzansi on the global map as the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop27) wraps up in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt this week. It’s here where results of South Africa’s first-ever whole food plant-based diabetes reversal challenge have drawn international attention and will be presented to world leaders in the coming days.
The research, conducted by a research group affiliated with the North West University (NWU) and the Physicians Association for Nutrition (PAN) South Africa, is in the form of a case study on the pilot program created by the Ubuntu Wellness Institute (UWI).
Dr Nanine Wyma, programmes manager at ProVeg South Africa and managing director at the Physicians Association for Nutrition (PAN) South Africa, worked first-hand with the data derived from the challenge.
Researchers at PAN South Africa gathered information from 10 diabetics and their physicians who followed a whole food plant-based challenge over 21 days. Wyma will be presenting the findings at Cop27 during the only day solely dedicated to discussing the health co-benefits of plant-based food system transformation.
“In our country, we have unique cultural and socioeconomic circumstances that should be taken into account when implementing whole-food plant-based interventions,” Wyma said.
Diabetic crisis looms
Figures released in 2021 by the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) show that over four million adults in South Africa are affected by the condition, while just under half of the people living with diabetes are undiagnosed, and one in three adults in the country is at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A total of 96 000 deaths were caused by diabetes in 2021, while the cost of diabetes-related health expenditure has risen to $1 700 per person (plus minus R29 300), totalling an estimated $7.2 billion.
“Diabetes is a serious threat to global health that respects neither socioeconomic status nor national boundaries,” Professor Ayesha Motala said in a press release by the IDF. Motala is the head of the department of diabetes and endocrinology at the School of Clinical Medicine of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Could plant-based diets be lifesaving?
In 2022, the World Diabetes Federation’s campaign focuses on the need for better access to quality diabetes education for healthcare professionals and people living with diabetes.
Wyma said, “Using plant-based nutrition to manage chronic diseases has been shown to be effective in many countries around the world. But we cannot simply copy and paste interventions from the Global North. South Africa is incredibly unique and we must explore research on how these interventions can be applied within a local context. This is not only an opportunity for improved healthcare in South Africa, but the rest of the continent as well.”
Officially, the 21-Day Ubuntu Diabetes Reversal Challenge has been in development by the Ubuntu Wellness Institute (UWI) since 2018 and began practically in 2020.
The 21-Day Ubuntu Diabetes Reversal Challenge included participants from across South Africa, including Cape Town, Nyanga, Imizama Yethu, Bonteheuwel, Sandton, Springs, Kempton Park, and Napier. Most notably, Western Cape premier Alan Winde also participated in the study.
“My original diabetic journey was [to] take a whole lot of meds. Then getting to understand it through research [I realised] I had to change my diet and by changing my diet, losing some weight, exercising, get off the medicine, I could manage it through diet and exercise,” Winde said.
How a plant-based diet saved Pearl’s life
Pearl Mpange, a massage therapist from Cape Town and another participant in the challenge, also spoke highly of her experience during the challenge. After her diagnosis, the doctors at her local clinic wanted to see her twice a month as she had developed severe type 2 diabetes.
“I started to feel weak and lost a lot of weight. So I went to the clinic and that is where I got the diabetic [diagnosis],” Mpange explained.
“On the 19th day of my [diabetes reversal] program, the doctor said I could go off my medication completely. I reversed my diabetes.”
Also part of the research team was Professor Andrew Robinson, public health specialist at NWU.
“When I studied medicine, once you were labelled as a type 2 diabetic or [diagnosed with] hypertension, it was for life. Now there is sufficient evidence to show that is not the case and that if one addresses your nourishment and health, you can reverse these illnesses.”
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