8 Sep 2023
Plant-Based Diets and Diabetes Management: Efficacy and Practical Considerations
Estimated read time: 4 minutes
New evidence has found that plant-based diets are associated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes — and could be an effective way to treat the disease.
A growing number of studies have shown that natural alternatives can be key allies in the fight against type 2 diabetes. The strategy is to adopt a dietary pattern based on plants, including legumes, seeds, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and dried fruits and excluding most or all animal products.
Plant-based diets can have positive impacts on multiple mechanisms that could potentially improve insulin resistance, such as promoting a healthy body weight, increasing fiber and phytonutrient intake, supporting interactions between food and the microbiome (microbes in the gut), and reducing saturated fat consumption.
Type 2 diabetes is a global public health problem, with an estimated over 420 million people living with this condition around the world. In Latin America, an estimated 32 million adults have type 2 diabetes, and its prevalence is projected to increase by up to 55% in the next 25 years. In the United States, 34.2 million people are living with the disease, and 88 million have prediabetes.
Early diagnosis and treatment are critical in this population due to the high prevalence of risk factors like obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Diet plays a crucial role in insulin resistance, especially in more sedentary and aging populations. Increased consumption of high-calorie foods (including fast food, meat and other animal fats, ultra-refined cereals, and sugary drinks) is thought to be a key factor in the rise of type 2 diabetes rates around the world.
The Adventist Health Study-2 examined the prevalence of diseases according to different dietary patterns in a group of 61,000 people. It concluded that, as animal product consumption decreased, so did rates of type 2 diabetes: this condition was present in 7.6% of non-vegetarians, 6.1% of semi-vegetarians, 4.8% of pesco-vegetarians, 3.2% of lacto-ovo vegetarians, and 2.9% of vegans.
As for insulin resistance, metabolism studies and epidemiological evidence suggest that the type of fat in a person’s diet (e.g., saturated, polyunsaturated, or monounsaturated) is very relevant. Saturated fats and trans fats increase the risk of developing diabetes — and for patients already living with diabetes, saturated fats are actually associated with higher rates of mortality when they replace carbohydrates in the diet.
Experts add that adopting a plant-based diet not only improves type 2 diabetes outcomes but also reduces the risk of other conditions, such as cancer and metabolic disorders.
Now, if a plant-based diet can help reduce the risk of diabetes, what about the body's need for protein?
Proteins are an essential macronutrient that the human body — bones, muscles, skin, hair — requires in order to carry out basic functions. And while it can be found in grains and dairy, it’s also true that foods like red meats and poultry are major sources of protein.
For individuals looking to lower their meat intake without losing this necessary nutrient, experts recommend consuming plant-based products that are rich in protein, such as legumes, nuts, dairy, tofu, and quorn, a mushroom-based meat substitute. However, consumption of these foods must be consistent to meet the daily requirement: around 0.75 grams of protein per kilogram of weight, which is about two servings.
Prevention and diagnosis, along with early interventions to improve dietary habits, can substantially improve type 2 diabetes outcomes.
Socioeconomic conditions in Latin America present several public health challenges to diabetes care, including low levels of awareness of the disease, inadequate diagnosis, insufficient treatment and preventative measures, and limited access to health centers. Diagnosis is often delayed; the prevalence of undiagnosed patients ranges from 10.3% to 50%.
Treatment access is also an important challenge: fewer than 50% of patients receiving treatment hit their blood sugar targets. Furthermore, diabetes-related complications affect over 80% of patients with type 2 diabetes in the region.
Remember, always consult with your physician or health care professional to determine the best options for your body and health and to answer any questions you may have regarding any medical matter.