Should you go vegan to reverse diabetes?

A vegan diet is almost guaranteed to reverse your diabetes. But planning such a diet is quite tricky as it requires a good knowledge of nutrition. Here are some of the things you should be aware of if you are thinking of switching to a full vegan diet.

The diet I am using to successfully reverse my diabetes is a plant-focused one that is low in sugar, fat and salt, high in fibre and digested slowly.

Though I eat some ultra-lean meat and fish, I avoid eggs, any products that include eggs, as well as all dairy products (milk, cream, cheese, yoghurt, etc).

I try to avoid processed foods as far as possible and drink plenty of water.

This diet can be described as quasi-vegetarian. It is helping me to control my blood glucose and beat my diabetes quite effectively.

But, though it is plant-focused, it is not a vegan diet. However, if I eliminated all animal products it would be a vegan diet.

But should I go vegan?

What is a vegan diet?

Vegans avoid all animal foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and honey, as well as anything that comes from an animal such as milk, cream, cheese, yoghurt, gelatine, colours and by-products.

A properly-constructed vegan diet is ultra-healthy.

A research review (an assessment of available previous studies by an expert), which was conducted in 2009, indicated that vegan diets tend to be higher in dietary fibre, magnesium, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin E, iron and phytochemicals than conventional omnivorous diets.

They are also lower in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol.

But vegan diets can also be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12. Planning a vegan diet so that it includes sufficient quantities of these nutrients can be challenging.

But when it is well-planned, a vegan diet appears to offer protection against some degenerative conditions, such as heart disease.

Indeed, vegan diets are regarded as appropriate for all ages by the American Dietetic Association, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council and Dieticians of Canada.

However, because plant foods do not normally provide vitamin B12 (which is produced by micro-organisms such as bacteria), vegans need to eat food that have been fortified with vitamin B12 or take a B12 supplement.

Becoming a vegan

If you follow a vegan diet you will reverse your diabetes, ie put off almost indefinitely the horrors of heart attacks, strokes, blindness, amputations of the feet, kidney disease and so on that number among the consequences of being diabetic.

But going full vegan is not for the faint-hearted.

In fact, veganism can be quite tricky and getting adequate nutrition as a vegan requires a fair degree of knowledge about nutrition.

You will need to be creative in order to ensure that you will get the nutrients you might miss out on, such as essential proteins, omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12.

You will also have to spend a lot of time researching foodstuffs for understanding so you can decide what to eat and what not to eat, as well as reading food labels when you are shopping.

Here are some of the pitfalls you will have to overcome.

Protein

Proteins have many functions including repairing your bones and muscles, building cells, and helping with your immune system. They are also sources of energy. Thus an adequate supply of protein is essential to good health.

Protein is made up of amino acids. Many of these are synthesised internally by your body. But there are nine amino acids that your body cannot synthesise and these must be obtained in the food you eat. These are called essential amino acids.

Proteins obtained from animal sources contain all nine essential amino acids. Most plants, however, only deliver a few of them. The exceptions are soya, quinoa and hemp.

The remaining plants provide some of the essential amino acids, but the actual combination of these acids varies from plant to plant. As a vegan you need to eat a mixture of plants over the course of a day in order to ensure that you get the full complement of amino acids your body needs.

Here are some of the most important sources of plant proteins for vegans and which are suitable for reversing diabetes:

  • quinoa (supplies all nine essential amino acids)
  • soya and soya products such as soya milk, tofu and tempeh (also supplies all essential amino acids)
  • beans, peas, lentil, chickpeas, kidney beans, etc
  • seeds such as pumpkin, sesame and sun flower
  • meat alternatives such as textured vegetable protein
Iron

Your body needs iron in order to produce haemoglobin, a substance in red blood cells that makes it possible for them to carry oxygen to the body’s tissues.

If you suffer from anaemia (being deficient in iron) you will feel weak, tired, and irritable.

There are two forms of dietary iron: heme and non-heme.

Heme iron is derived from haemoglobin. You get it from foods such as red meat, poultry and fish that originally contained haemoglobin. Your body absorbs the most iron from heme sources. However, as a vegan, animal products are off the menu.

Non-heme iron is not absorbed as easily as heme iron. However, it is the form of iron added to iron-enriched and iron-fortified foods.

Non-heme iron is found mainly in the following foods that are suitable for type 2 diabetics:

  • fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and wholemeal breads
  • tofu
  • textured vegetable protein
  • wheat germ
  • beans, red kidney beans, chickpeas, split peas and lentils
  • dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli, spinach and cabbage
  • peas
  • green peppers
  • baked potatoes
  • rice
  • dried fruit such as apricots, raisins, peaches and prunes

You can enhance the absorption of non-heme iron by including a rich source of vitamin C in your meal.

Here are some good sources of vitamin C:

  • citrus fruits and juices
  • Kiwi fruit
  • berries of all kinds
  • tomatoes
  • potatoes
  • peppers
  • green vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts and spinach

However, even though it is an excellent source of vitamin C you should avoid grapefruit because, according to clinical trials, it inhibits the enzymes that metabolize certain medicines in your intestines. This increases the concentration of these medications in your blood to levels that could be toxic.

These medicines include statins for lowering cholesterol and drugs for controlling blood pressure. Grapefruit also blocks the action of antihistamines and some psychiatric medications. As I am taking statins to control my cholesterol levels, I never touch grapefruit or any other citrus fruit. As you can see from the list above, there are plenty of other good sources of vitamin C.

To ensure that all the non-heme iron you ingest is absorbed, you should avoid adding bran and wheat-germ to meals, as these decrease the absorption of iron from plant foods.

