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Plant-Based Diet and Diabetes – Natural Cure or Diet Fad?
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Plant-Based Diet and Diabetes – Natural Cure or Diet Fad?

Written by Edibel Quintero, RD | Medically reviewed by Medically reviewed by Rosmy Barrios, MD
Published on 2022 August 2
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9 min

Diabetes risk increases yearly due to our worsening diets, convenience foods, and access to medical attention. If you have type 2 diabetes, could a plant-based diet be the solution? We dig into the pros and cons.

plant-based diet and diabetes

Shockingly, around 1 in 10 US citizens have diabetes. Even more concerning is that another 3 in 10 people are prediabetic. With its prevalence, many people may misunderstand the seriousness of diabetes and what it can mean for your health and well-being.

Following a plant-based diet may lower blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. But aren’t vegan diets just a trend for Instagram influencers and celebrities? As it turns out, no.

Plant-based diets are one of the most effective ways to lower your blood sugar and keep it within a normal level. This means your risk of struggling with other chronic diseases is lowered, too, as your immune system is not under strain. Here we take a look at everything the plant-based vegan diet has on offer.

What Is a Plant-Based Diet

A plant-based diet, also called a vegan diet, is a way of eating that excludes animal foods from your intake. Vegetarian and vegan diets are similar in that they both do not include animal flesh, but a vegetarian diet still often includes animal products like eggs, milk, and other dairy products.

The vegan diet focuses on plant foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Minimally processed plant foods are favored over processed foods and refined grains, but this is a personal choice within the vegan diet.

The main “rule” with plant-based diets is that no animal foods can be consumed. This includes meat, chicken, fish, eggs, milk, and other dairy products. Additionally, depending on where you stand, this can include honey and other bee products too.

Animal products are shown to increase cardiovascular disease due to the saturated fat found in animal protein. However, vegan diets have been shown to lower insulin sensitivity and insulin resistance.

Vegetarian diets may assist in gaining some control over body weight and provide other health benefits. But plant-based diets have been shown to reduce body weight and provide health benefits. It can also reduce and often cure type 2 diabetes by improving insulin resistance and inflammation.

Is a Plant-Based Diet Good for Diabetes

Yes, it absolutely is. People can manage their type 2 diabetes better with a plant-based diet. Plus, they can actually prevent certain complications, such as cardiovascular disease. This same study found that participants improved their cholesterol levels and lowered their overall BMI at the 6 and 12-month follow-ups.

While the conventional diabetic diet recommends eating low-fat foods and reducing calories, it clearly does not work. This means type 2 diabetes patients need an alternative option that suits their eating patterns. This is where plant-based diets really shine.

Typically, people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, and portion control can be an issue. With plant-based foods, you can eat until you are satiated, allowing a virtually limitless quantity of whole foods. However, foods like bread, pasta, and potatoes should still be eaten with caution and in small quantities.

Starting a vegan diet can feel quite intimidating, especially if you have no experience with whole plant-based foods and whole grains, which is why we recommend using the Klinio app. It includes personalized meal plans, no matter what diet you are following.

This includes the vegan diet and offers plenty of options for plant-based foods and vegetarian diets, with over 14,000 recipes that take less than 20 minutes to prepare.

Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet for Diabetes

There are so many upsides to cutting animal products from your diet. Not only is your diabetes risk reduced, but you can also enjoy the following benefits from whole food plant-based diets.

#1 Healthy for your heart

Typically, plant-based diets promote heart-healthy eating patterns. As you primarily eat vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, whole grains, and other minimally processed plant foods, you reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease compared to a diet that includes processed meats, too much sugar, and dairy.

Vegan foods like green vegetables, legumes, and brown rice can reduce your risk of heart disease.

#2 Great for weight-management

Plant-based dietary patterns have been shown to assist in weight management and can help with promoting weight loss. Plant-based meals are filled with natural vitamins and minerals that can easily be processed by the body.

This form of healthy eating means you can control your body weight without feeling like you are depriving yourself. Foods like brown rice and quinoa fill you without being high in calories, assisting you in weight loss eating patterns.

When trying to manage your weight, the most important thing is to create habits that are beneficial to your health. If you struggle with this, you can use apps like Klinio to keep you on track.

#3 Improved insulin sensitivity

Insulin sensitivity is how responsive your body and cells are to insulin. Having better sensitivity helps you reduce your risk factors for diseases like insulin resistance.

Plant-based diets are high in antioxidants, fiber, and magnesium, which are known to promote weight loss and insulin sensitivity.

#4 Helps lower blood pressure

Patients can lower their blood pressure by eating plant foods. Even with small amounts of animal products, they saw the following results:

  • 14% reduction in strokes
  • 7% reduction in overall mortality
  • 9% reduction of heart attacks

This is because plant foods are low in fat, salt, sugar, and cholesterol, so the veins and arteries in the body do not have buildup. This buildup is called atherosclerosis and is what causes high blood pressure, weakening of the heart, stroke risk, and heart problems, including heart attacks and heart failure.

#5 Lowers cholesterol levels

Believe it or not, vegan and vegetarian diets have been associated with lower cholesterol levels.

The study showed that, within one month, the participants lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. They also significantly reduced their LDL cholesterol compared to those following a standard low-fat diet.

Participants followed a plant-based eating pattern rich in nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

How to Follow a Plant-Based Diet for Diabetes

Following a vegetarian diet and cutting out animal protein intake will give you glycemic control over your type 2 diabetes and help you lower your body mass index. If you are at risk of developing diabetes, plant-based or vegetarian diets may be best for you. Here’s how to follow a whole food plant-based diet for diabetes.

