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How Plant-Based Diets Can Help Reverse Diabetes – November is American Diabetes Month

One in 10 Americans has diabetes, and 95% of them have Type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body’s ability to regulate and use glucose, or blood sugar, as fuel is impaired. The pancreas produces less insulin, the hormone that helps cells process sugar from blood, and cells become insulin-resistant and begin to take in less sugar. This results in higher levels of blood sugar in the body, which can lead to numerous health complications over time.

The diet of many Americans includes fast food, processed meats, highly refined grains and sugar-sweetened beverages. When combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, this calorie-dense diet can lead to weight gain and insulin resistance – some of the many contributing risk factors for diabetes.

Left unchecked, diabetes can contribute to an increased risk of heart disease, nerve damage, limb amputations, kidney disease and eye damage. But there’s good news: Type 2 diabetes can be reversed.

Impact of a Plant-Based Diet

There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests a plant-based diet can help individuals prevent, manage and reverse some of the health effects of Type 2 diabetes. Experts believe this is due in part to replacing saturated fat found in animal products with unsaturated fat, which could make the body more sensitive to insulin. Eating more fiber-rich produce increases fullness and helps with weight loss, which improves diabetes outcomes. As plants are minimally processed and contain antioxidants, they can also reduce inflammation.

Lifestyle changes including adding more activity into daily routines are also important, and providers may also recommend medication. Individuals should talk to a doctor before making any significant changes to their diet and exercise regimen.

Recently, researchers proposed a definition for remission for Type 2 diabetes. Patients who maintain an HbA1C lower than 6.5% for three months after finishing glucose-lowering pharmacotherapy could be considered in remission, according to the researchers. HbA1C levels are monitored through a blood test that indicates average blood sugar for the past two to three months. Levels between 5.7% and less than 6.5% are considered prediabetic, and levels of 6.5% and higher are in the diabetes range.

Elements of a Plant-Based Diet

Plant-based diets encourage eating the following:

  • Fruits
  • Legumes
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains

As the name suggests, plant-based diets discourage eating most or all animal products – which include red meat, fish, poultry and dairy. Switching to a plant-based diet doesn’t mean never eating cheese again; rather, it means most of the food an individual consumes in a day comes from plant sources. Popular plant-based diets include the Mediterranean diet and vegetarian diets.

Ways to Get Started

Switching to a plant-based diet may seem intimidating, especially if an individual is not comfortable in the kitchen and relies heavily on prepared foods. There are ways to make small changes at every meal that can have a big impact on an individual’s health over time. Staying consistent with diet and activity will yield results over the long term.

Here are some ideas for how to incorporate more elements of a plant-based diet into meals:

  • Start with one. Go meatless for one dinner a week, or one meal a day. Starting small will begin to help reframe the mindset around including meat and animal products.
  • Eat the rainbow. Incorporate a wide variety of vegetables and fruits – and the more colorful, the better. Aim to fill half of your plate at dinner time with vegetables. Not only will this help with feelings of satiety, but there are also loads of nutritional benefits in each colorful vegetable.
  • Cut it in half. Meat doesn’t have to leave the meal entirely but eating a smaller portion of meat is a good place to start. Make meat a side dish, rather than the main course, of the meal.  

The Importance of Screenings

For individuals who are diabetic or are considered prediabetic, screenings are an important tool for health care providers. Screenings can include the following:

  • HbA1C test: This blood test measures average blood sugar levels for the past two to three months. A higher A1C level means a higher risk of diabetes complications. Providers may request this test several times per year to monitor an individual’s condition, depending on their needs.
  • Retinal exam: Diabetes can damage the blood vessels in the eyes. This can be discovered through a regular eye exam with an eye doctor. Eye doctors have specific equipment that can scan the retina for damage, and search for other warning signs of diabetes-related damage including glaucoma. Often, individuals won’t notice changes with their eyes until the damage becomes severe.

These tests provide valuable information to providers and allow them to see how an individual’s diabetes is changing. They can show if lifestyle changes like a plant-based diet or increased exercise are making a difference in the individual’s condition, or if the condition is progressing and causing further health complications.

Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more information about ways to eat healthy and get active, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.