Diabetes is a serious long-term condition that impacts people in many adverse ways. Diabetes-associated complications affect both quality of life and longevity. Patients experience increased risk for heart disease, stroke, kidney failure, vision loss, neuropathies with foot and limb amputations. Prevention and treatment of diabetes are more important today than ever before. During the current pandemic, we are observing increased risk for both serious complications and mortality in patients with COVID-19 who have underlying diabetes.
During recent times, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes has spiralled out of control, globally. In 2019, 463 million people were estimated to be living with diabetes according to a study on global and regional diabetes estimates released by the International Diabetes Federation. India is among the top three countries with the highest numbers of people living with diabetes – 77 million people in 2019. By 2030, this number is expected to increase to over 100 million.
Does Including Meat And Dairy In Daily Diet Affect Blood Sugar Levels?
The answer to this question is yes! Consuming too much meat and dairy can increase the risk of diabetes.
According to the World Health Organization, type 2 diabetes is largely a result of a sedentary lifestyle and excessive consumption of diets rich in animal fat and cholesterol. High consumption of red and processed meats, dairy products and sweets is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, independent of obesity, physical activity, age, or family history. This risk is further markedly increased among those with obesity, which in itself is associated with increased consumption of meat and dairy. One longitudinal study that followed the eating habits of people for 17 years established that having even one serving of meat every week increased the risk of diabetes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published another study that discussed the effect of red meat (beef, pork, mutton, veal, etc.) and dairy on insulin and glucose. The research pointed out that meat, dairy, and sugary foods, when consumed over a long duration, affect blood sugar, glucose metabolism, and accumulation of fat in the body.
Our evolutionary history shows that humans developed special mechanisms for survival particularly when food was scarce – one of them being, storing fat in their bodies. Although we live in a different world today, we continue to consume foods rich in fat, sugar, and cholesterol – foods that have been linked to increased risk of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and obesity. High levels of fat in the bloodstream can turn off genes that help the body in burning fat causing greater accumulation of fat in muscle cells. This slows down the ability of the body to burn this excess fat, while also promoting insulin resistance. One large study, referred to as the Nurses’ Health Study, demonstrated an approximately 100-fold increased risk of diabetes over 14 years in nurses with moderate obesity at baseline (BMI >35 kg/m2) compared with those with normal weight (BMI <22 kg/m2).
The distribution of excess adipose tissue is another important determinant of the risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Intra-abdominal (visceral) fat rather than subcutaneous or retroperitoneal fat appears to be critical here. The degree of insulin resistance and the incidence of type 2 diabetes are highest in those with abdominal obesity, as measured by waist circumference or waist-to-hip circumference ratio.
Processed animal meat also contains more sodium and additives such as nitrate, nitrites, and nitrosamine along with heme iron which are also associated with increased disease risk. These preservatives and additives found in processed meat can harm the insulin-producing organ, pancreas.
Processed animal meat contains more sodium and additives
Does Eating Plant-Based Diet Prevent Diabetes?
Studies have shown that people who eat a diet characterized by higher consumption of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains show a reduction in risk of diabetes. In a clinically controlled study, published by the British Diabetic Association, a calorie-restricted vegetarian diet was found to be the best option for controlling diabetes. The trial showed that a vegetarian diet in combination with exercise helped improve insulin sensitivity and increased visceral fat loss.
The benefits of a plant-based diet include promoting healthy body weight, increased fibre, and phytonutrients, and improvement of insulin resistance. Reversal of obesity decreases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and, in patients with established disease, improves glycemic control.
Here’s how to transition to a wholesome, plant-based diet:
There are plenty of ways to go plant-based. Incorporate lots of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds for a healthy plant-based diet. All these elements have been found to reduce the risk of diabetes as well as improve diabetes management.
Vegetarian diet in combination with exercise may help improve insulin sensitivity
If you’re not yet ready to transition to a completely plant-based diet:
Consider cutting down on animal products slowly. Start with reducing the frequency and quantification of meats consumed as a first step, then going vegetarian and ultimately moving to a completely plant-based by cutting out dairy and eggs from your diet.
Switch from dairy milk to non-dairy alternatives such as soy milk or almond milk. There are a lot of plant-based milk options available in the market so try these out to see which one you like best. Non-dairy cheeses can also help you satisfy your cheese craving. It’s important to give yourself enough time and to experiment with various substitutions to let the new diet grow on you.
Veg burgers and pizzas can help ease the transition when you’re cutting out meat completely from your diet. However, eat them in moderation, unless they are prepared at home using healthy whole grains, legumes and fresh veggies. It is critical to reduce added sugars, highly refined grains and processed foods in your diet. There appears to be an inverse association between whole grain consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes. As an example, among men and women participating in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the Nurses’ Health Study high brown rice intake was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, while, consumption of white rice was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
Transitioning to a low-fat, whole plant-based diet, combined with regular exercise will not only help prevent and treat diabetes but will also help in treating and reducing risk for cardiovascular diseases, obesity, hypertension, and inflammation.
In addition, plant-based diets are cost-effective, environmentally friendly and an important tool in addressing the rising cost of healthcare across the world. A plant-based diet can improve overall health, quality of life and longevity.
Dr. Uma Malhotra is an Infectious Disease Specialist based in Seattle, Washington and an expert on plant-based nutrition. Varda Mehrotra is a longtime vegan and the Executive Director of Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO).
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