If you have diabetes, the chances are high that you have been told repeatedly that your food choices play a critical role for good diabetes management. Healthy eating helps to control your blood sugar levels, manage your weight and control risk factors for heart disease, including high blood pressure and high blood fats. The key is to eat the healthiest foods, keep the amount of food moderate and stick to regluar mealtimes.
One way to eat healthier is to follow a plant-based diet. Plant-based diet mainly focuses on whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables. and limits meat and dairy. A plant-based diet can be suitable for diabetic patients as it does not contain the more harmful forms of carbohydrates while also providing certain nutrients that can support their glycemic control.
Want to know more about a plant-based diet? Keep reading to learn what a plant-based diet means and whether it can help you control your diabetes and protect you against complications We also covered a similar topic on plant diets and diabetes here.
What is a Plant-Based Diet?
A plant-based diet is focused on eating foods that are derived primarily from plants. This includes not just fruits and vegetables, but also seeds, nuts, oils, whole grains, beans, and legumes. We have an extensive post on the best diet for those who have Type 2 diabetes here.
However, following a plant-based diet does not mean you have to stop eating animal-based products like meat, eggs, and dairy completely. Rather, this special diet encourages you to choose proportionately more of your foods from plant sources.
The term, plant-based diet, was coined by the Biochemist – Thomas Colin Campbell – in 1980 to describe a diet comprising wholesome foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds, and nuts, with the primary goal of improving the overall health and well-being of a person naturally.
A plant-based diet offers all the necessary carbohydrates, proteins, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals. This diet is also rich in fibers and phytonutrients. What makes a plant-based diet specifically beneficial for diabetic patients is the carbohydrates present in these foods are not simple sugars but complex sugars like starch.
Studies have shown that simple sugars like glucose and fructose that are present in high amounts in chocolates, cakes, and pastries can cause sharp spikes in your blood sugar levels. It can even contribute to insulin resistance. Complex carbohydrates like starch, on the other hand, can help you sustain healthy blood sugar levels and minimize your insulin resistance.
This is why a plant-based diet is recommended for diabetic patients, including those who are experiencing difficulty in maintaining glycemic control in spite of using medications.
Why Is It Good For People with Diabetes?
A plant-based diet is good for diabetic patients as it can support glycemic control through a variety of mechanisms as explained below:
- A plant-based diet does not contain simple carbohydrates and unhealthy fats like trans fats and saturated fats that are known to trigger inflammation at the cellular level. Being devoid of these harmful macronutrients, a plant-based diet can control inflammation in the cells making them more responsive to insulin thereby reducing insulin resistance.
- Studies have shown that a plant-based diet is rich in fibers that can improve glycemic control. Eating foods rich in fibers can also help you sustain your blood sugar levels within normal limits thus protecting you against the risk of serious complications like diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, and neuralgias.
- A plant-based diet provides a rich source of healing nutrients like omega 3 fatty acids. These nutrients can repair the damaged tissues and organs of the body including the pancreas and liver. This would improve the natural functions of these organs thereby restoring the normal physiological processes involved in the carbohydrate and fat metabolism.
- Clinical research has indicated that plant-based foods contain natural antioxidants like vitamin C that can support the healthy functioning of the immune system. It would regulate the activities of immune cells thus reducing inflammation and insulin resistance.
- A plant-based diet may also lower your risk of type 2 diabetes by promoting faster weight loss and controlling your cholesterol levels.
How to Start Plant-Based Diet
Moving towards a plant-based eating plan can start with simply adding more veggies to one meal per day or “going vegetarian” for one meal per week.
These and other small steps toward a plant-based diet can make a big difference in your health status. Fruits and vegetable are rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients, which serve as an overall health protector.
It’s as simple as a shopping list. A plant-based eating plan lends itself to consuming foods that are higher in fiber – whole grains, fruits, vegetables. Plant-based proteins, including legumes (think lentils and chickpeas), beans (from black beans to lima beans), soy (edamame, tofu, tempeh) and nuts and seeds (peanuts, peanut butter, almonds, almond butter, pistachios, walnuts, chia seeds) all fit the mold.
It isn’t all or nothing. You can start by adding a few more vegetables and fruits to your meals. Then move to swapping one animal protein with a plant protein. A plant-based eating plan can mean less meat, not meatless.
