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Is your plant-based diet healthy enough to avoid diabetes?
The CDC reports that just over 28 million people in the United States are currently diagnosed with diabetes.
What’s really scary, though, is that about 23 percent of adults have diabetes, but are still undiagnosed.
Because of the long-term health consequences of “silent diabetes,” including heart problems, it’s imperative to continue doing research that helps people understand the significant impact making changes in their diet can have.
That’s just what’s happening at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health, where research scientists have been studying the connection between a healthy plant-based diet and the risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D)…
Plants help — more and less, depending on your health
The exact mechanisms of plant-based diets’ positive effects on lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes have not been fully understood.
That’s what Professor Frank Hu and colleagues wanted to investigate, specifically by looking at metabolites (molecules created when various food groups are broken down by the body) associated with plant-based foods.
To do this, they analyzed blood samples from 10,684 participants from the Nurses’ Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study II, and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. They also had each participant complete a food frequency questionnaire (FFQ).
FFQs were scored based on whether an individual ate mostly:
- Overall plant-based diet index (PDI)
- Healthy plant-based diet index (hPDI) (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes);
- Unhealthy plant-based diet index (uPDI) (refined grains, fruit juices, and sweets);
The diet indices and questionnaires also accounted for animal foods (animal fats, dairy, eggs, fish/seafood, meat, and miscellaneous animal-based foods), which are not excluded on a plant-based diet, but eaten less.
They then tested blood samples taken around 1990 (in the early phase of the three studies mentioned above) and used these samples to create a metabolite profile score for each participant.
The study found that compared with participants who did not develop T2D, those who were diagnosed during the follow-up ate fewer healthy plant-based foods and scored lower for both PDI and hPDI.
In addition, they had a higher average BMI, and were more likely to have high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, use blood pressure and cholesterol drugs, have a family history of diabetes, and be less physically active.
Seems simple enough, right? More healthy plant foods for the win…
But this is one of those instances where the devil is in the details — though we may have to wait on more research to fully understand it…
The metabolomics data revealed that the unique multi-metabolite profiles and patterns differed significantly between the participants eating healthy and unhealthy plant-based diets.
Not only did they find that eating fewer healthy plant-based foods increased the risk for T2D — they found that both the healthy and overall plant-based diets were associated with a lower risk for T2D in those who were generally healthier.
So, plants still win out. It just looks like depending on your level of risk and state of health, you may need to choose the healthiest plant-based foods to avoid a T2D diagnosis, and eat more of them.
Start slowly if you must, but start NOW
According to Professor Hu, “While it is difficult to tease out the contributions of individual foods because they were analyzed together as a pattern, individual metabolites from consumption of polyphenol-rich plant foods like fruits, vegetables, coffee, and legumes are all closely linked to healthy plant-based diet and lower risk of diabetes.”
And the sooner you begin shifting your eating habits toward the plant-based end of the scale, the better your health outcomes will be.
Nobody says it’s easy, or that you’re going to do it all at once. But if you’re determined to live a long and healthy life, it’s time to begin.
Dark leafy greens, beans, and legumes are the superstars of a nutritious plant-based diet. Here are a few ways to get more of them into your diet.
Here are ten veggies that will help you get enough protein, even without eating meat.
And here’s a four-minute video that shows you how to make a delicious, fruit-and-veggie-rich morning smoothie.
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