Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus (to use its full Latin name!), is a collection of illnesses that relate to the body’s metabolism, and specifically to blood sugar levels. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that across the globe there are almost 350 million people with diabetes, though others (such as the International Diabetes Federation) put the estimate at over 450 million people.
The illness is broadly split into two branches; type 1 is an autoimmune disease that results in the pancreas not producing enough insulin to control levels of glucose in the blood; and type 2 is diagnosed when cells in the body fail to utilise insulin properly.
In this article, we will explain diabetes in more detail, looking at the differences between type 1 and type 2. We will also look into the research that has shown many people with type 2 diabetes have been able to reduce the effects of the illness or even reverse the condition completely. And, coming at the subject from a vegan point of view, we will attempt to ascertain whether following a vegan diet can help people manage diabetes, or (in the case of type 2 diabetes) whether following a vegan diet can prevent developing the illness in the first place or, if you have been diagnosed, to reverse it.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic (long-lasting) illness that is related to insulin, the hormone in the body that helps ensure blood sugar levels are not too high or too low. The NHS describes diabetes as a “lifelong condition”, and at present, this is certainly the case for people with type 1. Some people with type 2 diabetes, however, have been able to at least put their illness into remission – there has been reluctance in some quarters to suggest they have been cured completely as it is thought the illness could return in certain circumstances.
In the UK, it is estimated the something in the region of 90% of people with diabetes have type 2 and though there are almost four million people in the UK having been diagnosed with diabetes, The British Diabetic Association estimates there are around another 1 million people with type 2 diabetes who haven’t yet been diagnosed.
The numbers of people with diabetes in the UK and the world in general are on the rise. The reasons for the increasing prevalence are difficult to pin down but the International Diabetes Federation suggests a “complex interplay of socioeconomic, demographic, environmental and genetic factors” that includes things like people eating more, more people being employed in non-physical work and the amount of processed and unhealthy food people consume.
The number of people with diabetes in the UK has been rising steadily for some time, as we can see from the table below:
Number of People Diagnosed with Diabetes in the United Kingdom
|Year||No. of People Diagnosed with Diabetes|
Data taken from The British Diabetic Association (also known as Diabetes UK).
Type 1 Diabetes
If someone has type 1 diabetes it means their body (specifically their pancreas) is unable to produce sufficient levels of insulin to effectively regulate blood sugar levels. This is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s immune system acts against them – in this case, attacking the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
People with type 1 must monitor their blood sugar levels and administer insulin every day. The most common method is to inject the insulin, usually using an insulin “pen”, though insulin pumps – battery-operated devices that give regular doses of insulin – are also sometimes employed.
Living with type 1 diabetes is something of a balancing act as people with the illness must ensure as far as possible that their blood sugar levels do not stray to extremes. If the amount of sugar in the blood gets too high, hyperglycaemia occurs, which can develop within hours into the potentially life-threatening condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis whereby the body breaks down fat to a degree that acid begins to accumulate in the blood.
As the NHS information on the subject explains, hyperglycaemia can occur then someone has not injected sufficient insulin to deal with the carb content of food or drink they have consumed, or indeed if they have been unwell, stressed or haven’t been very physically active (that is they haven’t used up excess energy that might be present in the form of glucose in the blood).
Conversely, if levels of sugar in the blood get far too low (for instance, if too much insulin has been injected) then hypoglycaemia occurs. This can often be identified and self-treated by simply eating sugary foods or drinking sugary drinks, though if not resolved, severe hypoglycaemia can cause someone to go into a diabetic coma.
Type 2 Diabetes
Unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 is not that the body cannot produce (enough) insulin, but rather it cannot use the insulin it does produce in an effective way to maintain the correct blood sugar levels. Type 2 can develop in people who are overweight, undertake little physical exercise and whose diets are far from healthy, though genetic factors are also involved in many cases.
Also, unlike type 1 diabetes, type 2 is both preventable and treatable. Though many people with type 2 diabetes are given medication to help them manage the condition, research has shown that following certain strict diets and lifestyles, it is possible to reverse the illness, or at least put it into remission. According to the British Diabetic Association and the popular diabetes community platform Diabetes.co.uk, people at risk (and people in general) can significantly reduce their chances of developing type 2 diabetes by making some positive lifestyle changes:
Diabetes.co.uk suggest undertaking at least two and half hours of “moderate intensity physical activity” or one hours and 15 minutes of “high intensity exercise” each week.
2. Dietary Choices
Choosing where possible whole grain foods instead of opting for refined carbs (such as sugary foods or white pasta and bread) can be beneficial, as can reducing the consumption of saturated fat while increasing the consumption of vegetables and foods that are high in dietary fibre… incidentally, all advice that fits in very well with a vegan diet!
3. Body Weight
Related to both items above, maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI) and reducing the percentage of body fat can be very useful in preventing the development of type 2 diabetes; clearly exercising more and eating healthily will help in this regard.
