About 29 million Americans are living with type 2 diabetes and 84 million have prediabetes. And it's the seventh leading cause of death in the United States. But there is good news: research shows a plant-based diet can help get your diabetes under control. Here's why and how you can start.
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When properly functioning, our bodies will make glucose from starchy and sugary foods. That glucose is used as fuel for our muscle cells. Our pancreas makes a hormone called insulin, which helps that glucose get into the muscle cells.
With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas produces enough insulin but the muscle cells have become resistant to it, also known as insulin resistance.
What causes insulin resistance?
Insulin resistance is often by caused is too much fat in the bloodstream (1).
Due to a buildup of fat in the muscle cells, the insulin can’t let the glucose into the muscles and regulate our blood sugar. Instead, the glucose just sits in our blood stream, raising our sugar levels higher and higher.
How does this excess fat get there? From the foods we eat — specifically, a high fat diet.
Signs of type 2 diabetes:
With insulin resistance, the body will have too much glucose in the blood stream, which when uncontrolled can lead to:
- excessive thirst
- frequent urination
- blurred vision
- recurring yeast infections
- unexplained weight loss
- slow healing wounds
If uncontrolled for too long, those with type 2 diabetes are at risk of developing several serious conditions, including:
- heart disease
- vision loss
- persistent infections
- kidney issues
- nerve damage
A plant based diet has been shown to not only prevent, but also reverse, type 2 diabetes. A 74 week study showed "a plant-based diet controlled blood sugar three times more effectively than a traditional diabetes diet that limited calories and carbohydrates (2)."
Participants in this study also saw other health benefits, including weight loss, improved insulin sensitivity, lower HbA1c levels.
Why does a plant-based diet help those struggling with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes?
A diet high in fatty foods (like the Standard American diet) can cause that excess fat to build up in our cells that we talked about above. That fat buildup messed with insulin's ability to move glucose out of our bloodstream and into our muscle cells, which eventually leads to type 2 diabetes.
A plant-based diet is naturally low in fat, especially if you follow a no oil whole food plant-based diet.
1. Eat whole plant-based foods
Will simply moving to a vegan diet help your type 2 diabetes? It depends on what's included in your vegan diet.
A whole food plant-based diet, like a vegan diet, does not include meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products. However, it also steers clear from refined and processed foods (including foods that contain refined sugar or white flour). There is plenty of vegan junk food out there — from Oreos to processed faux meats — whereas a whole food plant based diet focuses on foods in their whole form. When it comes to managing your diabetes, choose whole food plant-based foods.
A whole food plant based diet includes: whole fruits, 100% whole grains, legumes, starchy and non starchy vegetables, nuts and seeds.
Need some help getting started? Check out our easy whole food plant based recipe ideas here.
2. Cut back on high fat foods (including oil)
Consuming foods high in animal fats increases your risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. When you move to a plant-based diet, you'll naturally be consuming less fat.
A low fat whole food plant-based diet also means moving away from vegetable oils. Not sure how to get started? Here's our guide to cooking without oil.
While nuts, seeds, coconut, and avocados can absolutely be a healthy part of a plant based diet, they're high in fat and when it comes to heart disease and excess weight (both of which are linked with type 2 diabetes), limiting these higher fat foods is often recommended.
3. Choose low-glycemic plant-based foods
Foods with a high glycemic index can cause a quick rise in blood sugar. Plant-based foods with a low glycemic index raise blood sugar levels at a slower, steadier pace — which means no spikes and dips.
Foods with a low glycemic index have a score of 55 or lower on the GI chart. Plant-based foods with low glycemic index include (but are not limited to):
- Sweet potatoes
- Non-starchy vegetables
- Non-dairy milks, like almond and soy
4. Eat lots of fiber
Fiber is found naturally only in plants, so when you move to a whole food plant-based diet you'll be taking in much more fiber than the Standard American Diet. The average American only takes in 10-15 grams of fiber a diet but we really need closer to 40-50 grams for optimal health.
A high fiber diet is associated with lower death rates among the diabetic community. Fiber is a carbohydrate that isn't broken down by your body and doesn't raise blood sugar levels. Fiber adds bulk as it moves through your digestive tracts, which keeps you feeling full longer.
Plant-based foods high in fiber include:
- Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potatoes
5. Don't be afraid of whole carbohydrates
Have you ever heard that carbs cause diabetes? It's not actually true. Well, not entirely.
Refined carbs — the ones used for processed and packaged foods like white pasta, crackers, white rice, cakes, cookies. — have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients. Without fiber, they enter the blood stream quickly and cause blood sugar spikes and drops.
But remember, that studies show that insulin resistance, a characteristic of type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes, is due to too much saturated fat in the diet (3).
Why do carbs get the blame? Because if you already have insulin resistance, due to a high fat diet, carb-heavy foods, even natural ones like fruit and potatoes, can cause blood sugar to spike because insulin resistance is preventing the insulin from doing its job and getting glucose to those muscle cells.
The good news: whole grain consumption is actually associated with lower type 2 diabetes risk (4)!
Whereas Type 2 diabetics make insulin but have become insulin resistant, Type 1 diabetics do not make insulin on their own. The exact cause of Type 1 diabetes is still unknown, however, according to the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine:
"Some studies have found a possible link between milk and T1DM. Others suggest the body may have an immune response to the proteins in milk.This immune response may also attack the body’s cells thatmake insulin." (5)
Because of this connection between dairy and Type 1 diabetes, the American Academy of Pediatrics no longer suggests dairy as part of an infant's diet until after 1 year old age.
Those living with Type 1 diabetes need insulin injections to manage their disease, but more research shows a healthy low fat plant-based diet and exercise is also beneficial to keeping blood sugars in check.
- With type 2 diabetes, the pancreas produces enough insulin but the muscle cells have become resistant to it, also known as insulin resistance.
- Insulin resistance is caused by a buildup of fat in the muscle sells, so the glucose can't get in.
- A no oil low fat whole food plant-based diet has proven beneficial to those with insulin resistance, prediabetes, and type 2 diabetes.
- Type 1 diabetics do not produce their own insulin so they need to inject insulin. The cause of Type 1 diabetes is not currently known. While medication is necessary for Type 1 diabetics, research shows a no oil low fat whole food plant-based diet is also beneficial for Type 1 diabetes.
- Want to manage your diabetes with a whole food plant-based diet? Get started with the MamaSezz Mastering Diabetes meal bundle.
*MamaSezz Foods, Inc. Does Not Provide Medical Advice
*As with any changes affecting your health, MamaSezz Foods, Inc., strongly recommends and encourages you to consult with your medical doctor or other qualified health care professional before embarking on this journey. In other words, MamaSezz Foods, Inc., urges you to seek medical/professional advice before beginning any health program or any diet.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a mom, wife, and nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor. She has her Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.