a variety of plant-based foods, mainly colourful vegetables

Health & Wellbeing

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Can a plant-based diet help prevent and treat type 2 diabetes?

As it is Diabetes Week, what better time would there be to write an article about the global epidemic that impacts at least 422 million? Type 2 diabetes accounts for over 95% of this figure and unlike type 1 diabetes it is largely a result of excess body weight and physical inactivity. You may be wondering how is it possible to treat type 2 diabetes? 

Firstly, it is important to state that if you have diabetes do not enact any changes without discussing them with your doctor as, “Patients who adopt a plant-based diet can experience decreases in blood sugar and blood pressure relatively quickly after changing their diet, especially if they are taking medications for these conditions. Close monitoring and anticipation of hypoglycemia is critical; medications may require adjustment.”

You may have noticed that this warning implies that a plant-based diet can be effective in treating type 2 diabetes: it is what The Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) recommends for disease management. 

Is remission achievable?

The aim when treating T2D should be to achieve remission - the most effective way is an intensive dietary approach complemented with other lifestyle changes; a recent study bolstered this advice.

“There is a general consensus that the elements of a whole-foods plant-based diet [WFPB] - legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts, with limited or no intake of refined foods and animal products - are highly beneficial for preventing and treating type 2 diabetes… 

Equally important, plant-based diets address the bigger picture for patients with diabetes by simultaneously treating cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, and its risk factors such as obesity, hypertension, hyper-lipidemia, and inflammation.”

May it be best to limit meat intake?

Cohort studies summarised in the paper quoted above suggest that vegans may be the best protected dietary group against diabetes and that even modest amounts of meat could have a significant impact upon the chances of developing diabetes. The same paper also suggests that plant protein is protective against type 2 diabetes whereas animal protein has at best a null association with type 2 diabetes. Red and processed meat seem to be the worst for diabetes; this may be due to the saturated and trans fats which increase the risk of developing diabetes.  

Carbohydrates: Friend or foe?

One thing which can be confusing is that some people refer to carbohydrates as a homogenous group which are all bad, especially for those with diabetes - this is not the case. The type and source of carbohydrate have a significant influence: refined carbs appear to be disease-promoting and whole grains are health-promoting, this even appears to apply to T2D. Several daily servings of whole grains appear to be protective against diabetes and cereal fibre appears to be particularly effective when aiming to prevent type 2 diabetes. 

Research such as this suggests that a predominantly WFPB diet is one of the most crucial factors when trying to prevent type 2 diabetes or return blood sugars to a healthier range; high levels of fibre, whole grains and vegetables appear to be particularly important. 

Prediabetes: A disease sentence or a warning sign?

The majority of individuals who are diagnosed as “prediabetic” are able to prevent it from progressing to type 2 diabetes and 1 in 5 appear to be able to revert to normoglycaemia. 

The CDA found that the greatest barrier in preventing individuals from adopting a plant-based diet to treat or manage type 2 diabetes was ignorance; 89% of patients had not heard of it being used as a strategy. 

For the prediabetic individuals in this study there was an association with lower systolic blood pressure, no heart disease and manageable weight and more successfully returning to normal blood sugar levels: a WFPB diet may help with all three factors. Those following plant-based diets tend to have a lower BMI. WFPB is the only diet proven to reverse heart disease and it can also help reduce blood pressure: you can view these as ‘side benefits’ rather than side effects of the diet. 

In conclusion, we often have personal agency and control over the likelihood of becoming prediabetic, diabetic and even reversing either of those stages than we may be aware of. Knowledge is power. No matter your diabetic status hopefully you will feel more empowered to improve your chances of avoiding, or even reversing type 2 diabetes - with the supervision of a doctor. 

If you are interested in plant-based nutrition you may like to read our articles: fabulous fungi and 7 plant-based doctors to follow.

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