While lifestyle changes are the foundation of treating and managing Type 2 diabetes, whole-food plant-based diets are now being recognized to significantly improve symptoms and quality of life. So is a plant-based diet for diabetes a good idea? Let’s unpack it.
What is a plant-based diet and why choose it?
A plant-based diet is any diet that focuses around foods derived from plant sources. This can include fruit, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and meat substitutes such as soy products.
A plant-based diet is low in fat, allowing insulin to function optimally. A 2003 study on people living with Type 2 diabetes by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine determined that a plant-based diet controlled blood sugar three times more effectively than a traditional diabetes diet that limited calories and carbohydrates. Within weeks on a plant-based diet, participants saw dramatic health improvements. They lost weight, insulin sensitivity improved, and HbA1c levels. At the same time, plant-based eating is delicious and can provide a healthier and more varied diet.
Dr Nanine Wyma, Managing Director of the local chapter of the Physicians Association for Nutrition (PAN South Africa), feels that there has never been a more crucial time to find practical solutions for lifestyle conditions like Type 2 diabetes.
“Most of the research demonstrating plant-based diets as effective in the management, and some cases reversal, of Type 2 diabetes is happening in the global north. At PAN South Africa, we aim to translate this into a South African context, which can be adopted by health professionals in our country.”Dr Nanine Wyma
A plant-based diet for diabetes
In April 2021, Ubuntu Wellness, a Cape Town-based health centre and spa, implemented
the Ubuntu Diabetes Reversal Challenge programme. They have been supporting patients
with a 21-day diabetes reversal program – the first of its kind in South Africa. Among the
participants was the premier of the Western Cape, Alan Winde.
What about the carb content of a plant-based diet?
When asked if concerns about the carbohydrate content of fruits, starchy vegetables and
legumes for people with diabetes are justified, Kotlowitz disagreed.
“Some of the healthiest foods in the world [like] legumes, fruits and starchy vegetables are high in carbohydrates. Eating more of these foods have been shown to lower the risk for Type 2 diabetes.
None of these foods cause lasting blood sugar spikes in people living with Type 2 diabetes. They definitely shouldn’t be avoided as they have so many health benefits and add so many essential nutrients to the diet. Legumes, despite being high in carbohydrates, have been found to improve blood glucose control after meals and at subsequent meals due to their high resistant starch content.”
Kotlowitz recommends that any person living with diabetes and wanting to try a whole food plant-based diet must first understand how to eat a balanced plant-based diet and meet their various nutrition needs. The best way to do this is by making an appointment with a dietician.
What about a plant-based diet for Type 1 diabetes?
But what if you’re living with insulin-dependent diabetes, like Type 1? Well since there’s no known cure for autoimmune diabetes, and eating a plant-based diet can’t replace insulin injections and frequent blood glucose monitoring, what’s the point of changing your diet at all?
According to a study published on Mastering Diabetes, you have plenty to benefit by switching to a plant-based diet. Not only will you have a significant boost in insulin sensitivity but your blood glucose levels will become more predictable. You can take a look at our interview with Cyrus Khambatta from Mastering Diabetes here to find out more.
Find out more about a plant-based diet for diabetes
For anyone wanting to follow a whole food plant-based lifestyle, sign up for ProVeg South Africa’s Veggie Challenge: a 30-day email campaign that will give you all the information and recipes you need to reduce your meat intake. Try vegetarian or go fully vegan for a whole month! Pick your challenge and sign up for free at www.proveg.com/za
Dr Neal Barnard’s Cookbook for Reversing Diabetes outlines a groundbreaking dietary approach to preventing, controlling, and even reversing Type 2 diabetes.
What to read next?
Delicious Diabetes Cookbook: Download this free cookbook with recipes for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.
The low carb diabetic pantry: We asked a dietician how to stock your kitchen for low carb cooking – here’s what she said.
How to reverse Type 2 diabetes: There is a ‘recipe’ for how to reverse Type 2 diabetes, and we’ve outlined it step-by-step here.
Could a low-fat plant-based diet help diabetes control? We speak to Cyrus Khambatta from Mastering Diabetes to find out.