Can going plant-based flip the script on diabetes? There’s no shortage of reasons to include more plants in your diet and there are many creative ways to do so. Plus, there are ethical reasons to eat more plants. Growing plant-based foods produces less greenhouse gases and is less harmful to the environment. In addition, animals benefit when humans eat less meat and dairy. In addition, there are health benefits to adding more plant-based fare to your diet.
Research shows people who eat a predominantly plant-based diet are less likely to gain weight, due to the low-calorie content of such foods. Not only are they less likely to become obese, but they’re also at a lower risk of high blood pressure, which can lead to cardiovascular disease. It’s another reason to lighten up on the beef and explore the produce department in your local grocery store and your local Farmer’s market.
But what if you have prediabetes or type 2 diabetes and worry about keeping your blood sugar in check? People often wonder how a plant-based diet affects blood sugar management and whether it can do a 180 on one of the most common health problems in the Western world – type 2 diabetes, a condition straining the healthcare system and contributing to early mortality.
Over 11% of the population is grappling with this sneaky condition that can present with no symptoms, and the numbers keep climbing. It’s not just about the folks carrying extra weight either; type 2 diabetes can show up even if have a healthy body mass index. (BMI)
If plant-based foods help with blood sugar control, how might they do that and how can you get the benefits?
How a Plant-Based Diet Affects Blood Glucose Control
According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, people who adopt and adhere to a plant-based diet have a 23% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes compared to those who eat fewer plant-based foods.
Plus, you have to love the other health benefits of adding plants to your plate. The antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds in plant foods may lower the risk of developing complications from type 2 diabetes. Insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes carry with them other health issues, like heart disease, kidney failure, dementia, and a vision-robbing condition called diabetic retinopathy.
But lifestyle is a factor in preventing these unwanted health issues. For example, a plant-based diet can help keep these complications at bay. One study found that adopting a plant-based eating plan for 25 days caused the symptoms of diabetic neuropathy to regress.
Plant-Based Foods Have Anti-Inflammatory Benefits
How might a plant-based help you control your blood sugar and risk of type 2 diabetes? One reason people gravitate toward fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is the abundance of antioxidants they contain. These antioxidants help support healthy cells and fight tissue-damaging inflammation.
This may explain how plant foods help prevent some of the complications of type 2 diabetes. Studies also reveal that the type of protein you select matters. Replacing animal protein with plant protein helps with blood sugar control, partially due to the fiber you get when you bite into fresh produce.
Plus, you can benefit by feasting on plants if you already have insulin resistance and blood sugar readings that are out of range. Switching meat for plants may be smarter for blood sugar control than eating a calorie-restricted diet.
Plant-Based Diets Are More Effective Than a Low-Calorie Diet
According to a National Institutes of Health (NIH) study, eating a plant-based diet was three times more effective for blood sugar control than adopting a reduced-calorie or low-carb diet, another common approach to controlling blood sugar and warding off type 2 diabetes. For example, a diet that focuses on plants helps lower fasting blood sugar and hemoglobin A1c levels, a marker of longer-term blood sugar control. It’s a better indicator of blood sugar control than a single fasting blood sugar.
Plant-Based Diets May Help Reverse Type 2 Diabetes Through Weight Loss Too
One of the most powerful lifestyle changes for improving blood sugar control is weight loss. A study called the “Diabetes Remission Clinical Trial” (DIRECT) study showed that losing weight (more than 10 kilograms or more of weight) improves blood glucose control and can send type 2 diabetes into remission. Plant-based foods are rich in nutrients but not high in calories if you don’t top them off with a heavy sauce.
Not All Plant-Based Diets Are Equally Healthy
If you want the benefits of better blood sugar control and a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, think whole plant-based. Some people who follow a vegan diet fill their shopping carts with ultra-processed vegan fare, believing that if it’s vegan, it’s healthy. Not so! These foods, like other ultra-processed foods, fall short due to their added sugar, unhealthy fats, and lack of fiber.
To enjoy the full benefits of plant-based foods, make sure they’re unprocessed plant-based options, like whole grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, not overly processed vegan foods. Most packaged vegan and vegetarian foods are processed and contain unhealthy fats, sugars, excess sodium, and additives that you don’t need when you’re trying to optimize your blood sugar.
So, here’s the scoop. You don’t need to jump on the vegetarian or vegan train to reap the rewards. You can enjoy some benefits by swapping out a few animal-based foods for wholesome plant-based alternatives. And let’s not forget about the power of other healthy habits to wrangle that blood sugar beast.
Boost insulin sensitivity through regular exercise, both the muscle-pumping kind and heart-pumping aerobics. Tame the stress monster and catch those Z’s like a pro. Combine all these goodies, and you’ve got yourself a winning formula for success.
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Published 2023. Accessed July 12, 2023. https://www.pcrm.org/health-topics/diabetes
- Research spotlight – putting type 2 diabetes into remission. Diabetes UK. Published 2017. Accessed July 12, 2023. https://www.diabetes.org.uk/research/research-round-up/research-spotlight/research-spotlight-low-calorie-liquid-diet
- “Incidence of Newly Diagnosed Diabetes”. Www.Cdc.Gov, 2023, https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/data/statistics-report/newly-diagnosed-diabetes.html. Accessed 15 Jul 2023.
- McMacken M, Shah S. A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. J Geriatr Cardiol. 2017 May;14(5):342-354. doi: 10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.009. PMID: 28630614; PMCID: PMC5466941.
- “Plant-based diet may lower risk of Type 2 diabetes.” 22 Jul. 2019, https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2019/07/plant-based-diet-may-lower-risk-of-type-2-diabetes/.”The Efficacy of Plant-Based Dietary Program in Patients with Diabetes ….” 12 Dec. 2021, https://www.mdpi.com/2673-4540/2/4/24.
- “Vegan Processed Foods”. Www.Vrg.Org, 2023, https://www.vrg.org/journal/vj2022issue1/2022_issue1_vegan_processed_foods.php. Accessed 15 Jul 2023.
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