Diabetes affects 450 million people in the world. A new study demonstrates the benefits of a plant-based diet

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discovered fresh information regarding the benefits of a whole-foods, plant-based diet on the occurrence of Type 2 diabetes.

A new study ties a whole-foods, plant-based diet to a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes. It is a crippling disease that affects more than 450 million people throughout the world. Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition published a study in the scientific journal Diabetologia that indicated that eating plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, and legumes was linked to a decreased risk of acquiring Type 2 diabetes.

The Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, and Health Professionals Follow-up Study each included 10,684 participants. Participants filled out food frequency questionnaires that were rated based on their adherence to one of three different plant-based diets: overall Plant-based Diet Index (PDI), Healthy Plant-based Diet Index (hPDI), and Unhealthy Plant-Based Diet Index (UPDI) (uPDI). Healthy plant foods (such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes) were used to create diet indices, as were bad plant foods (such as refined grains, fruit juices, and sweets/desserts) and animal foods (such as fish, dairy, eggs, and meat).

The researchers divided all plant foods into healthy and harmful categories based on their previous links to Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain malignancies, comorbidities, and other ailments such as obesity and high blood pressure. The researchers used blood samples collected during the study’s early stages in the late 1980s and 1990s to establish metabolite profile scores, which they then compared to any Type 2 diabetes cases to see whether there were any links between certain dietary components and the likelihood of acquiring the disease.

The researchers discovered that those who developed type 2 diabetes throughout the study had a lower intake of “healthy plant-based” meals, as well as lower PDI and hPDI scores. These people also had higher BMIs, blood pressures, and cholesterol levels, and they used medicine to address them. They were also less physically active and had a history of diabetes in their families.

While it’s difficult to separate the contributions of individual foods, because they were analyzed as a pattern, said Professor Frank Hu, the study’s lead author. Individual metabolites from consumption of polyphenol-rich plant foods like fruits, vegetables, coffee, and legumes are all closely linked to a healthy plant-based diet and a lower risk of diabetes.

Diabetes and a plant-based, whole-food diet

In the previous two decades, the global incidence of type 2 diabetes has quadrupled, with cases rising from 150 million in 2000 to more than 450 million in 2019. By 2045, this crippling disease will have a future impact on over 700 million individuals. Unhealthy diets high in animal products, as well as other lifestyle variables such as a sedentary lifestyle, are fueling the diabetes pandemic.

While this study relies on evidence that a diet free of animal products is connected to a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes, it also distinguishes between the sorts of plant-based meals that may help reduce the disease’s risk. Researchers discovered that plant-based diets were associated with distinct multi-metabolite profiles using metabolomics, which is the full investigation and identification of all the various metabolites contained inside a biological sample. However, there were substantial differences in patterns between the healthy and unhealthy plant-based groups. While plant-based meals in general and good plant-based diets were linked to a decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes, the same could not be said for bad plant-based diets.

Furthermore, when the researchers controlled for different levels of specific intermediate metabolites like trigonelline, hippurate, isoleucine, and a small group of triacylglycerols (TAGs), the link between all plant-based diets and Type 2 diabetes was largely eliminated, suggesting that these metabolites may play a key role in the disease’s occurrence.

What role does nutrition play in illness? And why is more investigation necessary?

While this study found that a whole-foods, plant-based diet is connected to a decreased incidence of Type 2 diabetes, additional research on particular nutritional profiles is still needed to better understand how diet contributes to the disease. The study participants were also largely white, middle-aged men (with a mean age of 54 and a mean BMI of 25.6 kg/m2), indicating that more diversity in individuals is still needed to get additional insight. Furthermore, because blood samples were only obtained at one moment in time, a longer-term metabolomics analysis would reveal more about the relationship between food and Type 2 diabetes.

The study’s authors stated, “Our findings confirm the positive effect of healthy plant-based diets in diabetes prevention and give fresh insights for further exploration.” At this time, our findings of intermediate metabolites are fascinating, but further research is needed to validate their causative significance in the links between plant-based diets and the risk of Type 2 diabetes.

This study adds to a growing body of data that shows a plant-based diet can not only help reduce the risk of acquiring Type 2 diabetes but also assist in easing its symptoms. New York City Mayor Eric Adams is one of the few people who has firsthand knowledge. The politician was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which caused him to lose some of his vision and mobility. His doctor told him that he would most likely lose his fingers and toes due to nerve damage. Adams switched to a whole-foods, plant-based diet in 2016 and was able to eliminate these and other problems.

In his capacity as Mayor (by championing Vegan Fridays at NYC public schools); his previous role as Brooklyn Borough President (through a medical program focusing on plant-based nutrition); and as a private citizen, to share his experience of regaining his health through a plant-based diet (by authoring Healthy at Last: A Plant-Based Approach to Preventing and Reversing Diabetes and Other Chronic Illnesses).

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