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Plants against diabetes: Adopting a plant-based diet can slash your risk of developing metabolic diseases

Researchers have found that people who stick to plant-based diets, such as a vegetarian or a vegan diet, have a significantly lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Their study, which appeared in JAMA Internal Medicine, revealed that eating a plant-based diet is associated with a 23 percent lower risk, and that this risk is even lower for people who eat healthy plant-based products.

Study included over 300,000 participants who followed a variety of plant-based diets

According to lead author Frank Qian, who conducted his research while he was a graduate student at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: “Plant-based dietary patterns are gaining popularity in recent years, so [my colleagues and I] thought it was crucial to quantify their overall association with diabetes risk, particularly since these diets can vary substantially in terms of their food composition.”

The researchers reviewed nine different studies that looked into the association between plant-based diets and Type 2 diabetes. The latest study that they included was published on February 2019, and their meta-analysis included health data on 307,099 participants and 23,544 individual cases of Type 2 diabetes.

Qian and his colleagues evaluated the participants’ adherence to predominantly plant-based diets. These included a variety of healthy plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes and whole grains. But the researchers didn’t limit their scope to just these plant-based products. They also included “less-healthy” plant-based foods, such potatoes, sugar, white flour and even some animal products in modest amounts.

The researchers also looked at “healthful” plant-based diets, which they defined as dietary patterns that emphasize the consumption of nutritious and natural plant-based foods and the avoidance of unhealthy (processed) plant-based foods. (Related: Different paths to the same goal: Vegetarian and Mediterranean diets both proven to prevent heart disease.)

The researchers found that people who strictly followed predominantly plant-based diets were 23 percent less likely to develop Type 2 diabetes compared with those who didn’t strictly follow the same diets. This association was even stronger in those who followed “healthful” plant-based diets.

Plant-based diets linked to lower Type 2 diabetes risk, but underlying mechanism is unclear

Previous studies have suggested a link between plant-based dietary patterns and reduced Type 2 diabetes risk; however, these studies did not have sufficient data to back their claims. This study provides scientists some of the most comprehensive evidence to date of the link between reduced Type 2 diabetes risk and plant-based diets. While the mechanism behind this lowered risk isn’t entirely clear, the researchers offered several assumptions.

Qian and his colleagues believe that the association can be explained by the fact that plant-based foods are more likely to improve insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and weight gain, as well as reduce systemic inflammation. All of these factors contribute to diabetes.

The high amount of fiber in plant-based foods may also play an important role. Dietary fiber helps with weight control and has also been previously shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic conditions like diabetes.

Because of the clinical implications of their findings, Qian and his colleagues are calling for more research to better understand this association. Identifying which specific components of a healthy plant-based diet are responsible for protecting against Type 2 diabetes will considerably help lower the number of people who suffer from this chronic condition.

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