Tuesday Thoughts: Can Eating Plant-Based Improve Insulin Sensitivity?

I’ve officially completed Plant-Based Nutrition course, an eCornell University online program part of the T. Colin Campbell Center of Nutritional Studies!

The prevailing theme of the course is the notion that diet and lifestyle should serve as a means to prevent the conditions and diseases that plague millions of individuals.  The fundamental issue is that often people seek treatment as a reactive measure to health issues that arise instead of looking at the root cause, which is more often than not–due to a poor diet and/or unhealthy lifestyle.  This is a result of a long-standing paradigm that has only recently begun to shift as more individuals realize that the genetic component to these diseases is not quite as prevalent as once presumed, and that the development of these illnesses do have the potential to be reversed.  I want to focus specifically on how a higher carbohydrate diet may–contrary to what many assume–can actually lower blood sugar levels.

In order to prevent or treat diabetes and weight gain, a diet comprised of plant-based, quality, whole-food carbohydrates should be emphasized.  I believe the prevailing misconception that glycemic load and insulin can be managed by a very low-carb diet is an unfortunate notion that many who suffer from type 2 diabetes adhere to.  While it’s true there won’t be a rise in blood glucose if one eats a high-fat, or very low-carb ketogenic style diet, this is not a long-term or sustainable diet for most people, and it is not necessary to follow a ketogenic-style diet to see improvements in insulin sensitivity.  A Standard American Diet or a diet high in animal products and high dietary fat may cause insulin resistance which builds insidiously, and often isn’t even diagnosed until a decade thereafter.  Obese individuals have a great deal of free-fat floating in their bloodstream, which basically leads to fat toxicity in muscle cells and therefore triggers insulin resistance.  Type 2 diabetes then develops after an excess of fat is accumulated inside an individual’s organs.  Based on research cited by Dr. Michael Greger, a physician, author of How Not to Die, and creator of Nutritionfacts.org, one can manipulate their diet in order to treat and/or prevent diabetes and obesity by moving to a plant based diet, which has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.  Another physician, Dr. David Jenkins, a professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, presents interesting points about the glycemic index and glycemic load of food as it pertains to insulin response, and notes that beans (which used to be a huge dietary component in the  Chinese and Japanese diets) have a low glycemic index due to their composition of  vegetable protein, fiber, and starch.  His studies indicate that a dietary shift can result in measurable improvements in lowering cholesterol as well as regulating blood glucose, and they have been recognized as an alternative to statins–or drug therapy to treat diabetes.

Additionally, Dr. Neal Barnard, a clinical researcher, demonstrated that a 22-week study conducted on 99 obese women indicated that a low glycemic, low-fat, vegan diet that was not calorically limited resulted in a rapid decrease in blood sugar.  During this period, the women experienced a rapid drop in blood sugar, improved their LDL cholesterol, and saw gradual, sustainable weight loss.  A follow-up study conducted at 74 weeks with the same group indicated that 17 participants in the vegan group reduced their diabetes medication dosages, compared to 10 in the ADA group.  In regards to certain symptoms of type 2 diabetes, Bernard acknowledges that a longer period observational study would need to take place to evaluate additional benefits such as decreased nerve pain some patients experience, the measurable results of improved insulin sensitivity,  improvement in cholesterol levels, and weight loss are significant and  indicate that a higher carbohydrate diet with an emphasis on whole, plant-based foods is a natural way to combat symptoms of diabetes.

The only caveat to the nutritional approach to prevent or even reverse diabetes is that many people may be opposed to making a such a drastic lifestyle change and making a major dietary shift.   It’s plausible that many individuals who struggle to manage their blood sugar could benefit from a plant-based diet, and based on these studies, it’s possible that one could see measurable changes and a decrease in symptoms fairly quickly.

For additional studies conducted on vegan diets for a range of health issues, click here.

*Note:  I’m not a physician or register dietitian, nor do I claim don’t claim to be an expert on this topic.  I simply want to recount some of the points and evidence brought forward during this course specifically pertaining to type 2 diabetes.  

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A vegan traveler, food-fanatic, and fitness junkie.

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