Healthy Plant-Based Diet May Reduce Risk for Type 2 Diabetes

Following a healthy plant-based diet — one based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and nuts — is linked to lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to a new study published in the journal Diabetologia.

For decades, studies have shown that certain diets based on a high intake of healthy plant-based foods — such as the Mediterranean diet — may offer substantial health benefits. Variations on the Mediterranean diet — which emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and other legumes, olive oil, and lean sources of protein — have been shown to potentially improve insulin sensitivity, reduce liver fat, limit brain shrinkage, and improve kidney function. This has been especially true in many studies for a “green” Mediterranean diet that incorporates high amounts of leafy green vegetables, as well as green tea and walnuts.

For the latest study, researchers were interested in investigating whether a diet rich in healthy plant foods could help prevent type 2 diabetes. To do this, they took an approach different from the one taken in many studies — instead of just asking participants about their diets, which is subject to high degrees of bias and error, they also measured levels of certain molecules (metabolites) linked to plant consumption in participants’ blood.

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As described in an article on the study at Healio, the researchers looked at data from both dietary questionnaires and blood samples from 8,827 participants in a large general health study. Based on their intake of healthy plant-based foods (such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes), unhealthy plant-based foods (such as refined grains, fruit juices, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweet desserts), and animal-based foods (such as dairy foods, meats, eggs, and fish), the researchers assigned each participant a score indicating how closely they followed an overall plant-based diet, a healthy plant-based diet, and an unhealthy plant-based diet.

Based on blood measurements, the researchers found that 55 different metabolites were linked to an overall plant-based diet, while 93 metabolites found in the blood were linked to a healthy plant-based diet and 75 were linked to an unhealthy plant-based diet.

Healthy plant-based diet linked to lower type 2 diabetes risk

The researchers found that after adjusting for other differences among participants, those with a higher overall plant-based diet score were 17% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes over a decades-long study period. Those with a higher healthy pant-based diet score were 20% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, while there was no specific link between participants’ unhealthy plant-based diet score and there risk for type 2 diabetes.

The researchers concluded that blood levels of certain metabolites could be used to assess how closely people are following a plant-based or a healthy plant-based diet, and also estimate how this affects their risk for type 2 diabetes. “Our findings support the beneficial role of healthy plant-based diets in diabetes prevention and provide new insights for future investigation,” they wrote.

Want to learn more about eating a plant-based diet? Read “Adopting a Vegetarian Meal Plan” and “Plant Sources of Protein.”

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