Diabetes is everywhere. Here in the United States, 9.3% of the population has diabetes. That's 29.1 million of us. Every year, 1.4 million Americans becomes a newly diagnosed diabetic. If you don't have diabetes, you probably know someone who does. It's a huge problem and can lead to complications such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, loss of feet and limbs, blindness and kidney disease (1).
Luckily, word is starting to spread about the benefits of eating plants to combat this chronic disease. Many a doctor has said, if a plant-based diet came in pill form, it would be the miracle cure and everyone would want one. Drug companies would make billions off of it. Lose weight, improve blood sugar control, decrease risk of cancer and heart disease, clear up your skin, and run farther with absolutely no negative side effects. Sounds perfect.
There’s tons of research to support the benefits of this way of eating. Take, for example, this study just released at the beginning of the month. This is a meta-analysis, meaning researchers sifted through thousands of research articles to see if they could identify an overall trend. In this case, they widdled down the articles to 13 that met their criteria. After some complicated statistical analysis, they found that replacing meat with plant-protein (like soy, legumes and nuts) improved blood sugar control in people with diabetes (2). The parameters measured were hemoglobin A1C values (an average blood sugar of 2-3 months), fasting glucose and insulin levels. To reap the benefits, which researchers determined to be ‘moderate’, study participants replaced at least 35% of their total protein intake with plant protein. Imagine what would happen if you replaced at least 50% of your protein intake with plants, or even all of it!
These results are in line with other studies, such as the Adventist Health Study, in which vegetarian/vegan diets are associated with a lower risk for diabetes as well as all-cause mortality (3,4). In a study of 92,000 women and 40,000 men, replacing just one serving of animal protein for plant protein was associated with a 10-21% reduced risk for type 2 diabetes (5). On the flip side, evidence shows that diets high in animal protein (especially red meat) are associated with an increased occurrence of diabetes (5,6).
Why is this true? Well, there’s the fat that comes alongside animal protein and interferes with the job of insulin, making it so sugar can’t even get into your cells. But this article suggests some other mechanisms. For example, high iron stores are associated with diabetes. The iron from animals (heme-iron) is particularly easy for humans to absorb. This isn’t always a good thing, as iron can be a pro-oxidant (the opposite of antioxidant) in our bodies. As a pro-oxidant, it causes damage to our tissues. In the case of diabetes, iron can harm the cells of our pancreas where insulin is made (8,9). Iron from plant-sources is much safer, as our body will only take what it needs and not risk overloading. In addition to iron, the researchers suggest the amino acid profile in plant proteins to be protective, and the level of sodium and nitrites found in meats to be especially harmful (2).
So, if you're looking to improve your blood sugar, prevent blood sugar problems (or cholesterol problems or inflammation problems or weight problems!), try eating some plant protein! Start with a bean burger, or sprinkle some 'tofu feta' atop your pizza with a side of walnut, spinach and apple salad. To learn even more about eating plants, talk to a dietitian (me!).
1. American Diabetes Association. Statistics About Diabetes. http://www.diabetes.org/diabetes-basics/statistics/.
2. Viguiliouk E, Stewart SE, Jayalath VH, et al. Effect of replacing animal protein with plant protein on glycemic control in diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutrients. 2015;7:9804-9824.
3. Tonstad, S.; Butler, T.; Yan, R.; Fraser, G.E. Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2diabetes. Diabetes Care 2009, 32, 791–796.
4. Tonstad, S.; Stewart, K.; Oda, K.; Batech, M.; Herring, R.P.; Fraser, G.E. Vegetarian diets and incidence of diabetes in the Adventist Health Study-2. NMCD 2013, 23, 292–299.
5. Malik, V.S.L.; Tobias, D.K.; Pan, A.; Hu, F.B. Dietary protein intake and risk of type 2 diabetes in U.S. men and women. Diabetes 2015, 64, A424.
6. Aune, D.; Ursin, G.; Veierod, M.B. Meat consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. Diabetologia 2009, 52, 2277–2287.
7. Pan, A.; Sun, Q.; Bernstein, A.M.; Schulze, M.B.; Manson, J.E.;Willett,W.C.; Hu, F.B. Red meat consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: 3 cohorts of US adults and an updated meta-analysis. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2011, 94, 1088–1096.
8. Puntarulo, S. Iron, oxidative stress and human health. Mol. Asp. Med. 2005, 26, 299–312.
9. Rajpathak, S.N.; Crandall, J.P.; Wylie-Rosett, J.; Kabat, G.C.; Rohan, T.E.; Hu, F.B. The role of iron in type 2 diabetes in humans. Biochim. Biophys. Acta 2009, 1790, 671–681.
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