• “Plant-based dietary patterns...may be beneficial for the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes." (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
A new study shows that by reducing or eliminating the amount of meat you eat and amping up the volume of plant-based foods in your diet, you may reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.
By
Yasmin Noone

30 Jul 2019 - 1:08 PM  UPDATED 30 Jul 2019 - 1:08 PM

If you ever needed an extra reason to follow a plant-based diet, reduce the amount of meat you consume or opt for a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, this might be it.

According to a new study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, by sticking to a plant-based eating plan you may be able to lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

An analysis of nine studies and over 300,000 adults has found that people who had high adherence to a plant-based diet also had a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

“Plant-based dietary patterns, especially when they are enriched with healthful plant-based foods, may be beneficial for the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes.”

This association was also strong when people followed a plant-based diet that was rich in fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes and nuts.

“Plant-based dietary patterns, especially when they are enriched with healthful plant-based foods, may be beneficial for the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes,” the study reads.

The concept of a plant-based diet analysed in the study included vegan and vegetarian diets, as well as eating patterns like the Mediterranean diet that emphasise plant-based foods but do not completely exclude animal foods.

How I used food to fight off pre-diabetes in one year
For Jaybee Serrano his diabetes story started in 2017 and the 35-year-old nurse tells SBS about how reducing the amount of white rice he ate helped to improve his blood sugar levels.

Why can a plant-based diet prevent diabetes?

Although we don’t yet know why a plant-based diet and type 2 diabetes risk are linked, the study’s authors suggest that following a diet rich in fruits, veggies and wholegrains may help adults avoid excess weight gain and reduce insulin sensitivity. This, in turn, could possibly reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

They also propose that the association could be to do with the interaction between plant-based foods and our gut microbiota.

Or, the fact that plant-based diets emphasise fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains, which contain fibre, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, phenolic compounds, and unsaturated fatty acids – elements that could be protective in reducing diabetes risk.

They also propose that the association could be to do with the interaction between plant-based foods and our gut microbiota.

“Clinical trials and observational studies have shown that these foods individually and jointly improve insulin sensitivity and blood pressure, reduce long-term weight gain, and ameliorate systemic inflammation, pathways involved in the cause of type 2 diabetes," the study reads. 

“On the other hand, these diets also deemphasise or avoid red and processed meats, which have been shown to adversely affect the risk of type 2 diabetes, possibly owing to their high heme iron or dietary cholesterol contents.”

Meet the Aussie researcher helping to prevent diabetes deaths in Fiji
More people die from diabetes-related diseases in Fiji than anywhere else in the world. Central Queensland University researcher and nutrition expert, Lydia O’Meara, visited Fiji to better understand how to improve the diet of some of the country's poorest farmers.

The dietary advice stands, especially if you in a high-risk group

The study only shows an association and does not prove cause and effect.

However, Professor Greg Johnson – CEO Diabetes Australia – says the results of the study are not a surprise, given that the diet studied focuses on increased consumption of fresh, wholesome foods and the reduction or elimination of processed foods that are high in fat and salt.

“Increasing your consumption of plant-based foods is a good thing,” says Prof Johnson. “It’s been proven time and time again. But there’s no evidence to say that you have to go all the way and follow veganism or vegetarianism to prevent type 2 diabetes.”

“You can have meat but it should be lean but you shouldn’t have too much of it.”

Prof Johnson advises that adults reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes by increasing the amount of healthy foods, fresh fruit and vegetables they eat and cutting back on packaged foods.

“You can have meat but it should be lean but you shouldn’t have too much of it.”

What if you already have a genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes?

Prof Johnson stresses that the dietary advice applies to people with a genetic predisposition for developing type 2 diabetes and therefore face a higher risk of the condition.

This includes people who are over age 35 and have a Pacific Island, Indian subcontinent, Indigenous Australian or Chinese cultural background.

“When the modern western diet [that is high in processed and discretionary foods] is imposed on these populations, we see more cases of type 2 diabetes occurring.”

International Diabetes Federation reports that in 2017, China had 114 million adults with cases of diabetes, while almost 73,000 adults in India have diabetes. Meanwhile, Fiji’s Ministry of Health and Medical Services estimates that one in every three people living in Fiji (30 per cent of the population) has diabetes.

“In Australia, because we are multicultural and we have large populations of people of these ethnicities and cultures, there is a massive impact on the rates of people with type 2 diabetes.

“So the advice is to shift towards a healthy diet and away from an unhealthy diet [for people of these ethnicities and cultures], as an unhealthy diet has a bigger negative impact on these populations compared to what it does on white Europeans.”  

More research is needed to determine the mechanisms behind the link between plant-based diets and a reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes. 

Comment: Michael Mosley on how Type 2 diabetes can be reversed
Type-2 diabetes used to be seen as an incurable condition that only got worse over time. A promising study suggests otherwise.
Gestational diabetes increases your long-term risk of heart disease
Women with gestational diabetes are being warned that, if they don’t improve their health, diet and lifestyle after pregnancy, the condition could increase significantly their risk of heart disease and hypertension over the course of their life.
Intermittent fasting could help tackle diabetes – here's the science
Research into intermittent fasting suggests it's not a health gimmick.