You should also note that the tannins in tea and coffee, as well as calcium, reduce the amount of iron your body can absorb from food. Thus you should not drink tea or coffee or take supplements containing calcium while eating.

Instead, enjoy them between meals.

Calcium

Calcium is required for vascular contraction and vasodilatation, muscle function, nerve transmission, intracellular signalling, the secretion of hormones, and the formation of teeth and bones. Adults need about 800mg of calcium a day.

Dairy foods are the major sources of dietary calcium. As a vegan, you avoid dairy products, so you need to find significant alternative sources to meet your daily requirements.

Good plant-based alternative that can be eaten by type 2 diabetics include:

  • Calcium-enriched soya milk, rice milk, oat milk etc
  • Calcium-enriched fruit juices and drinks
  • Calcium-enriched tofu
  • Calcium-enriched cereals
  • Chinese cabbage, kale, and broccoli
  • Dried fruit such as apricots and figs
  • Spinach (but its bioavailability—degree to which the body absorbs it—is poor)

Note that most grains only contain small amounts of calcium unless they are fortified. However, they can be useful sources of calcium if you consume them frequently.

Vitamin D

The term vitamin D refers to a group of fat-soluble compounds labelled D1, D2 and D3 which are responsible for enhancing your body’s absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate and zinc.

Vitamin D is also essential for the control of cell growth, bone development, neuromuscular function, regulation of the immune system, stabilising moods, and lowering the risk of inflammation.

Your body can synthesize vitamin D3 from cholesterol when your skin is exposed to the sun. But, to synthesise sufficient vitamin D, you need to expose a large expanse of skin (without sunscreen) for 20 minutes a day. This is difficult in northern climates, so most of us don’t get enough vitamin D.

In addition, your body’s ability to synthesise vitamin D declines with age, which is why a majority of older adults are deficient in vitamin D.

A lack of vitamin D can have devastating effects. When your body isn’t absorbing enough calcium because it is not synthesising enough vitamin D, it begins taking calcium from your bones. This interferes with the health of your bones and, if it goes on long enough, leads to osteoporosis.

Thus, whether you are a vegan or not, you need to ensure that you have other sources of vitamin D. Here are some suggestions that are suitable for vegans and type 2 diabetics:

  • some fortified brands of milks, yogurts and desserts made from soya (but check the labels for sugar and salt)
  • a few fortified breakfast cereals
  • mushrooms
  • cod liver oil
Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble vitamin that is normally involved in the metabolism of every cell in the human body. It has a key role in the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system, and in the formation of blood.

Thus vitamin B12 is essential for the maintenance of normal nerve function and healthy blood cells.

This vitamin cannot be made by animals, plants or fungi. Only bacteria and archaea (single-cell micro-organisms) have the enzymes required for its synthesis, although many foods are a natural source of B12 because they contain the necessary bacteria.

Vitamin B12 is naturally found in animal products, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products. However it is generally not present in plant foods.

So vegans can easily become deficient in B12, with an increased risk of damage to their nerves, and should take vitamin supplements every day.

If you are a vegan, you should also have regular blood tests for vitamin B12 deficiency.

Here are some sources of B12 suitable for vegans and type 2 diabetics:

  • Textured vegetable protein
  • Fortified dairy alternatives
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Fortified brands of rice drinks and oat drinks
  • Nutritional yeast
  • Vitamin D supplements (at least 5mcg a day; any excess is excreted in the urine).
Omega 3 fatty acids

We need omega-3 fatty acids for numerous bodily functions, such as controlling blood clotting and building cell membranes in the brain.

Omega-3 fatty acids are associated with many health benefits, including protection against heart disease, stroke, and damage to the eyes and nerves.

Our bodies cannot make omega-3 fatty acids, so we must get them through food.

We can get two basic types of omega-3 fatty acids in our diets: [1] alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), from vegetable sources, and [2] eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both from fatty fish (which vegans cannot eat).

Here are some good sources of omega-3 fatty acids suitable for both vegans and type 2 diabetics:

  • Vegetable oils made from soybeans, rapeseed (canola), linseed and flaxseed
  • Some green vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, kale, spinach, and salad greens
  • Sea vegetables such as seaweeds
  • Hempseeds
  • DHA supplements made from algae

Our bodies can convert some ALA into the essential EPA and DHA we need but the conversion isn’t very efficient.

To optimise the conversion, you should avoid foods that are high in trans-fats and saturated fats (which you will do naturally as part of your diet), and limit oils that are high in linoleic acid, such as safflower, sunflower and corn oils.

As you don’t eat fish, you might consider a supplement made from algae-derived DHA or a linseed-based supplement.

For good health, you need at least one rich source of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet every day. If you are not eating foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids you should take an omega-3 supplement of 500 mg per day.

Nutritional supplements

If you are serious about eating a vegan diet, you must remember that by not eating any animal products (meat, fish and dairy) you could be missing some vital micro-nutrients from your diet. Thus you should take supplements containing a full range of dietary vitamins and minerals.

I’m a type 2 diabetic and follow a plant-focused but not a vegan diet. Here’s what I take every morning:

  • one general all-purpose multivitamin
  • a separate tablet containing 4mcg of B12
  • a separate tablet containing 400mg of calcium and 2.5mcg of vitamin D
  • a separate tablet of high-strength cod-liver oil with vitamins D and E

I also sprinkle a large teaspoon of cinnamon onto my porridge (oatmeal) or other cereal as it seems to have a very positive effect on my blood glucose levels.

Author: Paul Kennedy

Paul D Kennedy is a qualified accountant and an international business consultant who used his skills as a researcher to uncover the mysteries of type 2 diabetes and gain control over his health and wellbeing.

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