Which Plant-Based Diet Reduces Diabetes Risk?
Numerous studies have noted that people who follow a vegetarian diet have a lower risk of various health problems, including but not limited to overweight and obesity, some cancers, cataracts, diverticular disease, and diabetes. When it comes to diabetes, a new study focused on which type of plant-based diet reduces diabetes risk, as it appears not all such diets lower the risk equally.
Just because you follow a vegetarian diet doesn’t mean it’s healthy. I’m reminded of a vegetarian I knew whose diet consisted primarily of French fries, potato chips, bean burritos, and cola. Vegetarian, yes; healthy, no.
Plant-based diet study findings
In this latest study, the investigators looked not only at the effect of plant-based food choices on the risk of diabetes, but the quality of the food consumed as well. Specifically, they examined whether the participants ate nutritious plant-based foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and legumes, and vegetable oils, and compared it with less healthy vegetarian choices, such as refined grains, soft drinks, potatoes, and fried foods.
The team gathered data from more than 20,000 adult health professionals over two decades. Each of the participants completed questionnaires regarding their diet (including their plant- and animal-based choices), lifestyle, and medical history.
The authors assigned low scores to animal-based foods and higher scores to plant-based choices, as well as divided the plant-based diets into healthier and unhealthier groups. Here’s what they discovered:
- A diet high in plant foods and low in animal-based choices reduced the risk of type 2 diabetes by 20 percent
- A diet containing healthy plant-based foods was associated with a 34 percent reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
- A diet containing less healthy plant-based choices was associated with a 16 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes
- A reduction in animal-based foods from five to six servings daily down to four resulted in a reduction in type 2 diabetes incidence
Therefore: The quality of one’s plant-based choices matters
Why a plant-based diet reduces diabetes risk
The authors theorized that following a healthy vegetarian diet reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes for several reasons, including:
- High intake of antioxidants, which have a positive impact on sugar metabolism
- High intake of unsaturated fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties
- High intake of fiber, which improves glucose metabolism and helps reduce inflammatory factors
- High intake of micronutrients, including magnesium (found in leafy greens, nuts, etc), which are key in glucose metabolism
- Promotes and supports a healthy microbial population in the gut, which facilitates the breakdown of fiber and polyphenols (plant nutrients) and improves digestion and nutrient absorption
An unhealthy plant-based diet, however, could have lower intake of fiber, micronutrients, and antioxidants, higher consumption of saturated fat and calories, and include foods higher on the glycemic index, all of which could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Not everyone is ready to completely adopt a plant-based diet, but a serious move in that direction could result in significant improvements in health. In this study, the authors concluded that their study “supports current recommendations to shift to diets rich in healthy plant foods, with lower intake of less healthy plant and animal foods.”
Appleby PN, Key TJ. The long-term health of vegetarians and vegans. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 2015 Dec 28: 1-7
Satija A et al. Plant-based dietary patterns and incidence of type 2 diabetes in US men and women: results from three prospective cohort studies. PLoS Medicine 2016 Jun 14
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