The potential benefits of eating a plant-based diet have expanded once again. A new paper concludes that, for people with diabetes, cutting out animal products improves glucose control and well-being in addition to boosting weight loss.
Over recent years, vegetarianism and veganism have steadily moved from the fringe to the mainstream.
With many hailing it as a more healthful option, researchers seem to be adding to the evidence in favor of a plant-based diet on a weekly basis.
The most recent study to scrutinize the effects of a reduced meat intake considered its impact on people with diabetes.
Specifically, the scientists wanted to understand whether reducing animal-based food intake could help improve both glucose control and overall psychological well-being. To investigate this, they reanalyzed and combined data from existing studies.
Diabetes needs no introduction. In the United States, it affects an estimated 9.4 percent of the population, with almost 15 percent of the adults in some states having a diabetes diagnosis.
It is possible to moderate the negative impact of type 2 diabetes with medication and lifestyle changes, but, without proper control, there can be severe consequences. For example, diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, nephropathy (kidney damage), and vision loss.
Aside from the physical impact of diabetes, it can have substantial psychological effects, too. People with diabetes often report lower levels of psychological well-being. The risk of depression among people with type 2 diabetes is almost twice as high as that of the general population.
The psychological aspects of diabetes can create a negative spiral, as depression makes it more difficult for people to eat healthfully, exercise regularly, and follow medication routines. This causes stress, which can make depression worse.
With these findings in mind, the authors delved into existing research that looked at how diet influences psychological well-being in these individuals.
There is scientific evidence that eating large quantities of red meat increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Similarly, research has shown that a diet that is rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds but low in animal products can reduce the risk of developing this disease.
Consequently, experts now consider a plant-based diet to be the best option for both preventing and controlling diabetes.
In 2018, the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American College of Endocrinology released new guidelines. They write that people with diabetes "should strive to attain and maintain an optimal weight through a primarily plant-based meal plan."
Although the links between a plant-based diet and the physical impact of diabetes are fairly well-documented, fewer studies record the psychological effects of these dietary changes.
To this end, the researchers carried out a review. In total, they found 11 relevant randomized control trials with a total of 433 participants. The results of their meta-analysis featured recently in the journal BMJ.
The analysis showed that individuals who ate a plant-based or vegan diet experienced significant improvements in their physical and emotional health. Individuals who had depressive symptoms also noted improvements.
Specifically, nerve pain (neuropathy) relating to diabetes improved more in the plant-based groups than in the other experimental groups. Also, fasting glucose levels fell more sharply, which is a sign of improved glucose control.
Similarly, levels of HbA1c — a marker of average blood glucose over recent weeks or months — also dropped for these individuals.
Weight loss improved in the participants who reduced their intake of animal products; in fact, they lost almost twice the amount of weight. Additionally, levels of fat in the blood dropped more quickly in the groups who ate a plant-based or vegan diet.
Fat in the blood and carrying excess weight are both risk factors for cardiovascular disease, so this is an important finding. The authors conclude:
"Plant-based diets accompanied by educational interventions can significantly improve psychological health, quality of life, HbA1c levels, and weight, and therefore the management of diabetes."
In six of the studies that the researchers analyzed, individuals who followed the plant-based or vegan diets were able to either stop taking or reduce their medication for diabetes or blood pressure.
These findings support earlier claims of the physical benefits of plant-based diets. However, when it comes to psychological factors, cumulative evidence is, to date, rather scant. This study adds to the existing body of research, but, as the authors note, "The included studies had rather small sample sizes." More work will be necessary.
Research has already shown that limiting meat intake can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and give people who have diabetes more control over their blood sugar levels. Now, it seems that it might also assist with the psychological aspects of the disease.
Moving toward a more plant-based diet is a simple and cost-effective intervention. If it has a significant impact on both the physical and emotional health of individuals with diabetes, it is an intervention worth investigating thoroughly.
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