A New Study Shows That This Particular Diet Lowers Diabetes Risk

people eating a healthy meal around a table

Published on April 15, 2022

By Sophia Harris

We’ve long known that plant-based diets have been demonstrated in studies to help with weight loss and lower cancer risk, but new research has actually linked plant-based diets to yet another substantial health benefit: preventing and lowering type-2 diabetes risk. 

New research published in Diabetologia, which is the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes, has linked eating healthy plant-based foods with a lower risk of developing type-2 diabetes. The study also linked a plant-based diet to diabetes prevention for those who are more prone to the disease or have family history. 

Read next: I Tried the Brand New Plant-Based Whole30 — Here’s What I Discovered

The study focused on identifying the plasma metabolite profiles related to plant-based diets and assessing their associations between the profile and diabetes development. Different foods with different chemical makeups have different metabolite profiles, and this is what the study’s researchers were interested in investigating. 

Diabetes is a serious health epidemic in the U.S. and globally: more than 90% of current diabetes cases are type-2, and diabetes rates have tripled in less than two decades. More people than ever are struggling with complications from diabetes, including problems with their eyes, kidneys, and nervous system. 

Diabetes, which can be debilitating and very dangerous, is largely impacted by our diet and lifestyle choices. Researchers in the study were interested in observing how different types of diets impact overall diabetes risk, so they monitored subjects who ate food in the following categories:

  • Healthy plant foods: Whole grains, nuts, legumes, fruits, and vegetables
  • Unhealthy plant foods: Refined grains, fruit juices, potatoes, sugary beverages, desserts, and processed snacks 
  • Animal-based foods: Animal fats, eggs, dairy, seafood, meat, and other animal-based foods 

Participants who ended up developing diabetes either during the study or during the follow-up didn’t eat very many healthy plant foods, and they also had higher overall BMIs and blood pressure. Participants who ate healthy plant foods fared the best, and those who ate unhealthy plant foods were in the “neutral” category — no association was recorded. 

The healthiest metabolites of the group, least associated with developing type-2 diabetes, were found in participants who ate plenty of polyphenol-rich healthy plant foods. 

And good news for coffee lovers: there’s also a case for continuing to enjoy that cup — or two — of coffee every morning. A metabolite found in coffee has been identified as effective in preventing insulin resistance in animal studies, and insulin resistance plays a part in the development of diabetes.

While the authors of the study claim that more data is needed to determine correlation between plant-based diet metabolites and diabetes, their findings do support the beneficial role of plant-based diets in diabetes prevention and treatment — and provide insight for future research studies. 

How do I know if I am at risk for diabetes? 

Type-2 diabetes means that a body can’t regulate and use sugar as fuel as well as it should. With type-2 diabetes, too much sugar ends up circulating in the bloodstream, and these consistently high sugar levels can lead to multiple health problems and unpleasant symptoms. 

Many people who develop type-2 diabetes actually develop the condition in adulthood due to lifestyle factors and genetics. You may be at risk for diabetes now but not even know it — and once it’s developed, there’s no cure. 

The good news is that there are many preventative measures you can take to prevent diabetes — and now we know that eating a healthy plant-based diet is one of them. 

Here are common risk factors for developing type-2 diabetes:  

  • Higher weight range: Being overweight carries a higher risk for developing diabetes 
  • Midsection fat storage: Storing fat mainly around your middle, instead of evenly over your body, is a sign that you might have a higher risk for developing diabetes
  • Activity level: The less activity you do, the higher your risk for developing diabetes. If you sit at a desk all day and don’t exercise, this could lead to diabetes symptoms developing eventually 
  • Age range: Did you know that people over 45 have a higher risk for developing type-2 diabetes, especially if they are overweight and sedentary? 
  • Hormonal conditions: Women with hormonal diseases, like polycystic ovarian syndrome, may be at a higher risk for developing diabetes in their lifetime 

The complications of developing diabetes can be serious, and they may include heart disease, nerve damage, kidney disease, skin conditions, and even problems with your vision and hearing. 

What are the best foods to eat for diabetes prevention? 

Aside from the metabolite study mentioned above, several other studies have linked plant-based eating with a lessened risk for diabetes. This is helpful news for people who are worried about diabetes prevention, because plant-based diets have become more mainstream and are easier to follow than ever. 

However, as the plant-based diet trend evolves, more and more plant-based junk food is emerging — and while it’s tasty and fine for treats in moderation, a healthy plant-based diet won’t include lots of processed foods. 

Instead, focus on these foods for diabetes prevention: 

Healthy protein sources 

Protein is important for keeping you full and satisfied longer, so be sure to prioritize protein in your daily meals. There are many more options than just plain soybeans — foods like black beans, chickpeas, quinoa, tempeh, and seitan are packed with protein. Even if you decide to leave some meat and fish in your diet, consider healthy swaps like cauliflower soup or tofu panang curry as replacements in your weekly meal plans. 

If you enjoy protein powders or bars, then luckily, there are plenty of plant-based options for those, too. Pea protein and hemp protein have become more popular in the last few years, so you won’t even miss whey (and they’re much less likely to upset your stomach). 

Complex, low-glycemic index carbs 

Sugary, simple carbs and “white” carbohydrates with little fiber aren’t great for your blood sugar because they cause a spike and then a crash, which can drain energy. Focusing on complex carbs like brown rice, sweet potatoes, and whole grains can help keep your energy consistent and prevent insulin spike-crash cycles. 

Foods like steel-cut oatmeal, lentils, and even popcorn are useful for keeping your blood sugar level, especially when paired with protein at a meal. Carbohydrates are important for keeping your energy up and feeling satisfied, so be sure to choose options that will sustain energy consistently throughout the day. 

Fibrous and whole foods 

Did you know that fiber is important for feeling full for longer? It’s also important for regulating your blood sugar and digestion. Slower digestion rates mean that glucose enters your blood more slowly, which helps you keep your insulin levels even. There are loads of plant-based snack options that are packed with fiber, including: 

  • Roasted chickpeas 
  • Black bean hummus 
  • Carrots and peanut butter 
  • Dates 
  • Fruits like strawberries and blueberries 
  • Kale chips 

When moving toward a plant-based diet, be sure to steer away from ultra-processed snacks, even if they are technically vegan, because it’s easy to overeat processed foods and wind up not feeling well. When in doubt, select whole foods — foods that are as close to natural as possible with minimal processing. 

Read next: 9 Plant-Based Breakfast Ideas That Go Beyond Tofu Scramble

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