Can a Plant-Based Diet Play an Important Role in the Management of Type 2 Diabetes?

Updated: Feb 17




Welcome back to Stirring The Pot. Thank you for joining me.


Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is a story of statistics and of human lives. The statistics tell us that 4.8 million people in the UK are living with diabetes - 90% of those people have T2D. The human story is you. You, the individual, trying to find ways to manage your diabetes when the current treatments and diets don't seem to be keeping your weight, blood sugars and symptoms as well controlled as you'd like. If you are that frustrated person who would once again like to wake up in the morning with some energy and vigour, then please read on, as I discuss the biology of why T2D occurs, as well as how and why a low-fat whole food plant-based diet is an effective and easily doable way to manage and potentially reverse T2D and its complications.


Quick Biology Lesson


T2D is a problem of how the body handles carbohydrates. It is not a problem of carbohydrates causing T2D. Carbohydrates are found in certain foods such as bread, pasta, beans, rice, potatoes and other starchy vegetables. These carbohydrates are digested in the gut and absorbed into the blood as glucose (blood sugar). In a healthy individual, the pancreas then releases the hormone insulin into the blood which binds to most cells in the body, including muscle and liver cells, allowing this glucose to enter these cells to be used as fuel. Blood sugar levels remain steady because the blood glucose is moving into the body's cells. If you have T2D, there is too much fat in the muscle and liver cells. This fat inside these cells seems to block the ability of insulin to bring glucose into the cell. This is called 'insulin resistance'. As a result, in T2D, blood sugar levels remain high after a carbohydrate-rich meal, because there is nowhere for the blood sugar to go. Not surprisingly, you would conclude that you should limit your carbohydrates as they are making your T2D worse. The real culprit making your T2D worse is actually the high levels of saturated fat, from the animal products we eat, accumulating in cells which were never designed to store large amounts of fat. Evidence shows that dietary change can reduce the fat inside these cells.


Saturated Fat


In all large population studies, the groups of people who consume no animal products (vegans) consistently have the lowest body weights and the lowest rates of T2D. The most recent study is the EPIC-Oxford study which followed 45,314 people over 17 years. The vegans were 37% less likely to develop T2D over this time compared with the meat eaters. So why is this? Saturated fat is one of the main factors. Animal-based foods such as meat, chicken, fish, dairy and eggs are very high in saturated fats, whereas most plant-based foods are low in fat overall and especially low in saturated fat with a few exceptions (coconut oil, palm oil, avocados, nuts and seeds). There is a significant body of evidence that saturated fat is particularly prone to causing the cell changes mentioned above. Saturated fat directly interferes with the ability of insulin to bring glucose into the cell, leaving this glucose trapped in the blood.


A Plant-Based Diet


The consumption of large amounts of saturated fat perpetuates this state of insulin resistance. A whole food plant-based diet is naturally low in saturated fat. In switching from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet, your total fat consumption, but most significantly, your saturated fat consumption will decrease considerably, giving your liver and muscle cells the opportunity to recover and start to recognise insulin again. Plants also contain an abundance of fibre, vitamins and minerals which the body needs for health and energy.


A low-fat whole food plant-based diet is very easy to follow as long as you stick to the ground rules:


- leave animal-based foods out of your diet (no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs)

- keep added oils and the higher fat plant-based foods (nuts, seeds, avocadoes) to a

minimum

- aim for high fibre foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains as they

release their carbohydrates slowly and steadily into the bloodstream

- this means avoiding highly processed foods


By following these simple rules, there is no need for calorie counting; no need for hunger - eat as much as you like; and most importantly, no need for the mathematical contortions of trying to figure out how many grams of such-and-such food you're allowed. You will be surprised to find that you feel full and satisfied and your cravings for processed foods subside after about three weeks. The reward is a rapid increase in energy levels, weight loss, resolution of constipation and improvement in blood sugar control. For people with a more recent diagnosis of T2D, there is the potential to reverse their T2D on a low-fat whole food plant-based diet. For those who have had T2D for several years, this way of eating still has the potential to improve blood sugar control and improve energy levels while reducing the risk of T2D associated complications.


So How Do I Get Started?


There are several excellent resources available:


- Physicians Committee and Dr. McDougall offer a wealth of free plant-based

nutritional information and recipes for addressing T2D

- Here is an excellent Tedx Talk on T2D given by Dr. Neal Barnard


- The Mastering Diabetes website has been created by two scientists (one with a

PhD and the other a Masters in Public Health) and has a very good blog

- Simon Hill from Plant Proof does one of the best deep dives I've heard in this

podcast

- Plant-Based Health Professionals UK has started an online service for anyone

wanting one-to-one support from a plant-based health professional

- I am offering a free four-session Healthy Basics Course online for anyone

wanting to acquire the nutrition and cooking skills to make the transition to a

healthy low-fat plant-based diet

- There are also a couple of good books which are easy to read - Reversing Diabetes and Mastering Diabetes.


Wherever you find your support, I wish you well in your journey. Please feel free to leave a message or email me on info@stirringthepot.co.uk if you have any questions.


It is very important to realise that because a low-fat whole food plant-based diet is such an effective way to improve blood sugar control, lose weight and improve blood pressure, you must work with your doctor, as any medications you're on might need adjusting.


Please be aware that a plant-based diet is a very effective way to lose weight, so if you are taking medication please consult your healthcare professional as medication doses might need altering as you become lighter and healthier. Also, anyone on a purely plant-based diet requires vitamin B12 supplementation of at least 10 micrograms a day or 2000 micrograms a week (British Dietetic Association).