People with type 1 diabetes who have a higher intake of phytochemicals in their diet — beneficial chemicals found in many plant foods, especially fruits and vegetables — have a lower chance of having certain cardiovascular risk factors, according to a new study published in the journal BMC Cardiovascular Disorders.
Phytochemicals include a wide range of substances found in plants that help these plants ward off bacteria, viruses, and fungi. In human beings, different phytochemicals are believed to have different beneficial effects, which may range from being antioxidants — protecting against cell damage — to protecting against the formation of cancer-causing substances (carcinogens). A good way to get a range of phytochemicals in your diet is to eat a variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables — spanning the colors of the rainbow, as well as including very light and dark foods — in addition to whole grains and pulses (beans, peas, and lentils), according to Stanford Health Care. Phytochemicals cannot be taken as supplements — they’re only found in actual foods — and are especially abundant in apples, apricots, beans, berries, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, and celery — and that’s just A through C of the alphabet.
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Phytochemicals linked to improved health measures
For the latest study, there were 261 participants with type 1 diabetes, ages 18 to 35. They had a variety of body measurements and blood tests taken, including blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides), glucose, and antioxidants. Their food intake was measures using a detailed food frequency questionnaire, which the researchers used to estimate their intake of phytochemicals. After adjusting for factors other than diet than could affect cardiovascular risk factors, the researchers found that the top third of participants based on phytochemical intake were 88% less likely to experience hyperglycemia (high blood glucose), 81% less likely to have a low level of HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good”) cholesterol, and a stunning 98% less likely to have a high ratio of LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad”) to HDL cholesterol. There were no observed relationships between phytochemical intake and other cardiovascular risk factors.
As noted in an article on the study at Endocrinology Advisor, phytochemicals may improve blood glucose levels by changing the rate of carbohydrate metabolism, as well as by stimulating pancreatic insulin production in people without type 1 diabetes. This study appears to confirm that phytochemicals have a beneficial glucose-regulating effect even in people who don’t produce any significant amount of insulin on their own. Phytochemicals known as flavonoids are also known to help relax blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and potentially reducing the risk of developing hypertension.
Limitations of the study, the researchers wrote, include that it didn’t account for phytochemicals found in food ingredients that don’t have any energy content (calories), such as black or green tea or spices. It also didn’t account for any differences that might result from consuming certain phytochemical-rich foods rather than others, looking instead at the overall intake of phytochemicals. More studies are needed, the researchers noted, to confirm the study’s findings and gain a more detailed understanding of how phytochemicals affect glucose levels and cardiovascular risk factors.
Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Strategies for Healthy Eating,” “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” and “Top Tips for Healthier Eating.”