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Should You Go Vegetarian? The Benefits of a Plant-Based Diet for People with Diabetes

While research shows you can successfully prevent or manage diabetes following a variety of eating plans, some researchers and health care providers slant toward plants. We give you the rundown of what different eating plans, such as raw, vegan, lacto-vegetarian, ovo-vegetarian, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, pescatarian, and flexitarian, include and exclude and how they can reduce risk of disease and promote better health. 

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Plant-Based Diets & Diabetes

What if you were told you could lose weight, lower your blood glucose and blood pressure, prevent heart disease, and slow the progression of type 2 diabetes—or prevent it if you don’t yet have it? It sounds too good to be true, but more and more research indicates that a plant-based eating plan may help people with diabetes.

What the Studies Show
In a 72-week study published by Neal Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, people with type 2 diabetes followed either a low-fat vegan diet or a moderate-carbohydrate plan. Both groups lost weight and improved their cholesterol. When people who didn’t complete the study or had medication changes were omitted from the study analysis, there was a significantly greater decrease in A1C and LDL (bad) cholesterol in the vegans.

A study of nearly 100,000 members of the Seventh-day Adventist church, which promotes a vegetarian diet, showed that the vegetarians had a lower rate of type 2 than nonvegetarians. “The closer people follow a vegan diet, the more they stay at a healthy weight and prevent type 2,” says Michael J. Orlich, M.D., assistant professor of preventive medicine at Loma Linda University in California. Orlich was involved with the study.

Not eating red and processed meats may help prevent type 2 even without factoring in body weight. Two long-term, ongoing studies by the Harvard School of Public Health tracking nearly 150,000 health care providers showed that people who ate an additional half serving of red meat daily for four years had a 50 percent higher risk of developing type 2. Cutting back on red-meat intake by more than a half serving a day reduced this risk by 15 percent.

“Study after study has tightly linked eating a plant-based diet with decreasing a number of chronic diseases—type 2 diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and certain cancers,” says Sharon Palmer, RD, dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet (The Experiment, 2012). The common denominators are chronic inflammation and insulin resistance. Both problems, which are interrelated, appear to diminish with a plant-based eating plan.

Studies indicate that vegetarians also tend to practice other healthy behaviors, like not smoking, being physically active, watching less television, and getting enough sleep.

How Do Plant-Based Diets Work?
“These diets are beneficial for one simple reason,” Palmer says. “They’re rich in all of the good stuff—fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and healthy fats—and low in the bad stuff—saturated fat and dietary cholesterol.” Orlich recommends people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes limit the meat (especially red meat) they consume or eat no meat at all. Also, cut back on highly refined grain-based foods and added sugars from drinks and sweets, and eat a variety of whole plant foods.

The Vegetarianism Spectrum

You hear people say, “I’m a vegan.” Others call themselves vegetarian or pescatarian. All of these terms span the plant-based eating spectrum. These definitions—from most to least restrictive—detail the foods these eating plans include or exclude beyond those all plant-based eaters consume: fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains. 

Raw: Foods are not cooked, processed, or heated to above 115°F. Foods may be strained, blended, juiced, or eaten in their natural state. A raw diet is not necessarily vegetarian. Some followers eat unprocessed and uncooked meats, seafood, eggs, and raw, unpasteurized dairy foods. The diet generally excludes alcohol, caffeine, refined sugars, and many fats and oils.

Vegan: Excludes foods of animal origin, including meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy. Meat is replaced with alternate sources of protein, such as tofu, beans, peanut butter, grains, nuts, peas, veggie burgers, and more.

Lacto-Vegetarian: Excludes foods of animal origin but includes dairy foods.

Ovo-Vegetarian: Excludes foods of animal origin but includes eggs.

Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian: Excludes foods of animal origin such as meat, poultry, and seafood, but includes eggs and dairy foods.

Pescatarian: Excludes foods of animal origin but includes seafood, eggs, and dairy foods.

Semivegetarian, Meatless Vegetarian, Flexitarian: These terms define eating styles based on a vegetarian diet but include small amounts of red meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and/or dairy foods. Flexitarians, for instance, can eat anything from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to dairy, eggs, and meat, but most meals emphasize plant-based foods.

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