The evidence is mounting that a plant-focused diet is best for managing diabetes. But there are a huge variety of diets in this category. Here’s the rundown, along with the proven benefits and a few practical pointers on switching to a plant-based diet.
Plant-focused diets range from eating plants only to diets that include some animal meats and products. Here are a few of the many you can follow:
Vegan … is at the extreme plants-only end of the spectrum. Vegans eat vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, bean and whole grains. But they exclude all foods of animal origin from their diet … these include meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products such as milk, cheese, butter and so on.
Vegans replace animal sources of protein with other sources that deliver plenty of this vital macro-nutrient. These include beans, peanuts (as in peanut butter), tofu, nuts, peas and other legumes, and ensure that vegans, despite rumours to the contrary, do not suffer from a lack of protein.
Lacto-vegetarian … is a diet that excludes foods of animal origin except for dairy products, such as milk, butter, cheese, and other foods derived from animal milk.
Ovo-vegetarian … is another diet that excludes foods of animal origin (meat, fish and dairy) except that it includes eggs.
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian … is a vegetarian diet that includes dairy products and eggs but excludes meat and fish.
Pescatarian … is a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet that also includes fish.
Flexitarian or semi-vegetarian … encompass a variety of diets that are based on a vegetarian diet. They are plant-focused diets that may also include small amounts of red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs and dairy products.
As you can see, these plant-focused diets vary from strictly plants only to diets that include some or all animal-based products but in restricted quantities.
What are the benefits of plant-based diets?
Making plants the mainstay of your diet can:
- lower your blood glucose levels and prevent or slow the development of type 2 diabetes (T2D)
- reduce your blood pressure
- reduce the strain on your kidneys (by avoiding or reducing animal protein in your diet)
- help you lose weight, and
- prevent heart disease and strokes (by reducing the accumulation of plaque in your blood vessels.
… among a host of other benefits.
This assertion is backed-up by many recent studies. For example:
One study, conducted by Loma Linda University in California, of nearly 100,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist church, which encourages a vegetarian diet, found that vegetarians had lower rates of T2D than non-vegetarians. The study also found that vegetarians tended to have healthier weights which may explain why fewer of them are diabetic.
A 72-week study, published by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, examined the differences between type 2 diabetics who followed a low-fat vegan diet and those who were on a moderate-carbohydrate eating plan. The researchers found that there was a significant decrease in HbA1C and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels in the vegans. A low HbA1C level indicates that you are managing your T2D well.
Two ongoing, long term studies by the Harvard School of Public Health found that, among 150,000 health care providers, those who ate an additional half-serving of red meat daily for four years had a 50% higher risk of developing T2D.
Recent research suggests that inflammation inside the body plays a role in the development of T2D. T2D manifests itself as insulin resistance. Both these interrelated problems seem to diminish wit a plant-focused diet.
But this positive effect may not be solely due to vegetarian diets.
Most vegetarians are very health conscious (which is probably why they become vegetarians in the first place). But they also tend to practice other healthy types of behaviour, such as exercising, not smoking, not being a couch potato, and getting plenty of sleep.
The kind of life-style vegetarians tend to follow will contribute enormously to their general health and help them control their diabetes and other health issues.
That said, meatless diets or diets that restrict the amount of animal products (of all sorts) that you eat contain oodles of beneficial nutrients. These diets are high in dietary fibre, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. In addition, the fats they contain are healthy … plant foods are low in saturated fats and dietary cholesterol.
How to switch to a plant-focused diet
Some people who need to reduce the amount of animal products in their diet baulk at the effort they think will be involved in the switch. This is a misapprehension.
Here are a few pointers …
- Do not switch all in one go. Instead reduce your consumption of animal products gradually.
- Prepare yourself mentally by thinking of animal products as a side dish or garnish rather than the core ingredient on your plate.
- Try having one meatless day a week at the start of the switch.
- Build a collection of meat-restricted recipes.
- Get to know beans. Many varieties deliver just as much protein as meat and fish. Check out all the different ways you can prepare meals based on beans, prepare them in batches to build a stockpile and freeze them.
- Get to know whole grains such as barley, quinoa, brown rice and couscous. Cook them in batches and refrigerate or freeze them.
- Restrict your intake of carbs by using peanut butter, egg whites (which are at least 90% protein), low-fat or no-fat cheese or other fillers.
- Keep it simple. Go for things like veggie burritos filled with beans and green peppers.
Protein … some people fear that if they switch to a plant-based diet they will end up being deficient in protein. But this fear is completely unfounded.
Plenty of plant foods contain lots of protein … beans (the best source), nuts, grains and vegetables. Get to know the macro-nutrients (protein, fats and carbs) in the plants you like to eat. You’ll find tons of verified facts on http://nutritiondata.self.com/.
Note … the advice that you must mix various plant foods at each meal to obtain complete protein (ie, protein containing all the essential amino acids) is now considered old hat and no longer valid.
Umami … is one of the five basic tastes (alongside sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness). The name is a Japanese word for ‘pleasant savoury taste’ and it has been described as a pleasant broth-like or meaty taste.
Umami is one of the reasons why people enjoy meat so much, or why we are addicted to meat according to some people.
However, meat is not the only source of umami … this taste is also found in roasted vegetables, mushrooms, avocado, nuts soy sauce and cheese. It is also found in breast milk, which explains its attraction.
Including non-animal foodstuffs in your diet that contain umami will make the switch to a plant-based diet easy.
Supplements … when switching to a plant-focused diet you do need to be aware that your diet could be deficient in micro-nutrients, such as vitamins B12 and D, omega-3 fatty acids, iron and zinc.
Your body can produce small amounts of vitamin B12 but not nearly enough for your needs, and the only external source of this vitamin is meat. All omega-3 fats have to be sourced outside the body and the main source is fish (though some plants contain tiny amounts).
Hence taking supplements on a daily basis is highly recommended. Here’s what I take:
- B12 (4mcg) in a separate tablet
- Calcium (400mg) plus vitamin D (2.5mcg) together in a separate tablet
- High-strength cod-liver oil capsule with vitamins D and E, in a separate capsule.
I urge you to do the same.