More than 23 million Americans suffer from diabetes, and it often has devastating consequences, including blindness, birth defects, and an increased risk of death from heart disease, strokes, and kidney disease. Diabetes is one of the most common causes of death in the U.S., and experts estimate that the disease costs the American economy $174 billion a year.
While the impact of diabetes is staggering, the great news is that diabetes can largely be prevented or controlled by lifestyle changes—namely, a healthy plant-based diet and exercise. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that one of the most effective ways to prevent or treat diabetes is to consume more vegetables, beans, and whole grains while eating less animal flesh. Numerous studies have found that adopting a vegetarian diet improves diabetics’ health and reduces the risk of developing the disease in the first place!
According to a study conducted by the University of California and published by Diabetes in Control, patients with type 2 diabetes who followed a low-fat vegetarian diet lost significantly more weight than those who followed the American Diabetes Association’s guidelines. Although the patients on the vegetarian diet saw their cholesterol levels drop significantly, the patients who followed the other guidelines actually saw their cholesterol levels increase!
Several studies have found a link between the consumption of dairy products in childhood and the development of type 1 diabetes. A report by researchers at the Clinical Nutrition & Risk Factor Modification Center at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto stated that diets rich in healthy plant-based foods lead to improved glycemic control, reduced lipid levels, and reduced rates of renal disease. The researchers urged diabetics to substitute “soy or other vegetable proteins for animal protein” and predicted that vegetarianism “will produce very significant metabolic advantages for the prevention and treatment of diabetes and its complications.”
According to the American Dietetic Association, vegetarians have lower rates of diabetes (as well as lower rates of heart disease, specific types of cancer, and obesity) than meat-eaters do. Although the causes of diabetes are often complex, there is strong evidence that a vegetarian diet can help prevent and treat diabetes. The following are a few reasons why:
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
Our bodies produce all the cholesterol that we need. Additional cholesterol from food—which is found exclusively in meat, eggs, dairy products, and other animal products—along with saturated animal fats, raises our blood cholesterol to dangerous levels, which clogs our arteries. Diabetics are at a heightened risk of developing heart disease, so doctors recommend that they pay particularly close attention to their intake of saturated fat and cholesterol. Adopting a vegan diet eliminates dietary cholesterol and drastically reduces the amount of saturated fat in a person’s diet.
Any doctor will tell you that being overweight increases your risk of developing diabetes and that it’s crucial for diabetics to keep their weight in check. Vegetarians are far less likely than meat-eaters to be overweight, which is probably a large part of the reason why vegetarians are less likely to develop diabetes. In fact, vegans are nine times less likely to be obese than meat-eaters are. By slimming down on a vegetarian diet, you will look great in your bathing suit while significantly improving your health!
There are two kinds of iron in human diets: heme iron (found in animal products) and nonheme iron (found in plant foods). A study by Harvard researchers found that consuming heme iron from pig and cow flesh increased the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, which is by far the most common type of diabetes in the U.S.; the consumption of nonheme iron was not found to increase this risk.
Nutrition research strongly indicates that eating large amounts of dietary fiber dramatically reduces the risk of developing diabetes. Fiber lowers blood-glucose levels, which can improve diabetics’ health significantly. There is no dietary fiber in animal flesh, eggs, and dairy products—fiber is only found in plant foods. By going vegetarian and loading up on fiber-rich beans, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables, you’ll be making a terrific investment in your health.
The multibillion-dollar dairy industry continues to push cow’s milk on kids despite very strong evidence that dairy products can lead to a wide array of health problems, including diabetes. According to Dr. T. Colin Campbell, a nutrition researcher at Cornell University and director of the largest epidemiological study in history, “The depth and breadth of evidence now implicating cow’s milk as a cause of type 1 diabetes is overwhelming, even though the very complex mechanistic details are not yet fully understood.”
When you’re at the grocery store, look for dairy substitutes, including soy, rice, and almond milk. Silk’s cultured soy yogurt—available in delicious flavors such as Key lime and black cherry—and dairy-free frozen desserts by Tofutti and Soy Delicious are rich and creamy like the “real thing,” but they do not have any cholesterol, and they’re much lower in fat.
Preventing and Treating Diabetes
The high levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, and heme iron in animal products put people at risk of developing diabetes (or of worsening the disease if they already have it). A nutritious vegan diet built around beans, nuts, whole grains, fruit, and vegetables will give you all the healthy plant protein and iron that you need while cutting cholesterol and saturated animal fats from your diet.
Preventing the development of diabetes—and controlling diabetes in people who already have it—is complex, and some factors are still unknown.
A groundbreaking 2006 study published in the journal Diabetes Care found that 43 percent of people with type 2 diabetes who adhered to a low-fat vegan diet for 22 weeks reduced their need to take medications to manage their disease compared to only 26 percent of those who followed the diet recommended by the American Diabetes Association. One of the study’s researchers stated, “The [low-fat vegan] diet appears remarkably effective, and all the side effects are good ones—especially weight loss and lower cholesterol.”