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A Vegan Diet Could be Your Best Line Of Defence Against Diabetes

07/04/2016 10:19 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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This year's World Health Day has an extremely important theme, especially for Indians: "Beat Diabetes". According to the National Family Health Survey, there were more than 69 million registered cases of diabetes in India last year. The International Diabetes Federation expects that number to reach 123 million by 2040. These sobering figures reflect a dire need to re-examine what we put into our bodies. Fortunately, sticking to plant-based meals can prevent, manage and even reverse diabetes.

Simply put, diabetes mellitus (commonly called just "diabetes") is a chronic, lifelong condition that affects the body's ability to use the energy found in food. Normally, our bodies break down the sugars and carbohydrates we eat into a sugar molecule called glucose, which fuels the cells in our bodies. But the cells need insulin, a hormone, in the bloodstream in order to use the glucose for energy. In people with diabetes mellitus, either the body doesn't produce enough insulin or it can't use the insulin it does produce--it can also be a combination of both.

A meta-analysis of various long-term studies found that eating just three ounces of red meat a day increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 20%.

Since the cells in people with diabetes can't take in the glucose, it builds up in the bloodstream, which can damage the tiny blood vessels of the kidneys, heart, eyes and nervous system. That's why diabetes--especially if left untreated--can eventually cause heart disease, strokes, kidney disease, blindness and nerve damage in the feet.

The good news is that you can reduce your risk of diabetes--as well as your risk of cancer, heart disease, strokes and other top killers-- just by eating vegan (plant-based) foods. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recommends consuming low-fat, plant-based foods to mitigate diabetes because the saturated fat found in most animal flesh interferes with insulin's ability to move glucose into the muscle cells so that the body can use it for fuel.

Vegetarians are less likely to have diabetes compared to non-vegetarians, according to a new study out of Taiwan. Among 4,384 Buddhists, the women and men who avoided all meat products reduced their risk of diabetes by 70% and 45%, respectively. The lead author notes that the omnivorous participants consumed a predominantly plant-based diet with little meat and fish, suggesting that even modest consumption of animal flesh can increase the risk of diabetes. Other population studies have also found that as the intake of animal-derived foods increases, so does the risk of diabetes. In addition, the vegetarian group had higher intakes of fibre, folate, vegetables and whole grains, and lower intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol.

[N]early half the members of the vegan group [of a study] were able to reduce their type 2 diabetes medications after less than six months of plant-based eating.

Another meta-analysis of various long-term studies found that eating just three ounces of red meat a day increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 20%. Eggs aren't much better: doctors advise patients with diabetes to limit their total daily cholesterol intake to less than 200 milligrams, but just a single egg contains an average of 186 milligrams of cholesterol. Furthermore, eggs do not contain any dietary fibre, and more than half of their calories are from fat--a large portion of which is saturated fat. Plus, multiple studies have found that pregnant women who consume eggs have a much higher risk of developing gestational diabetes.

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By eating fewer fatty foods and reducing overall body fat, we can improve insulin's ability to do its job. A controlled study of the health benefits of eating vegan for people with type 2 diabetes found that nearly half the members of the vegan group were able to reduce their type 2 diabetes medications after less than six months of plant-based eating. The vegan group also lost an average of about 13 pounds (approximately 5.9kg), which brings up another important factor in beating diabetes: maintaining a healthy weight.

A diet of vegetables, whole grains, pulses and fruit improves blood pressure, cholesterol, bodyweight and blood sugar all at the same time--something that no single drug can do.

People who are overweight are seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, and those who are obese are 20 to 40 times more likely to develop the disease than someone with a healthy weight. Type 2 diabetes used to be called adult-onset diabetes because it was almost unheard of in children, but with the rising rates of childhood obesity, it has become more common in youngsters. According to Jagat Prakash Nadda, Union Minister of Health and Family Welfare, 29 per cent of teens between the ages of 13 and 18 were obese last year, compared with 16 per cent in 2010.

While the cause of type 1, or juvenile, diabetes has yet to be determined, several studies have implicated the consumption of cows' milk as a possible contributor. It may be that milk protein causes an autoimmune reaction in which the body mistakenly attacks its own insulin-producing cells. For this reason, among others, the American Academy of Paediatrics no longer recommends cows' milk for infants.

Choosing to eat plant-based foods--most of which are naturally low in fat and high in fibre-- instead of meat, eggs and dairy foods (which contain no fibre) is a simple and easy way to combat diabetes. A study of people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes found that those who increased their fibre intake to at least 30 grams per day for one year lost an average of 2kg and experienced lower blood pressure and reduced blood sugar levels, both of which are key to preventing diabetes.

A diet of vegetables, whole grains, pulses and fruit improves blood pressure, cholesterol, bodyweight and blood sugar all at the same time--something that no single drug can do. It's important to supplement with vitamin B12 daily and favour low-glycaemic foods to keep blood sugar stabilised. Oats, brown rice, beans, lentils, most vegetables and fruits, whole wheat pasta, peas, barley and rye are all great low-glycaemic foods that are easy to find and prepare.

Let's make a new start this World Health Day and beat diabetes by eating healthy, cruelty-free and environmentally friendly vegan foods.

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