I’ve heard that plant-based diets can be helpful for people with type 2 diabetes. Is this true?
— Bezzy Type 2 Diabetes Member
Plant-based diets are commonly recommended by healthcare providers like dietitians to help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar and improve other aspects of their health.
But are they actually effective?
In this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about plant-based diets for diabetes to help you decide whether it may be a good choice for you.
Depending on who you ask, a plant-based diet can mean very different things. In fact, the term is used inconsistently by nutrition researchers.
Some define a plant-based diet as a diet that completely excludes all animal products. Others define a plant-based diet as an omnivorous diet that’s primarily composed of plant foods. The authors of a 2021 review suggested that, when used in research studies, the term “plant-based” should be accompanied by a thorough description of the diet to avoid confusion.
So, because the term is vague, “plant-based” can be used to describe any dietary pattern that’s primarily composed of plant foods. This means that plant-based diets don’t necessarily have to exclude all animal products.
For example, a person who consumes mostly plant foods like vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, seeds, and fruit — but eats small amounts of animal products like eggs, fish, and dairy — would be following a plant-based diet.
A vegan diet, which completely restricts all animal products, and a vegetarian diet, which excludes certain types of animal products like meat and poultry, are considered plant-based diets, too.
First, it’s important to understand that there isn’t one “best” diet for people with type 2 diabetes.
The best diet for you to follow depends on many factors, including your blood sugar management, blood lipid levels, family health history, body weight, food preferences, and more.
It’s always best to follow a dietary pattern that’s tailored to your specific health needs. If you have questions about your diet and aren’t sure which way of eating is best, talk with a dietitian who specializes in type 2 diabetes. They can help you come up with a nutritious eating plan that works for you.
Now, on to the benefits. In my opinion, a plant-based or plant-centric diet — remember, this doesn’t necessarily mean vegan or vegetarian — can benefit most people regardless of their health status.
And science agrees with me here. Overall, diets mostly composed of minimally-processed plant foods like veggies, fruits, and nuts, have been linked to a longer lifespan and an overall lower risk of many diseases, from heart disease to colon cancer.
Plant-based foods are chock full of protective compounds like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and plant chemicals that help protect against cellular damage.
For people with diabetes, a plant-based diet can be beneficial in the following ways:
In addition to the benefits for people with diabetes, plant-based diets can also help reduce your risk of developing diabetes or prediabetes in the first place.
Plus, most plant-based diets are better for the environment than diets high in animal products. Shifting toward a more plant-based eating pattern can help reduce your diet-related greenhouse gas emissions, which can help lower your overall environmental footprint.
If you’re interested in shifting to a more plant-based diet, you’ll want to increase your intake of foods like whole vegetables and fruits.
You’ll also want to reduce your overall intake of animal products, especially ultra-processed animal products like lunch meats and chicken nuggets.
You can still eat animal foods like fish, dairy, and eggs, which are good protein sources. They also contain important fats, minerals, and vitamins that are either missing from or in low supply in plant foods.
For those who currently follow a diet that’s high in animal products and low in plant-based foods, consider focusing on increasing your intake of the following:
You can include animal products in your diet in moderation and consider using more plant-based protein sources, like beans and lentils, instead.
It’s also a good idea to purchase humane, high quality animal products whenever possible. For example, try buying eggs from pasture-raised hens, wild-caught seafood from sustainable fisheries, and dairy from pasture-raised cattle when you can.
You’ll also want to limit your intake of the following foods. But remember that these foods should be limited in any healthy diet, not just plant-based diets.
Another thing to keep an eye out for is ultra-processed foods marketed to people on plant-based diets. Examples of these products include fake meats like plant-based bacon, margarine, vegan pastries, and ultra-processed plant-based cheeses.
Just because a product is plant-based or vegan, doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthier. Vegan products can still be loaded with added sugar, refined carbs, artificial sweeteners, and other ingredients that should be limited to promote overall health.
Even though plant-based diets are linked to a bunch of benefits, keep in mind that not all plant-based diets are healthy.
It’s entirely possible to follow a plant-based diet high in ultra-processed foods and added sugar, especially if you’re not consuming mostly whole, minimally-processed foods.
Overconsumption of ultra-processed plant-based foods like candy, fast food, and pastries is just as problematic as overconsumption of animal-based ultra-processed foods.
A nutritious eating pattern, whether you’re following a vegan or omnivorous diet, should be composed mostly of minimally-processed, nutritious foods.
Some plant-based diets can also be fairly restrictive. Diets that cut out many foods tend to increase your risk of developing nutrient deficiencies.
For example, strictly vegan and vegetarian diets could be low in nutrients primarily found in animal foods like the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA, iron, calcium, B12, and zinc. This is why it’s recommended that people following vegan and strict vegetarian diets take dietary supplements that cover their needs for these and other nutrients.
If your diet is currently low in plant foods or if you want to transition to a more plant-based diet, the following tips can help boost your intake:
If you’re not a fruit and veggie person and feel a little overwhelmed by changing your diet, consider shifting your focus.
Instead of worrying about what you should be cutting out or avoiding, try paying more attention to which foods you should be adding to your diet.
If you’re currently not eating any fruits or vegetables, try adding one fruit and one serving of vegetables to what you eat each day. Once that becomes a habit, then you can continue to add in more produce and make positive changes that will help improve your overall diet quality over time.
Not only can healthy plant-based diets benefit overall health by reducing disease risk and improving diet quality, but they have specific benefits for people with type 2 diabetes such as improving insulin sensitivity and reducing HbA1c.
If you’re interested in moving toward a more plant-based way of eating, try using some of the tips in this article to boost your intake of healthy plant foods like vegetables and beans.
Remember, there’s no one perfect diet for people with diabetes, so be sure to tailor your nutrition goals based on your blood sugar control, food preferences, body weight, and overall health.
Medically reviewed on October 13, 2022
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