#1 Get plenty of protein

We all know how important protein is to the human body, and ensuring you have enough protein in your diet is important when only eating plant foods. Most people get enough protein in their regular diet, but here are some plant-based foods to include in your daily intake:

  • Pulses, legumes, and beans (lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, red beans, butterbeans, etc.)
  • Seeds, nuts, and seed/nut butter (almond, cashew, macadamia, Brazil, etc.)
  • Plant milk (almond, oat, soy, hemp seed, etc.)
  • Quinoa, brown rice, barley, and other whole grains
  • Soy products (soy milk, tofu, soy cheese, soy yogurt, etc.)
  • Vegan “meat” substitutes (Quorn, Beyond Meat, Fry’s, etc.)

Vegan “meat” substitutes will normally be a bit higher in carbohydrates, so limiting these and choosing whole grains, legumes, beans, and nuts for protein instead will increase the health benefits of a plant foods diet.

#2 Choose complex carbs

Carbohydrate intake is vital to our energy stores and brain health, but when you are diabetic, some carbs are not great for your sugar levels. This is why you must choose complex carbs, including brown rice, oats, whole grains, quinoa, millet, barley, buckwheat, and spelt.

They are higher in protein and fiber and take more time to digest, ensuring your blood sugar levels are not spiked.

Although fruit juices are considered to be plant foods, they are not good for glycemic control or weight loss.

#3 Avoid processed foods

It is no secret that processed food isn’t the greatest option for those seeking the best health benefits from their diet.

Plant foods (especially when eaten as whole foods) are amazing because they contain all of the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals you need to maintain a healthy, balanced life.

Processed food often contains high sugar and salt levels, preservatives, flavorings, colorants, saturated fats, and other chemicals. This can impact your blood sugar and blood pressure and increase your cardiovascular risk factors.

Although a package may say the contents are made from plant foods and ingredients, the contents can wreak havoc with insulin resistance and increase your risk of developing diabetes if you are prediabetic.

#4 Eat various food

To get all the minerals, vitamins, and nutrients you need for your body, you must eat a varied diet. Avoid foods high in sugar, sodium, and fats. While you may be tempted to stick with what you know, you can’t eat the same thing day in and out.

Try incorporating a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, favoring green vegetables where you can, especially if you are trying to lower your carbohydrate intake.

Drawbacks of a Plant-Based Diet and Diabetes

There is no denying the benefits and advantages of a plant-based diet when it comes to managing diabetes and reducing your chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and other dangerous health issues.

But a few downsides to a vegan diet must be considered and kept in mind. These include the fact that your carb intake may be too high and your protein intake may be too low, so you need to keep track of what you are eating.

Additionally, you may struggle with malnutrition and related concerns if you do not vary your diet enough.

Lastly, like all other humans in the world, you may have vitamin B12 deficiency. The common misconception is that we get B12 from animal foods. But in reality, we can only get minimal amounts of B12 from animal foods – no more than what you get from walnuts or flax seeds. This means that whether you eat animal products or not, you need to take a B12 supplement.

FAQs

Can people with diabetes be vegan?

Yes, absolutely! As we have seen above, a vegan diet can help people with diabetes get their glucose levels under control. Plant-based diets are higher in fiber, vegetables, and fruits and lower in salt, sugar, and saturated fats.
There are no physical reasons why you shouldn’t follow a vegan diet, but you should always consult your physician before making any changes.

Is Beyond Meat good for diabetes?

Beyond Meat is a meat substitute that you can safely eat on a plant-based diet whether you have diabetes or not.
Beyond Meat uses pea protein in their products which are low in cholesterol and high in fiber. They do contain more carbohydrates than their meat equivalent, but this typically does not pose any issues.

Will a plant-based diet lower a1c?

In most cases, yes, it will. Those who follow a strictly plant-based diet can lower their a1c levels in just 12 weeks. Additionally, insulin sensitivity improves, and weight loss occurs, thus further assisting in lowering a1c.

Can vegans develop type 2 diabetes?

Sadly, yes, they can. You may have heard of the term “junk food vegan,” which is when people follow a vegan diet but it is high in saturated fats and added sugars.
Foods like French fries, crisps, and bread are technically vegan but not healthy options, especially when trying to lower your diabetes risk.

A Word From Our Nutritionist

Following a plant-based vegan diet does not have to be difficult. As we mentioned above, these diets are rich in fruits, vegetables, pulses, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, allowing you to experiment with different flavor combinations.

When you first switch to a plant-based diet, you may feel the deficit of animal products in your diet – not in how your body feels, but more in familiarity and habit. But once you know how to cook with all-plant foods, you will feel the absence less.

You can start slowly – perhaps try going meat-free once or twice a week, then increase it gradually. Switch from dairy milk to plant milk and reduce your egg and dairy consumption. This will allow your body and brain to adapt.

Lastly, remember to consult with your physician before making any dietary changes, especially if you are using any medications.

Conclusion

Following a plant-based diet if you have diabetes will allow you to lower your blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and cholesterol. A plant-based eating pattern will also improve your insulin sensitivity and help you lose weight.

So if you have diabetes and are at your wits’ end with diets that don’t work and medications that make you feel bad, give plant-based eating a try.If you are concerned about going at it alone, you can easily sign up for the Klinio app, which will provide you with meal plans and support to keep you on the straight and narrow.

Written by
Edibel Quintero is a medical doctor who graduated in 2013 from the University of Zulia and has been working in her profession since then. She specializes in obesity and nutrition, physical rehabilitation, sports massage and post-operative rehabilitation. Edibel’s goal is to help people live healthier lives by educating them about food, exercise, mental wellness and other lifestyle choices that can improve their quality of life.
Medically reviewed byRosmy Barrios, MD
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