How Can This Diet Help People with Type 2 Diabetes?
The development and progression of type 2 diabetes are complex. They involve multiple mechanisms that interfere with the body’s natural metabolic processes. Type 2 diabetes primarily occurs due to insulin resistance. It refers to the state that prevents the body’s cells from responding to the insulin produced in the pancreas efficiently. As a result, insulin becomes ineffective at metabolizing carbohydrates leading to an increase in the blood sugar level.
Simply avoiding your intake of sugars is not adequate for controlling type 2 diabetes. It also requires you to make effort to prevent or minimize insulin resistance. This could be achieved by adopting a plant-based diet.
A randomized control study of people with type 2 diabetes, compared the effects of two eating plans: a low-fat vegan plan versus an eating plan that controls carbohydrates and restricts calories. Those following the vegan plan revealed greater improvement in glycemic control, lipid levels and weight loss. Almost half of the participants on the vegan plan were able to reduce their type 2 diabetes medications.
A recent study has revealed that patients with prediabetes can prevent the condition from progressing to type 2 diabetes when they switch to a plant-based diet. It is believed to help reduce insulin resistance by controlling inflammation that is often triggered due to the high amounts of simple sugars and unhealthy fats in our regular diet.
Studies have also shown that people who eat a plant-based diet have their risk of diabetes reduced by nearly 23%. The association is stronger with a 30% drop in the risk of type 2 diabetes in people who focus on eating healthier plant-based foods, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts.
These foods contain a high amount of dietary fibers and also provide a rich natural source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These nutrients play a key role in improving the body’s own defense mechanisms thus reducing inflammation and oxidative stress responsible for causing insulin resistance.
Can a Plant-Based Diet Help to Manage Type 1 Diabetes?
A healthy plant-based diet may not cure or reverse your diabetes. However, recent groundbreaking case studies indicate that it can improve ‘insulin sensitivity and other health markers’ in Type 1 diabetes.
Both case studies followed individuals with type 1 diabetes who adopted plant-based diets rich in whole carbohydrates, including vegetables, legume, fruits, and whole grains. Healthcare teams tracked the patients’ blood sugar control, heart disease risk factors, and other health measurements before and after the diet change. The patients lost weight, reduced their blood sugar levels and required less insulin.
A plant-based diet can also reduce inflammation and free radical damage in the pancreas. This would restore the healthy functioning of this gland enabling it to start producing insulin in the required amounts.
One study has demonstrated that the diets of children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes are often low in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains while being high in foods without any nutritional value. The findings of this study suggest that switching to a plant-based diet could be an effective strategy for protecting yourself against the risk of type 1 diabetes.
These effects of a plant-based diet can, to some extent, help to control type 1 diabetes and reduce your risk of serious complications like diabetes nephropathy, neuralgias, and retinopathy.
Can a Plant-Based Diet Cure Diabetes?
A plant-based diet may not cure diabetes. But, it is still advisable to adopt this form of diet as it offers several benefits. It allows you to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of diabetes-associated complications as explained below.
- A plant-based diet can also make the cells in your body more responsive to insulin thus improving the effectiveness of this hormone for metabolizing carbohydrates. Eating vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, and nuts would improve blood sugar control by making your body’s cells more responsive to insulin.
- Plant-based foods are often lower in calories and hence, can help you with weight management. Also, diabetic patients following a plant-based diet usually have a lower body mass index (BMI). Healthy body weight would improve your blood sugar control and reduce your risk of developing diabetes complications.
- A plant-based diet is low in saturated fats and high in soluble fibers. A low-fat diet can reduce your risk of cardiovascular complications related to diabetes including hypertension and high cholesterol.
Let us not forget regular exercise which is key to keeping good blood sugar and blood pressure at bay to avoid complications such as diabetic retinopathy. Learn more on how to prevent diabetic retinopathy here.
As it turns out, the old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” is actually true, especially for diabetic patients. Switching to a plant-based diet could be a great strategy to keep your blood sugar levels in control.
This diet will ensure your body receives a good supply of nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and natural antioxidants. Antioxidants have a key role in maintaining good eye health. The low content of simple sugars in a plant-based diet would also help you avoid sharp spikes in blood sugar levels and even reduce insulin resistance.
It is the combination of these benefits that make plant-based foods a great dietary strategy for patients with diabetes.