Studying diabetes in Bulgaria: Stanley awardee discovers the power of healthy eating

Ioana Manahilova is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa majoring in Human Physiology and pursuing a Global Health Certificate. She spent the summer in Bulgaria, supported by the Stanley Undergraduate Award for International Research. Her project, titled, "The Impact of a Structured Diet on Type 2 Diabetes in Borovetz, Bulgaria," set out to determine the extent to which patients staying in a wellness clinic and subscribe to healthy eating habits can manage, if not heal, their condition. At the end of her project, Ioana came to some powerful conclusions about the impact of a healthy diet, and even made changes to her own lifestyle. Read on to learn about her fascinating journey.

By Ioana Manahilova

My experience this summer in Borovetz (Bulgaria) can be best summarized as one of the best experiences of my life. Not only did I get to see one of the most scenic and beautiful areas of Bulgaria, I also got to meet people from all walks of life and learn about their amazing journeys.

My initial goal was to interview and attain the medical records of 10 participants during my time at the clinic.

At first I panicked because I realized I would not have enough participants with solely Type 2 diabetes, but then the director came up with the solution of calling past patients and interviewing them on the phone. This actually worked out better because I received data that spanned 6 months instead of just 3 1/2 weeks.

Also, I was surprised to see that the medical records I attained held previous diet habits before the start of the program and diet habits a few weeks after the program. This fit right into what I was researching, which is simply the effect that diet has on patients with Type 2 diabetes, and was able to further expand my research into diet habits after a straight diet regime.

At this clinic, I was able to go to the kitchen to observe the meals especially catered to patients with Type 2 diabetes. The diet consisted mainly of both raw and cooked vegetables, grains and legumes, and fruits. Everyday there was a meal at noon and at 6pm where the whole clinic gathered to support each other and eat their healthy meals. 

I soon found several astounding revelations: 1) patients with Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure saw normalized blood pressure within a week of beginning the diet, 2) after just the first few days, there was a definite decrease in weight, 3) some patients actually saw a decrease in their blood sugar levels.

For example one female patient at the age of 68 began her stay with  alarmingly high levels of blood pressure and blood sugar to that of a healthy person after her 21-day stay. What is even more incredible is that this patient went from 197 pounds to 179.5 pounds in that same amount of time. 

This research project served to not only fulfill my requirement for the global health certificate it also served as a reminder as to why I began my journey into the medical field.

This experience shed light on my future career plans as well. At this time I am looking into applying for joint Masters of Public Health / Physician Assistant programs so that I can gain clinical experience alongside how to use my knowledge to increase the livelihood of others.

I am also planning on continuing my research on the effect of diet by carrying out this same research project in a diabetes clinic in the United States to compare the different outcomes.

During this time, I felt healthier than ever and found that I had energy to do all the goals I had set out to accomplish.

Alongside my research project I was also able to hike the tallest peak in Bulgaria, go on eco-tours of the area with an added bonus of a guide who showed us what plants we could eat and use for herbs/medicine. My personal experience was similar to the experience of the other patients there. I decided to fully immerse myself into the clinic by participating in a ten day fasting program followed by a gradual good food habit eating regime.

I learned as much about myself as about the true power of diet.

There is a saying: "you are what you eat," and this clinic takes it personally. The only items available to buy at the clinic were fruits and tea, all other food was made by certified chefs in the kitchen.

Everyday at 2 p.m., the patients would gather for an all vegan cooking class where anything from vegan meatballs to banana ice cream was made.

In terms of my own transformation, I shed 12 pounds but I gained a whole new outlook on life. My roommate turned out to be a yoga instructor who conducted morning yoga at 6:45 a.m. every day, and taught me that the only thing you should strive to feel is happiness and to laugh as often as I can. She was 42 but did not look a day over 25 and was the happiest women I had met.

I had the privilege to watch the lives of so many changes in the most radiant way. People came into the clinic unhappy and ill but walked out with resilience and the biggest smiles and I was one of those people.

This experience has taught me that there are simple solutions to a deadly disease that is taking of the lives of millions around the world.

It will not be pills or insulin that will cure these people, it is a strict lifestyle change to a proper diet. I plan on spreading this knowledge to as many people as I can in the hopes that they give themselves a chance at being healthy and happy individuals and getting their life back from the grips of diabetes. 

Find out more about the Stanley Graduate and Stanley Undergraduate Awards for International Research, funded in part by the Stanley-UI Foundation Support Organization. 

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