Whether or not to follow a vegetarian diet has long been a topic of discussion in the world of diabetes — and one that we first discussed here at Diabetes Flashpoints several years ago. Several studies have found a variety of benefits for people with diabetes from following a vegetarian diet, but it’s often unclear what it is about a vegetarian diet that’s beneficial. For some people, following a vegetarian diet may simply steer them away from the worst aspects of a conventional diet, like fast food and other high-fat, high-sodium, heavily processed items.
And a vegetarian diet may have genuine drawbacks for some people with diabetes. It’s more difficult (but not impossible) to follow a low-carbohydrate diet when you’re limited to vegetarian foods, since animal proteins like meat, poultry, and fish tend to be so central to this type of diet. And if you’re not willing or able to put the effort into making your diet healthy and diverse, a vegetarian diet can be downright bad, potentially filled with processed foods and high in refined carbohydrates, fat, and sodium.
So when a new study shows benefits from following a vegetarian diet for people with diabetes, it’s worth looking at the details of the diet being followed, as well as the diet it’s being compared with. One such study, published earlier this month in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, looked at 74 people with Type 2 diabetes who were randomly assigned to follow either a vegetarian diet or a standard diabetes-friendly diet. Both diets restricted total calories by about 500 calories, compared with a regular diet for adults. At the beginning of the study and after three and six months, researchers took measures of insulin sensitivity and pancreatic beta cell function, as well as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of participants’ thighs to look at changes in fat tissue.
As noted in a UPI article on the study, after six months, people on the vegetarian diet lost an average of about 14 pounds, compared with 7 pounds on the standard diet for diabetes. While both groups saw a reduction in the fat layer just below the skin, only the vegetarian group saw a reduction in the deeper fat layer, and the vegetarian group also saw a greater reduction in fat within the muscle tissue of the thigh. Lower levels of certain types of fat were correlated with a lower HbA1c level (a measure of long-term blood glucose control), lower fasting plasma glucose, and greater beta cell insulin sensitivity in all participants.
While these findings certainly point to benefits from following a vegetarian diet — which, in this study, consisted of mostly vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, nuts, and low-fat yogurt — it appears that weight loss alone may be responsible for the improvement in diabetes-related outcomes in the vegetarian group. It’s possible that a different diet that resulted in similar or greater weight loss — potentially a low-fat or low-carb diet — could lead to similar or even greater benefits.
What’s your view on vegetarian diets for diabetes — have you tried following one? Did you notice any health benefits as a result? Do you think vegetarian diets are easier or harder to follow than standard dietary recommendations for diabetes? If you restrict carbohydrates in your diet, do you think you could successfully do this on a vegetarian diet? Leave a comment below!
Want to learn more about vegetarian diets and diabetes? Read “Adopting a Vegetarian Meal Plan: An Option to Consider” and “Vegetarianism and Diabetes: Do the Two Mix?”