17 November 2015 Five Reasons a Plant-based Diet May Help Prevent Type 2 Diabetes

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate that 86 million American adults, more than 1 out of 3, have prediabetes. Prediabetes is a condition where an individual’s blood glucose (sugar) is higher than normal, but not high enough to diagnose type 2 diabetes. Statistics show that without healthy a lifestyle, 15-30% of people with prediabetes will develop type 2 diabetes within five years. The CDC also estimates that by 2030, the number of people with type 2 diabetes will have doubled (1).

If you are looking for a practical approach that may help prevent type 2 diabetes, consider a plant-based diet. A plant-based diet is simply based on foods derived from plants (vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fruits) but with few or no animal products. You may wonder how a diet rich in carbohydrates could possible lower diabetes risk when most plant foods are rich in carbohydrates. While carbohydrates have the biggest impact on raising blood glucose, the type of vegetarian diet showing promising results for diabetes risk reduction is one that includes minimally processed, nutrient-rich, high-fiber foods.

Five reasons a plant-based diet may help prevent type 2 diabetes risk:

  1. A plant-based diet is lower in saturated fat. Saturated fat, which is primarily found in animal sources, decreases insulin sensitivity. Insulin is the hormone that carries glucose out of the blood and into the body cells. Insulin resistance is a component of type 2 diabetes. A lower saturated fat intake improves insulin function in the liver and muscle cells. An added bonus is the fact that a lower saturated fat intake also lowers heart disease and cancer risk.
  2. A plant-based diet is also lower in total fat. Less fat usually means fewer calories, which can lead to weight loss. Weight control is important for diabetes prevention. In addition, scientists think the lower fat intake may activate genes that help protect against cellular oxidation that raises diabetes risk. Think of plant foods as natural antioxidants.
  3. The higher fiber content of a plant-based diet improves satiety at meals so that fewer calories are consumed. A high fiber diet also reduces glucose absorption. Less glucose absorption means less insulin stimulation. Both are a positive for diabetes prevention.
  4. Individuals with plant-based diets have lower heme-iron levels. Heme-iron, found in red meats, is quickly absorbed and leads to higher iron stores. High iron stores are correlated with insulin resistance and diabetes. Higher iron levels are also known to increase cellular oxidative stress and damage. This leads to chronic inflammation, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
  5. Plant-based diets are often lower in calories. The calories in plant foods tend to be lower than animal foods. The lower calorie intake can lead to weight control. Eating a smaller volume of food may help conserve the pancreatic insulin response at meals. In other words, overeating calories may “poop out your pancreas” sooner than later.

Plant-based diets include a wide spectrum of eating patterns from vegan (eliminates all animal products) to semi-vegetarian (consumes dairy and/or egg and meat ? one time per month and < one time per week). Studies suggest that the protection against type 2 diabetes appears to be strongest with the vegan and lacto-ovo vegetarian (includes dairy and egg but no meat or fish) diets.

Not ready to go vegetarian? If you are at risk of type 2 diabetes, consider incorporating more plant foods and less animal foods on your plate. Perhaps try a Meatless Monday or include some vegetarian dinners in your week. For more information on a plant-based diet, go to the Vegetarian Resource Group or to The Power Plate.


  1. www.CDC.gov/diabetes/basics/prediabetes.html
  2. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/32/5/791.full
  3. http://spectrum.diabetesjournals.org/content/25/1/38.full

Brenda Braslow, MS, RD, CDE

Brenda is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Denver,

Colorado who specializes in diabetes prevention and health enhancement.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.


Diabetes/Preventing Diabetes Meal Planning & Diets/Vegetarian

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