What’s the picture perfect diet to both fend off and treat type 2 diabetes? Well, the latest science paints a portrait of a diet lush with plants in every color, texture, and category, including a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, crunchy whole grains, earthy beans, and crisp nuts and seeds. More and more research suggests that a plant-based diet, including vegetarian and vegan diets, can reduce one’s risk of developing this debilitating, life-threatening condition, as well as manage it if you already suffer from type 2 diabetes. Considering this disease is a growing global epidemic, with approximately 422 million cases worldwide and rapidly increasing, the power of a plant-based diet is promising.
“Plant-based diets are very useful. For someone who is overweight, losing even a few pounds can boost insulin sensitivity, making diabetes more manageable or helping to prevent diabetes. Many people are able to lose weight and keep the pounds off with plant-based diets, which include vegetarian and vegan diets,” says Virginia-based diabetes expert, Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND, author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide.
What the Science Says. Scientists have observed that people who eat vegetarian and vegan diets have significantly lower rates of type 2 diabetes, compared to non-vegetarians and even semi-vegetarians. Population studies suggest that vegan and vegetarian diets can help prevent type 2 diabetes, according to Weisenberger. In one study, based on data from the Adventist Health Study-2, researchers found that vegan diets had the greatest protection against type 2 diabetes compared to non-vegan diets, even when they accounted for other lifestyle factors and body fat levels, though all types of vegetarian diets offered some protection compared to non-vegetarian diets. In a recent scientific review (Journal of Geriatric Cardiology, 2017), evidence from observational and interventional studies showed that plant-based diets may help treat diabetes by reducing key vascular diabetes complications.
How Do Plants Help? “It’s not entirely clear how plant-based eating may prevent or delay diabetes, but some possibilities include greater fiber intakes, low heme iron intake, and healthier weight status. When people eat less animal foods, they often eat more beans, whole grains, nuts, and other foods with an array of phytonutrients, which may act as anti-inflammatory compounds, antioxidants, and insulin-sensitizers,” says Weisenberger. Therein lies the beauty of a plant-based diet.
It’s important to note that research links the quality of a plant-based diet to better health outcomes. Which means that it’s not just about limiting animal foods and increasing plant foods—it’s about choosing a variety of healthful, minimally processed plant foods over highly refined junk foods. Think eating more whole plants, like steel cut oats with berries, spinach salad with pistachios, and simmered lentil curry with brown rice, rather than a steady diet of sugary cereals, white bread, chips, and cookies.
Join the Plant-Based Bandwagon! Inspired to make a change to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, or manage the condition you already have? It’s not as hard as it may sound to focus your eating style on plants. Even if you aren’t ready to take the step to vegan or vegetarian, you can go more plant-centric through a more flexitarian approach. “Flexitarian and pescatarian are smart ways to go, because they are less restricted than other plant-based diets and are easier for some people to stick to,” says Weisenberger.
Weisenenberger suggests that if you have diabetes and have been counting carbs to manage your blood sugar level, continue to count carbs and measure your blood sugar frequently, including before meals and two hours after your first bite. Call your healthcare provider if your blood sugar level becomes too high or too low. If you have prediabetes, you should not have to count carbohydrates. Simply choose wholesome foods in appropriate amounts.
Plant Power Your Diet
Try these top 4 tips to let plants do the heavy lifting in your diet.
- Focus on Plant Proteins. In order to reduce your animal intake, you’ll need to let plant proteins be the star of your plate. Top contenders include: beans, lentils, black-eyed peas, tofu, tempeh, seitan, almonds, pistachios, peanuts, hemp seeds, and sunflower seeds.
- Add a Whole Grain to Each Meal. Whole intact grains have a lower glycemic response than refined grains and even whole grain flours. Rich in fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, intact grains (such as wild rice, rye berries, farro, quinoa, and sorghum) should be a regular feature at each meal.
- Push those Veggies. Simply pack your diet (2-3 cups per day) with a variety of non-starchy vegetables, including leafy greens, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, fennel, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini, peppers, asparagus, tomatoes, and radishes. These plants pack in an arsenal of phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals, and fiber for a small load of calories.
- Let Fruit Be Your Dessert. Skip the decadent, ooey-gooey desserts in lieu of nature’s finest treat: simple, seasonal fruits, in all their naturally sweet, nutrient-rich glory. Persimmons, blueberries, melons, peaches, cherries, grapes, tangerines, pears, and apricots are examples of sweet plants worth celebrating.
—Sharon Palmer, RDN