November 11, 2020

Can plant-based eating help manage and prevent diabetes?

The foods we eat play a role in inflammation, insulin resistance, and other risk factors.

About 34 million people in the United States have diabetes, and about twice as many have prediabetes. The good news is that lifestyle — including healthy eating — can play an important role in managing diabetes and preventing type 2 diabetes.

One way to eat healthier is to follow a plant-based diet, which focuses on whole grains, legumes, fruit, and vegetables and limits meat and dairy. While popular wisdom would tell you that diabetes and plant-based eating don’t mix — plant foods have carbs, after all — numerous studies point toward the diabetes-protective benefits of this eating pattern.

Here are several ways plant-based eating may help: 

  • Weight management Vegetarians tend to have a lower body mass index or BMI. While cutting out meat doesn’t guarantee weight loss, plant foods are high in fiber and volume, making it easier to feel full on fewer calories. Weight loss reduces insulin resistance, meaning your body can use its own insulin more effectively.  
  • Heart health — Whole food, plant-based diets can help reduce inflammation and lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Managing these risk factors is essential because people with diabetes and prediabetes have a significantly higher risk of heart disease. In addition to lowering cholesterol and blood pressure and reducing inflammation, swapping out mostly animal-based saturated fats with plant-based unsaturated fats may also reduce insulin resistance.
  • Protective nutrients Nuts, seeds, deep green veggies, and whole grains are especially high in magnesium, a nutrient linked with a lower risk of diabetes. Plant foods in general are packed with phytochemicals that have antioxidant effects, which can help with insulin sensitivity. Our gut microbiome also plays a role in diabetes risk. Many plant foods, including oats, asparagus, onions, and garlic, are good sources of prebiotics that feed a healthy gut microbiome. 

Choosing the best plant foods

Plant-based foods include kale chips and sugar snap peas, but also potato chips and sugary fruit drinks. The benefits of plant-based eating come from minimally processed plant foods. The best options include whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes (beans and peas), fruits, and vegetables.

Unbeneficial plant-based foods include fruit juices, sweetened beverages, and refined grains. It’s wise to limit these foods, whether you have diabetes or not. 

Plant-based meal ideas

Talk with your dietitian or doctor if you have diabetes and are interested in trying a plant-based diet. Even if you aren’t ready to go completely meatless, try one of the tasty meal ideas featuring recipes from our Food for Health contributors.

Learn more about diabetes and prediabetes. Get the information you need to start a plant-based diet.