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Are Some Plant-based Foods Better Than Others for Reducing Diabetes Risk?

New data suggests that following a nutritious plant-based diet is linked to a reduction in type 2 diabetes risk, while an "unhealthy" one may not offer the same benefit. Key TakeawaysPlant-based diets are associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.New data suggests that following a nutritious plant-based diet is linked to a reduction in type 2 diabetes risk, while an unhealthy one may not offer the same

  • Posted on 27th Apr, 2022 22:30 PM
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Are Some Plant-based Foods Better Than Others for Reducing Diabetes Risk? Image

Key Takeaways

  • Plant-based diets are associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes.
  • New data suggests that following a nutritious plant-based diet is linked to a reduction in type 2 diabetes risk, while an unhealthy one may not offer the same benefit.
  • Experts say labeling some plant-based foods as "unhealthy" may not be helpful in the long run.

A new study found that eating nutritious, plant-based foods may mitigate your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Past data has shown that largely following a plant-based diet appears to be linked to a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, this new study explored whether certain plant-based foods are better than others for mitigating type 2 diabetes risk.

To do this, researchers looked at the presence of certain plasma metabolite profiles related to plant-based diets. The study was published in Diabetologia.

What Is a Metabolite?

A metabolite is a substance that includes compounds found in the foods we eat. They are produced by chemical processes in our bodies. The metabolites present in a person’s plasma should reflect a person’s dietary patterns.

Plant-Based Foods and Diabetes Risk

We already know that eating more plant-based foods can help in mitigating diabetes risk.

But researchers dug deeper and used data to measure plasma metabolites from 10,684 participants. After establishing adherence to a plant-based diet, researchers identified multi-metabolites and ultimately evaluated associations between them and type 2 diabetes.

The researchers also categorized plant-based diets as “healthy” and “unhealthy,” based on how much of certain foods people ate. Unhealthy plant foods included choices like:

  • Refined grains
  • Fruit juices
  • Potatoes
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Sweets/dessert

Healthy foods included:

  • Whole grains
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Legumes

Researchers found that the people who developed type 2 diabetes were more likely to eat a lower amount of plant-based foods. Additionally, this group had a higher average BMI, were more likely to have high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, use blood pressure and cholesterol drugs, have a family history of diabetes, and be less physically active.

Eating “healthier” plant-based foods was linked to a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

When analyzing the plasma metabolites, results showed that levels differed based on whether people ate “healthy” or “unhealthy” plant-based food. Those who had profiles that reflected a healthy plant-based diet and an overall plant-based diet had a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, regardless of BMI or other risk factors. However, the same effect was not seen among those with an unhealthy plant-based diet.

When researchers evaluated the data after adjusting for certain metabolites that are unique to certain “healthy” plant-based foods, the association between plant-based diets and type 2 diabetes was not strong, suggesting that certain compounds found in “healthy” plant-based foods may have a large impact on overall type 2 diabetes risk reduction.

“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 lower risk of diabetes,” Frank Hu, MD, PhD, MPH, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, codirector of the Program in Obesity Epidemiology and Prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health, and one of the study authors, said in a press release.

What This Means For You

If you want to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, introducing more plant-based foods in your diet may be a good first step.

How Can People Reduce Type 2 Diabetes Risk?

Following a nutritious, plant-based diet could lessen your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

But, as Christine Byrne, MPH, RD, LDN, a non-diet private practice dietitian based in North Carolina, told Verywell, “one thing to keep in mind about this study, and any study measuring the association between diet and chronic disease risk, is that food isn’t the only factor that determines health.”

“Rates of type 2 diabetes are far higher among low-income populations than high-income populations, and that gap continues to increase,” she added. “It’s not news that the ‘healthy plant foods’ described in this study are nutritious and can help lower chronic disease risk, but eating these foods all the time isn’t realistic for a lot of people.”

Some foods categorized as “unhealthy” have data showing that they can be a part of a diabetes risk-reducing diet.

For example, in the study, pasta is considered to be a refined carb and is, therefore, one food that is considered to be an "unhealthy" plant-based food. But other studies have found that pasta can be part of a diabetes-friendly diet.

Juice is another food deemed an “unhealthy” plant-based food by the study authors. However, leaning on 100% fruit juice can help people meet the recommended servings of produce and can help fill nutritional gaps. Previous studies haven’t found that drinking 100% fruit juice impacted blood sugar levels.

Grouping foods like 100% orange juice and semolina pasta with high glycemic foods like desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages and labeling them all as “unhealthy” may send a message to people that eating some accessible, cost-effective, and nutrient-dense foods should be avoided. Based on this data, it is unclear if eating all of these foods that are labeled as “unhealthy” plant-based foods increase diabetes risk, or if it is a result of eating certain foods that are known to play a role in diabetes progression, like candies, desserts, and sugar-sweetened drinks.

“It’s tough to draw conclusions from this particular study since the data is limited,” Byrne added. “The researchers took metabolite profile scores via blood samples in the 1980s and 1990s, then used self-reported food records to measure what participants ate throughout several decades. This kind of data can be a good way to look for patterns, but it’s not accurate enough to draw conclusions from.”

While there is no magic bullet to preventing type 2 diabetes, Mary Ellen Phipps, MPH, RDN, LD, owner and registered dietitian nutritionist at Milk & Honey Nutrition, LLC, shared that there are some steps people can take to reduce their risk, including:

  • Move more and reduce sedentary behaviors
  • Quit smoking
  • Eat more fiber. Aim for 30–40g/day
  • Prioritize protein at meals.

As many studies suggest, eating more plants is a positive step when focusing on your diabetes risk reduction, especially when the diet is rich in nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Are Some Plant-based Foods Better Than Others for Reducing Diabetes Risk? View Story