Diabetes – how to prevent and treat it with diet

| 1 March 2023
minute reading time

Diabetes affects one in 15 people in the UK – five million have been diagnosed with the disease and a further million or more have it but don’t realise it! It’s a serious condition where your blood glucose level is too high and can be caused by your body not producing sufficient insulin, or the insulin it produces is not effective, or it produces no insulin at all.

Early symptoms include urinating more frequently than usual, particularly at night, feeling thirsty, feeling more tired than usual, experiencing unexplained weight loss, genital itching or thrush, blurred vision and cuts and wounds taking longer to heal.

There are different types of diabetes but they all share one thing in common – high levels of blood sugar (glucose). In type 1 diabetes, your immune system attacks and destroys the cells that produce insulin. For type 2 diabetes, the insulin you make either doesn’t work effectively or you can’t produce enough of it. Type 2 is by far the most common and affects around 90 per cent of those with diabetes. Gestational diabetes affects some women during pregnancy and there are other rarer types of diabetes, too.


Prevent and reverse diabetes with diet and lifestyle changes

The good news is, type 2 diabetes is preventable and for those who are already affected, it can be managed and even reversed through changes in your diet and lifestyle. More and more health professionals now recommend a healthy plant-based diet and many people with type 2 diabetes have been able to reduce their medication or come off it entirely.

The hormone insulin is made by your pancreas and it allows glucose in your blood to enter your body’s cells to provide energy. When functioning properly, it should act as a key that opens the cell door to allow in glucose but with diabetes, the lock is jammed. In all types of diabetes, glucose can’t get into your cells efficiently and so builds up in your blood to a point where it can damage your heart, eyes, feet and kidneys.


Sugar is not the villain

Despite popular belief, sugar isn’t the villain. Type 2 diabetes is usually, but not always, linked to increased body weight as when your diet contains too much fat, tiny droplets of it are stored under the skin and in muscle and liver cells. When the amount of stored fat reaches a certain level, it reduces the cells’ ability to react to insulin. This is called insulin resistance – your body produces insulin, but your cells can’t react to it.

Studies show that insulin resistance in muscles and liver is strongly linked to the amount of fat they store. If you’re obese, it’s more likely your muscle and liver cells will store fat but you don’t have to be overweight for this to happen and unfortunately, the problem doesn’t always show.


Western fatty diets are the problem

Western diets, high in meat, dairy, fatty and processed foods, can cause the build-up of fat droplets within your cells. On the other hand, wholefood, plant-based diets protect against this – which is why vegans are 50 per cent less likely to develop diabetes, have more efficient blood sugar control and higher insulin sensitivity than any other dietary group.

It follows that a wholesome, low-fat vegan diet is the best way of preventing and reversing type 2 diabetes. It helps to reduce fat stores in the cells, improves blood sugar control, reduces blood cholesterol, helps to induce weight loss without restricting portion sizes, prevents kidney and nerve damage and helps to lower blood pressure. In several clinical trials, people with type 2 diabetes were prescribed a combination of diet change and mild exercise and as a result, most were able to reduce or discontinue their medication in as little as three weeks!

Plant-based wholefoods tend to contain considerably less fat than animal products – saturated fat in particular. They also contain far more fibre, which helps to regulate blood sugar, as well as many beneficial phytochemicals and complex carbohydrates, which induce positive and long-lasting metabolic changes – which are very much to your benefit.

Much of the fat in animal products is saturated and there is no requirement for any of this kind of fat in your diet. By avoiding all animal products, your fat intake will naturally drop and your cholesterol intake will be zero.

Yes, plant fats are healthier than animal fats but it’s still important to keep them to a minimum to reduce fat stores inside your cells. What we do need is some omega-3 fats, which are essential to health. The best sources for your daily dose are ground flaxseeds, chia seeds and hempseeds (1-2 tablespoons) or walnuts (about 10 halves). So don’t avoid nuts completely but be aware of how many you eat.

Protecting your kidneys is a key issue for anyone with diabetes and animal protein from meat, fish, dairy and eggs, can place an additional strain on the kidneys and may worsen any damage already caused. Animal products contain no fibre or healthy carbohydrates while plant foods, supplemented with vitamin B12, contain all the nutrients you need.


The FODMAP diet

The glycaemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly food releases its carbohydrates (sugars) into your bloodstream after you’ve eaten it. High-GI foods can cause a spike in blood sugar levels but low-GI foods release sugar more gradually. It follows that eating low-GI foods can help to keep glucose levels steady after eating so try to focus on these rather than high-GI foods.

  • Low GI foods include: most fruits and vegetables, pulses (beans, peas, lentils, chickpeas and soya), hummus, pasta, nuts and seeds, sweet potatoes, dried apricots and prunes, rolled jumbo oats, all-bran cereals and soya yoghurt.
  • Medium GI foods include: wholemeal and rye bread, crispbread, brown rice, basmati rice, quinoa, corn, porridge oats, shredded wheat, pineapple, cantaloupe melon, figs, raisins and baked beans.
  • High GI foods (avoid as much as possible) include: potatoes, rice cakes, watermelon, pumpkin (in larger amounts), parsnips, white bread, white rice, cornflakes, sweet cereals, dates and sugary foods.

What we eat has an enormous effect on our health and if we choose the right diet, it can literally save our lives. Studies show that lifestyle is one of the most important factors in the development of diabetes – and it’s never too late to change.

About the author
Dr. Justine Butler
Justine joined Viva! in 2005 after graduating from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology. After working as a campaigner, then researcher and writer, she is now Viva!’s head of research and her work focuses on animals, the environment and health. Justine’s scientific training helps her research and write both in-depth scientific reports, such as White Lies and the Meat Report, as well as easy-to-read factsheets and myth-busting articles for consumer magazines and updates on the latest research. Justine also recently wrote the Vegan for the Planet guide for Viva!’s Vegan Now campaign.

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