Type 2 diabetes can be caused – and treated – by what you eat. Viva!’s Veronika Powell MSc, looks at just what a vegan diet can achieve…
Diabetes is a serious health threat and one of the main diseases of affluence – along with heart disease, obesity, gout and some cancers. They are all on the rise. We’re talking type 2 diabetes, which usually develops later in life – but now, due to unhealthy lifestyles, teenagers are increasingly at risk. Once you have type 2 diabetes, your risk of heart and kidney disease, nerve and eyesight damage all increase while your quality of life decreases.
What’s food got to do with it?
The good news is that food is the main factor in both prevention and treatment of the disease, so there’s a lot you can do about it!
The big issue in diabetes is high blood sugar. Sugar levels are regulated by the hormone insulin, but if you have diabetes the regulation is dysfunctional and you end up with too much sugar (glucose) in your blood. But it doesn’t end there – high blood sugar levels have a knock-on effect on other systems in the body, increasing blood cholesterol and fat levels, damaging the eyes, kidneys and nerve endings and potentially leading to insensitivity in hands and feet.
Type 2 diabetes is usually (although not always) linked to increased body weight and especially to abdominal obesity. When the body’s metabolism can’t keep up with the amount – and type – of food eaten, droplets of fat are stored under the skin and in muscle and liver cells. The more high-fat and processed foods you eat, the bigger the risk.
When the amount of fat inside your cells reaches a certain level it reduces the cells’ ability to react to insulin, leading to insulin resistance. Studies show that insulin resistance in muscles and liver is strongly linked to the fat stored in them.
With a healthy diet, you can not only prevent this but also help to reverse the condition. Studies where type 2 diabetics were prescribed a combination of diet change and mild exercise resulted in them either being able to discontinue or significantly reduce their medication – all in as little as three weeks!
The research is very convincing – a wholesome, low-fat, vegan diet is the best for reversing type 2 diabetes. It helps the body reduce fat stores in its cells, improves blood sugar control, reduces blood cholesterol levels, helps to induce weight loss without restricting portion sizes, prevents kidney and nerve damage and helps to lower blood pressure.
Type 2 diabetes diet rules
1st rule – No animal products
By eliminating all animal products you avoid eating substantial amounts of fat and your cholesterol intake will be zero. Most of the fat found in animal products is saturated and there’s no requirement for saturated fat in our diet.
Another good reason for avoiding all animal products is because animal protein from meat, fish, dairy and eggs places an additional strain on the kidneys and can increase the damage already caused by diabetes. Protecting their kidneys is a key issue for diabetics.
All foods should be of plant origin and unrefined wherever possible, so they will be naturally high in fibre and complex carbohydrates. Animal products contain no fibre or healthy carbohydrates while plant foods (supplemented with vitamin B12) contain all the essential nutrients we need.
2nd rule – Low-fat
Even though plant fats are healthier, it is important to keep them to a minimum. In order to reverse or improve type 2 diabetes, it is essential to reduce fat stores inside the cells and this can only happen if you avoid excessive fat consumption.
The amount of fat per serving should be three grams maximum and just 10 per cent of total calories should come from fat. As well as reducing oils, you might need to curb the amount of nuts and seeds you eat. Within the low-fat rule, the best sources of healthy omega-3 fats are ground flaxseed, chia seeds, hemp seed and walnuts (for snacking or adding to dishes) and rapeseed oil for cooking.
3rd rule – Low glycaemic index (GI)
Glycaemic index (GI) is a measure of how carbohydrates in food affect blood sugar. Carbohydrates that are digested fast and release glucose into the blood rapidly have a high GI. Carbohydrates that break down slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the bloodstream, have a low GI.
To help the body use energy effectively and prevent sugar highs and lows, it’s important to focus on slow-releasing, low GI foods. However, it’s the overall GI that counts so you can combine low and medium GI foods to achieve the desired lower GI effect.
Low GI foods include: most fruits and veg, pulses (beans, soya, lentils, chickpeas), barley, buckwheat, hummus, pasta, nuts and seeds, sweet potatoes, dried apricots and prunes, jumbo rolled oats, all-bran cereals, wholegrain pumpernickel bread, soya milk and yoghurt.
Medium GI foods include: wholemeal and rye bread, brown rice, basmati rice, corn, porridge oats, shredded wheat, muesli, pineapple, cantaloupe melon, figs, raisins, pumpkin, beans in tomato sauce.
High GI foods (to be avoided) include: potatoes, watermelon, white bread, white rice, rice cakes, cornflakes, sweet cereals, dates, sweets and sugary foods.
A vegan diet based on these principles is the healthiest possible! You’ll also need a vitamin B12 supplement, as we all do, but the requirements may be higher in diabetics taking the drug Metformin as it can reduce B12 absorption.
So, whether you’re at risk of, or have, type 2 diabetes, your diet should be based on wholegrains, pulses, soya products, vegetables, fruit and nuts and seeds. This diet does limit the types of food you can eat but it doesn’t limit the amount. Being high in fibre and digested gradually, it makes you feel full sooner and for longer and the overall calorie intake is reduced because of the minimal amount of fat it contains. Research shows that type 2 diabetics who follow this type of vegan diet get better results than any single drug can produce!
This article first appeared in the July 2019 issue of Vegan Food & Living magazine
For more information and practical guidance including recipes and menu plans, see Viva!Health’s The Big-D campaign pages:
Viva!Health is a part of the vegan charity Viva!. Veronika is a campaigner and researcher here. Viva!Health monitors scientific research linking diet to health and provides accurate information on which you can make informed choices about the food you eat. For details, visit vivahealth.org.uk