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Is a vegetarian diet best for diabetes?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Studies suggest vegetarian diet could help prevent and control diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of the disease that affects millions of people worldwide. But diabetes can also be caused by autoimmunity, known as type 1 that develops early in life. Pregnant women are at risk for gestational diabetes from hormones released during pregnancy that raise blood sugar levels. Can diabetes be avoided or controlled with a vegetarian diet?


Diabetes risk lower with less meat before pregnancy

According to a finding from the NIH/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, published January, 2012 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women who ate a high animal fat diet prior to becoming pregnant had a higher risk of gestational diabetes that persisted even for women who exercised to thwart high blood sugars during pregnancy.

Study author Cuilin Zhang, M.D., M.P.H., Ph.D., of the Epidemiology Branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) said in a press release, "Our findings indicate that women who reduce the proportion of animal fat and cholesterol in their diets before pregnancy may lower their risk for gestational diabetes during pregnancy.”

The recommendation from the researchers is that women who are planning pregnancy reduce their intake of animal fat and cholesterol to 5% of total daily calories. Less animal fat in the diet was associated with a 7% lower risk of gestational diabetes.

Vegetarians at lower risk for diabetes from metabolic syndrome

An April 2011 study published in the journal Diabetes Care indeed suggested vegetarians have a 36% lower chance of developing metabolic syndrome that leads to heart disease, stroke and diabetes, compared to meat eaters.

Vegetarians can still develop metabolic syndrome but eating a plant based diet was found to lower the chances from 39% for meat eaters to just 25% for vegetarians. Semi-vegetarians risk for metabolic syndrome was 37% per the study results.

Lead researcher Nico S. Rizzo, PhD said the finding, which came from a long-term study lifestyle and health of almost 100,000 Seventh-day Adventist Christians across the United States and Canada, was a ‘surprise’.

"I was not sure if there would be a significant difference between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, and I was surprised by just how much the numbers contrast," he continues. "It indicates that lifestyle factors such as diet can be important in the prevention of metabolic syndrome”.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the two most important risk factors for metabolic syndrome that can lead to diabetes and complications of stroke and heart disease are increased waist circumference and insulin resistance.

Gary Fraser, MD, PhD who headed the Adventist Study 2 says, "Trending toward a plant-based diet is a sensible choice."

Switching to a vegetarian diet, combined with exercising at least 3 times a week might also offer significant protection against diabetes for African-Americans who are at greater risk for developing the disease.

Blacks are also more likely to experience type 2 diabetes complications that include kidney disease and amputation of the extremities, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Humana Services.

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"These findings are encouraging for preventing type 2 diabetes in the black population, which is more susceptible to the disease than other populations," said Serena Tonstad, MD, a professor at Loma Linda University and lead author of the research, published in the October, 2011 issue of Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases.

Just adopting a Mediterranean diet that includes plenty of plant-based foods such as olive oil, grains, fruits, nuts and vegetables, fish and is low in meat, dairy products and alcohol might cut your chances of developing type 2 diabetes by 35%, according to findings published in 2008 in the British Medical Journal.

Plant based food could cut risk of type 2 diabetes complications

Eating nuts, such as almonds, fiber food that include oats and barley, plant sterols and soy proteins that are part of a vegetarian diet can help keep cholesterol levels in check. High cholesterol is a major contributor to heart disease for people with type 2 diabetes.

A 2003 report published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition also suggested reducing meat in the diet can protect the kidneys from harm and “could produce very significant metabolic advantages for the prevention and treatment of diabetes and its complications.”

Eating a plant-based diet is also humane, considering current factory farming methods, found by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (PCIFAP) to “…threaten public health, the environment, animal health and well-being, and rural communities.”

If you’re considering a vegetarian diet for preventing or managing type 2 diabetes, speak with your doctor first.

Studies show vegetarians have less chance of developing type 2 diabetes from metabolic syndrome and that eating a plant based diet has benefits for controlling the disease that is expected to affect 1 in 10 people by the year 2030. Women might also cut their risk of gestational diabetes by lowering their intake of meat before getting pregnant.

NIH News
“High animal fat diet increases gestational diabetes risk”
January 25, 2012

Metabolic Syndrome

“PREDIMED trial: Mediterranean diet may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes”
Evid Based Med 2011;16:152-153 doi:10.1136/ebm1400

Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Sep;78(3 Suppl):610S-616S.
“Type 2 diabetes and the vegetarian diet”

National Geographic
“Factory Farming Is Not the Best We Have to Offer”

Image credit:
CDC: Public Health Image Library



This is all vegetarian propaganda! We are being railroaded into lower wages on a cheap diet! Please don't fall for it, read Gary Taubes for starters.
This article says nothing that opposes Gary Taubes who says refined carbohydrates are responsible for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer, and many other maladies of civilization - and who has also received some criticism. Thank you for your comment though - he is worth reading.
My son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes on the 25/12/2010 at the age of 6. For nearly 2 years we have been struggling with hypos and hypers until recently when i read about low carb diets that consist of eating mainly vegetables,fish and certain fruit,help to maintain good blood sugar levels.Since following this my sons levels have been fantastic and he needs very little insulin at meal times! Eating a vegetarian /mediterranean diet definitely has a good effect at naturally keeping blood sugars steady and i am glad so many studies are showing this and will hopefully reduce the amount of diabetic cases if people listen to this dietary advice
Thank you Lisa for your wonderful comment that will help others.