Diabetes affects around one in fifteen people in the UK — it’s a serious health condition, but it’s also one that can be controlled effectively. One way to manage diabetes is to follow a healthy active, plant-based lifestyle, according to experts.
In this guide, we’ll discuss what diabetes is, the symptoms of the condition, how it can be managed or even reversed with diet, and which plant-based foods are best for those living with diabetes.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is caused by high levels of glucose in the blood and there are two common types of the disease: type 1 and type 2.
Diabetes UK explains on its website, “when you’ve got type 1 diabetes, you can’t make any insulin at all. If you’ve got type 2 diabetes, it’s a bit different. The insulin you make either can’t work effectively, or you can’t produce enough of it.”
It continues, “In both types of diabetes, because glucose can’t get into your cells, it begins to build up in your blood. And too much glucose in your blood causes a lot of different problems.”
Type 2 diabetes is commonly brought on through lifestyle. According to Mayo Clinic, the less active a person is, the greater their risk of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is more of a mystery and in some cases, the condition could have its roots in genetics.
Mayo Clinic says, “the exact cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown. Usually, the body’s own immune system — which normally fights harmful bacteria and viruses — mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.”
What Are the Symptoms of Diabetes?
The symptoms of diabetes can vary. For those with type 1, symptoms can include excessive urination, thirst, extreme fatigue, and weight loss. “To try and get energy the body breaks down fat stores to provide fuel,” says Diabetes UK. “That’s why people often lose weight before discovering they’ve got type 1 diabetes.”
Type 2 diabetes has similar symptoms. It can also cause cuts and grazes to heal very slowly and the onset of infections like thrush.
Diabetes UK says, “a lot of people don’t get any symptoms or they don’t notice them. Some people don’t think the symptoms are important so don’t ask for help.” It adds, “this means that some people live with type 2 diabetes for up to 10 years before being diagnosed.”
Vegan Diet and Diabetes Management
After getting a diagnosis, the next thing many people with diabetes have to think about is their lifestyle and their diet.
A vegan diet, high in plant-based, whole foods, can help to manage the condition. “By eating a healthy vegan diet low in cholesterol and saturated fat, but balanced enough to include fibre and protein, blood glucose levels can be made easier to control,” says the Global Diabetes Community.
It adds, “this type of diet, particularly when combined with exercise, can help to lower blood glucose levels and better manage diabetes.”
A recent study of more than 2,000 young adults — presented at Nutrition 2019 — supports this point of view. For participants that increased the amount of fruits, vegetables, and nuts in their diet over the course of 20 years, the risk of developing type 2 diabetes was 60 percent lower than those who didn’t.
According to a study from the University of London, a plant-based diet could also help to ease symptoms of depression in type 2 diabetes patients, as well as other mental health issues.
A critical analysis of more than 400 individuals with diabetes, aged in their mid-fifties, revealed that physical and emotional quality of life improved after switching to a vegan diet.
Lead author of the study Anastasios Toumpanakis said, “we would say that people with type 2 diabetes following a plant-based diet might be happier because, as the studies suggest, the majority found that through this eating pattern they can have better control of their condition.”
Nerve pain was also less common in those following a plant-based diet, according to the study. Those who remained on a non-vegan diet reported a loss of temperature control in their feet, suggesting that plant-based foods can help to slow progressive nerve damage in diabetes sufferers.
Six out of 11 studies saw individuals significantly reduce, or completely halt, their medication when following a vegan diet.
Toumpanakis said, “If through diet they can have the power to improve their physical symptoms and their glucose levels, and reduce or even stop some of their medication, then this has a huge impact on their quality of life.”
Can a Plant-Based Diet Reverse Diabetes?
Many medical experts believe that a healthy plant-based diet can help to reverse type 2 diabetes.
In Slovakia, the Natural Food Interaction (NFI) diet — which promotes the consumption of plant-based whole foods — is undergoing trials at the National Institute for Diabetes and Endocrinology.
According to researchers, the diet — which was developed after a few years of study on the interactions of chemicals within food — can help to reverse type 2 diabetes without any need for further medical intervention. Recommended meals on the diet include Weetabix with chia seeds and almond milk and quinoa with dark green vegetables and pine nuts.
The researchers’ website says, “over a short period of time typically 12-10 weeks, the consistent repeating of the process removes the tiny lipid particles from the body and reverses type 2 diabetes. This is without any additional medical intervention and consistently reducing your current medication until you stop taking it completely.”
They aren’t alone in thinking this way. The American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM) has recommended an online program that encourages diabetes sufferers to adopt a plant-based diet to reverse the condition. And vegan Dr. Neal Barnard has released a plant-based recipe book, especially for people who want to reverse type 2 diabetes.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams claims to be a success story in terms of reversing diabetes with plant-based food.
Adams was losing his eyesight from the condition and suffering from nerve damage in his hands and his feet. He claims that although it wasn’t recommended to him by a physician at the time, he decided to take matters into his own hands and manage his condition with an active lifestyle and a healthy vegan diet.
Within three months, Adams says his diabetes diagnosis was reversed and he was able to safely stop taking his medication.
He isn’t the only one with his family who suffers from the condition, which he puts down to the kind of foods they all grew up eating — soul food like fried chicken, pork, and gravy.
He told Everyday Health, “imagine the excitement I have in watching my mother, who has been injecting herself [with insulin] since I was 2 years old, now hear me tell her that she can reverse her condition. I can’t even express the emotions that are attached to that.”
What are the Best Plant-Based Foods to Eat to Manage or Reverse Diabetes?
A vegan diet can consist of many different foods; naturally, some of these have more nutritional value than others. According to many medical experts, its plant-based whole foods, in particular, that those looking to manage or reverse their diabetes need to pay attention to.
According to Diabetes UK, these are seven of the best vegan foods to add to your diet if you suffer from the health condition.
1. Soy-Based Foods
Soy-based foods like tofu, tempeh, and soy-based dairy-free cheese — among many other ingredients — can offer the body many nutritional benefits. They are high in protein and can often be high in omega 3 too, a fatty acid that many often rely on fish for.
According to Diabetes UK, people with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing heart disease, meaning that paying attention to packing in the heart-healthy omega 3 is vital.
2. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are high in protein, and walnuts, flaxseeds, and rapeseed, in particular, are a good source of omega 3, according to Diabetes UK. Almonds are a good source of calcium too, and most varieties of nuts are a good source of iron.
3. Dark Green Vegetables
You don’t need to eat meat to get an adequate amount of iron in your diet, pack your meals with dark green veggies — like broccoli, asparagus, and arugula — which are filled with iron. Veggies like courgette and edamame beans are also packed with goodness and are sources of vitamin C.
4. Dried Fruits
Dried fruit is another source of iron and raisins and prunes are good sources of vitamin C. Diabetes UK notes, “consuming more fruit and vegetables can also help [with iron intake] as they are high in vitamin C which increases the amount of iron your body absorbs.”
5. Beans and Pulses
Protein-packed beans and pulses can be the center of many meals — Mexican dishes, Italian dishes, Indian dishes, whatever food you fancy, you can probably replace the meat with beans and pulses. Kidney beans and chickpeas, in particular, are high in calcium, which is important for keeping bones strong.
6. B12-Fortified Foods
Vegan yogurts, milk, and spreads can be fortified with B12, which is vital for maintaining a healthy blood and nervous system, says Diabetes UK. If you can’t pack in enough of B12 through food, consider taking a plant-based vitamin.
7. Dairy-Free Milk
Dairy-free milk is a good source of calcium and B12; there are a number of varieties on the market, with brands creating milk from coconuts, almonds, hemp, oats, and even macadamia nuts.