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“Medicinal Food” Counters Onset of Juvenile Diabetes

A diet yielding high amounts of the short-chain fatty acids acetate and butyrate provides a beneficial effect on the immune system and protection against type 1 diabetes, according to a study published in Nature Immunology.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when autoreactive T cells attack and destroy the cells that produce insulin – the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.

The diet developed by CSIRO and Monash University researchers uses starches that resist digestion and pass through to the colon or large bowel, where they are broken down by gut bacteria. This process of fermentation produces acetate and butyrate which, when combined, provided protection against type 1 diabetes.

“The Western diet affects our gut microbiota and the production of these short-chain fatty acids,” said Dr Eliana Mariño of Monash University’s Biomedicine Discovery Institute. “Our research found that eating a diet which encourages the gut bacteria that produce high levels of acetate or butyrate improves the integrity of the gut lining, which reduces pro-inflammatory factors and promotes immune tolerance. We found this had an enormous impact on the development of type 1 diabetes.”

Prof Charles Mackay, who initiated the research, said the study highlighted how non-pharmaceutical approaches including special diets and gut bacteria could treat or prevent autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes. “The findings illustrate the dawn of a new era in treating human disease with medicinal foods,” he said. “The diets we used are highly efficient at releasing beneficial metabolites. I would describe them as an extreme superfood,” he said.

Mackay said that the diet was not just about eating vegetables or high-fibre foods but involved special food and a special process, and would need to be managed by nutritionists, dietitians and clinicians.

The researchers are hoping to gain funding to take the findings into type 1 diabetes into clinical research.