The diet that takes diabetes down, except when it doesn’t

When it comes to choosing an eating plan to follow, it can get confusing out there. Paleo, keto, carnivore, vegan, low-carb and Mediterranean… the health experts who tout each one of these eating plans swear by them for weight loss and better health.

Supposedly, there’s evidence backing each one of these plans. And for some diets, like the Mediterranean diet, that’s true. However, for others (like carnivore), a lot of that “evidence” is anecdotal at best.

In the case of one illness, however, it looks like hard science may be coming down on the side of plants. For the first time ever, there’s proof that plant-based diets, like veganism and vegetarian diets, can improve two key markers of health for people looking to avoid metabolic diseases, like diabetes — but there’s one caveat…

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Why plant-based eating works — except when it doesn’t

It’s estimated that at least 75 percent of type 2 diabetes cases could be avoided by adopting a better diet. A team of international researchers decided to explore the benefits of a plant-based diet in lowering diabetes risk using data from the UK Biobank, a cohort study of participants who were ages 40 to 69 at the start of the study.

Of the 113,097 study participants 2,628 developed type 2 diabetes over 12 years of follow-up. After analyzing associations between healthy and unhealthy plant-based diets and type 2 diabetes risk, they investigated which cardiometabolic risk factors explained the connections.

The results were impressive. Participants eating the healthiest plant-based diet — one with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and whole-grain products reduced their risk of diabetes by 24 percent. That risk reduction even held for those with a genetic predisposition and other risk factors such as obesity, advanced age or a lack of physical activity that can really stack the odds.

However, there’s one big caveat…

Those who ate an unhealthy plant-based diet that included sweets, refined grains and sugary drinks had a 37 percent higher increased risk of diabetes — proving that you can’t just shun meat and dairy and call it healthy.

This isn’t the first study to indicate that a healthy plant-based diet, done right, can reduce diabetes risk. But it is the first to note that the antidiabetic effect of a healthy plant-based diet go well beyond lower body fat and waist circumference to key biomarkers of metabolic processes…

  • It confirmed that normal values for triglycerides, blood sugar, inflammatory parameters and insulin-like growth factor are linked with a reduced risk of diabetes ;
  • And also that it benefits the health of two key organs: the liver and kidneys.

The liver and kidneys play an important role in diabetes prevention. “Our research has now shown that a healthy plant-based diet can improve liver and kidney function and thus reduce the risk of diabetes,” says Tilman Kühn, a professor at MedUni Vienna and the University of Vienna, who led the study in close collaboration with researchers from Queen’s University Belfast.

He added, “Our study is the first to identify biomarkers of central metabolic processes and organ functions as mediators of the health effects of a plant-based diet.”

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The right way to go plant-based

One thing that’s clear from this study: A truly healthy plant-based only develops its protective effects if ultra-processed and highly sugary foods are reduced.

This backs up previous research that eating more healthy plant-based foods is the ticket. The researchers specifically named high consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, tea and coffee as being the best at reducing diabetes risk and improving kidney and liver function.

Purple produce, especially, has a reputation for pushing back at blood sugar problems. Fruits and vegetables with these color pigments contain anthocyanins, a group of polyphenol antioxidants that have been found to reduce the risk of diabetes by affecting energy metabolism.

Berries are my favorite way to get a burst of purple. One reason is that researchers have shown munching on berries can help you consume significantly less food throughout the day.

Don’t forget the risk of developing a B12 deficiency on a vegetarian diet. Be sure to supplement.

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1. Healthy plant-based diet reduces diabetes risk by 24 per cent — EurekAlert!

2. A healthful plant-based diet is associated with lower type 2 diabetes risk via improved metabolic state and organ function: A prospective cohort study — Diabetes & Metabolism

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.