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Sticking to a plant-based diet reduces type 2 diabetes risk by 23 percent according to new research.

Researchers at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School looked at the significance of a plant-based diet in the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes.  They found that higher plant-based dietary patterns are associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.  This lower risk is strengthened when healthy plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts, are included in a nutrition plan. A less healthy plant-based diet would include potatoes, white flour, sugar and modest amounts of animal products.

The research team explained that healthy plant-based foods have been known to improve insulin sensitivitylower blood pressure, help reduce weight, and alleviate systemic inflammation. The team reviewed nine studies involving 307,099 participants with 23,544 cases of type 2 diabetes. Their findings were broadly consistent. The meta-analysis could provide the most comprehensive evidence of the association between plant-based diet and lower risk of type 2 diabetes to date.

Healthy plant-based foods have been known to improve insulin sensitivity, lower blood pressure, help reduce weight, and alleviate systemic inflammation.

“Overall, these data highlighted the importance of adhering to plant-based diets to achieve or maintain good health, and people should choose fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, tofu, and other healthy plant foods as the cornerstone of such diets,” said Dr. Qi Sun, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Researchers measured benefits of the plant-based diet but not the benefits of weight loss.  “We essentially removed the benefits through weight control from the estimated reduction of diabetes risk for eating plant-based diets,” said senior author Qi Sun, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition.  Because of that, the 23 percent reduction could be an underestimate and the risk reduction may be higher if a person also loses weight, he added.

Some foods that are associated with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes (sodas, refined carbohydrates, red meat, processed meats) are also associated with excess inflammation.  Chronic inflammation is linked to all types of diabetes. Lowering inflammation, and eating a more natural, less processed diet can have noticeable effects on a person’s physical and emotional health.  Plant-based foods that offer protection include:

  • tomatoes
  • olive oil
  • green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and collards
  • nuts like almonds and walnuts
  • fruits such as blackberriesstrawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges

For more information:  “Association between plant-based dietary patterns and risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” Frank Qian, Gang Liu, Frank B. Hu, Shilpa N. Bhupathiraju, Qi Sun, JAMA Internal Medicine: doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.2195

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