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Here’s Another Reason to Eat More Plants: It Might Lower Your Risk for Diabetes

Fill up your plate with plant-based foods, and you could keep type 2 diabetes at bay.

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The perks of eating plant-based foods and meals are adding up. It’s hard to deny the benefits that come with choosing plants over animal-based foods, from making your diet more eco-friendly to bettering your overall health and wellness. And now, researchers may have pinpointed another reason to eat more plants: It’s a move that could lower your risk for type 2 diabetes.

As one of the most prevalent health concerns, type 2 diabetes can introduce a host of health woes that impact you on every level. And it’s showing no signs of slowing down, with worldwide cases of type 2 diabetes tripling in the last 20 years. By 2045, it’s estimated that there will be 700 million cases of this disease. So, if you’re hoping to stave off type 2 diabetes and potentially prevent it, here’s how plant-based foods may be able to help.

The more plant-based foods you eat, the lower your risk for type 2 diabetes

A study published in Diabetologia examined the impact of different plant-based diets on the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This study, conducted at the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, analyzed blood plasma samples and the dietary intake of over 10,000 participants. These participants were predominantly white, middle-aged and had a mean body mass index (BMI) of 25.6kg/m2.

All of the study’s participants filled out food frequency questionnaires. Their responses were divvied up into three different kinds of plant-based diets:

  1. An overall Plant-Based Diet Index (PDI)
  2. A healthy Plant-Based Diet Index (hPDI)
  3. An unhealthy Plant-Based Diet Index (uPDI)

Participants’ diet category was based on how much they ate from 18 food groups, which included healthy plant foods like whole grains and fruits, unhealthy plant foods like refined grains and sugar-sweetened drinks, and animal foods like meat and dairy. Additionally, researchers tested blood samples from the participants to give each individual a baseline metabolite profile score. 

After examining all of this data plus the data from follow-up visits, the researchers compared the participants who did develop type 2 diabetes over the course of the years to those who didn’t. Their findings? Those who developed type 2 diabetes ate fewer healthy plant-based foods, along with fewer foods in the PDI and hPDI categories. These same participants also had a higher average BMI and were more likely to have other health issues, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and less physical activity. 

How does a plant-based diet lower your risk for diabetes?

It’s kind of obvious that eating a healthier diet and filling up on plant foods can benefit your health and reduce your risk for all kinds of diseases and illnesses. But researchers were able to pinpoint a particular benefit of plant-based diets that may help reduce an individual’s odds of developing type 2 diabetes. And it’s not just all of the nutritional value found in plant foods.

Rather, this study suggests that going plant-based affects your metabolites. 

Metabolites are substances that are produced or used by your body. Directly connected to the foods you eat, metabolites differ depending on the foods you eat. And in this research study, scientists noticed that the metabolite profiles of participants differed noticeably whether they were following a plant-based diet or not.

Participants who followed either an overall or healthy plant-based diet (PDI and hPDI) had metabolite profiles that were associated with a lower risk for type 2 diabetes, even if they had a high BMI or diabetes risk factors. However, the metabolite profiles of those who followed an unhealthy plant-based diet (uPDI) saw the opposite.

In particular, scientists noted that there were a few key metabolites that may have contributed to the lower risk for type 2 diabetes seen in those who stuck with a plant-based diet. Metabolites like trigonelline, which is found in coffee; hippurate, which plays a role in insulin secretion and glycemic control; and isoleucine, a key amino acid, appeared to play some kind of role in lowering (or even eliminating) the risk of type 2 diabetes. 

Which plant-based foods make the biggest difference?

Unfortunately, researchers weren’t able to pinpoint if any particular foods within a plant-based diet – or a non-plant-based diet – had a direct impact on an individual’s potential risk for type 2 diabetes. 

In general, the research team suggests eating plants that are rich in polyphenols, as these foods may be able to offer those key metabolites that may reduce your risk of diabetes. These include fruits and vegetables along with other plant-based favorites like legumes. 

And ultimately, if you’re eating plant-based foods that offer all of the nutrients your body needs, you’ll likely be able to have a positive impact on your health. Ready to start eating more plants? Try these plant-based ideas:

Featured recipe: No-Pasta Mediterranean Zucchini Salad