If someone is found to have more glucose in the blood than is characterised as normal, but not high enough to reach the threshold to be fully diagnosed as having diabetes, they could be categorised as having “prediabetes”.
The British Diabetic Association estimates there could be around seven million people in the UK who could be classified as having prediabetes, and who are running a significant risk of developing full blown type 2 diabetes unless they make the changes advised above.
Gestational diabetes, as the name suggests, is diabetes that develops in mothers while they are pregnant, something which happens in around 16% of women. It is often the case that women who develop diabetes during pregnancy see the condition disappear a relatively short time after having the baby.
It is often discovered during the second or third trimesters of pregnancy, and it is probable that if it is discovered in the first trimester, the mother would most likely have already had diabetes and it had just not been diagnosed (in which case it would be unlikely to go away after the birth).
Health Complications of Diabetes
As well as the associated risks of hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemia that come with diabetes, there are various health complications that may develop as a result of having the illness. For instance, people with diabetes have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
Damage to the small blood vessels can also occur due to high glucose levels in the blood in many diabetics, which in turn, can lead to kidney problems and eye problems that can in some cases lead to blindness.
How Could a Vegan Diet Help People with Diabetes?
As we have discussed, being able to manage diabetes effectively relies on a person understanding the food and drink they are consuming and how it affects the levels of glucose in their blood. Rapid changes in blood sugar that can result by consuming sugary foods and beverages, and refined carbs in general make it more difficult for people with diabetes to manage their condition, especially for people with type 1 diabetes.
A Well Balanced Vegan Diet is Naturally Healthy
Because of the increase risk of cardiovascular disease and associated problems, such as strokes, it is recommended that people with diabetes (type 1 and 2) attempt to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle so such risks are not further increased.
This is very easy to do on a well-balanced vegan diet as many of the foods most vegans choose to eat are naturally healthy. Of course, there are plenty of vegan-friendly foods that are not particularly healthy, whether Vegan Chocolate or Vegan Sweets, but in general, vegan diets tend to be healthier than those containing meat and dairy foods.
Animal Products Contain Higher Saturated Fats
Meat and dairy products tend to contain higher levels of saturated fats than most plant-based foods. As such, there is an increased likelihood that people consuming animal products are more likely to be overweight and thus increase their chances of developing type 2 diabetes (see more on the health benefits of veganism).
Meat eaters are also more likely to have cardiovascular problems, which could make diabetes-induced issues in that area worse than they otherwise would have been. There are numerous robust research studies that back these claims up, including a study published in 2018 in the Journal of the American Heart Association that found that a vegan diet was potentially better at lowering “heart-damaging inflammation” than the diet that was recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA).
The British Diabetic Association
Plant-based foods – which are a large part of a vegan diet – particularly fruit, vegetables, nuts, pulses and seeds, have been shown to help in the treatment of many chronic diseases and are often associated with lower levels of Type 2 diabetes, less hypertension, lower cholesterol levels and reduced cancer rates.
Diabetes.co.uk, meanwhile, states on their website that:
Studies in the past have shown that those people who follow a low-fat vegan diet, avoiding meat and dairy, lower blood sugar levels very efficiently and lose weight. Researchers have shown that people with diabetes who eat a vegan diet also lower their cholesterol and improve kidney functioning.
Of course, many people would argue that following a balanced and well-planned diet that includes some meat and dairy would also give many of the benefits mentioned, such as maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting the chances of heart problems and so on.
But as we will discuss later in the article, there is a growing body of research that suggests a direct link between consuming meat (red meat in particular) and dairy products, and developing type 2 diabetes.
Can a Vegan Diet Cure or Prevent Diabetes?
Vegan diets – at least those that are planned reasonably well and which contain plenty of fresh vegetables, pulses, whole grains and other such vegan staples – can help people with diabetes manage their conditions and even mitigate some of the risks (for instance, by reducing the chances of developing cardiovascular issues). But could following a vegan diet actually cure diabetes?
There is currently no known cure for type 1 diabetes, and at present, anyone diagnosed with the illness will have to rely on the ongoing treatment of the condition rather than a cure, including the regular administration of insulin, usually in the form of injections.
Hope for Those with Type 2 Who Change Their Habits
It is a different story when it comes to type 2 diabetes, however. There have been various anecdotal reports of type 2 diabetes having been reversed, effectively cured, and for people who had been diagnosed with the condition to have improved their insulin sensitivity to the point at which they no longer require diabetes medication. There has also been some very solid research relating to this phenomenon.
Based predominantly on people with type 2 diabetes who are overweight, research carried out by the British Diabetic Association (which is ongoing at the time of writing) found that “almost half (45%) of those who took part in the programme were in remission [from type 2 diabetes] after a year” of following a low-calorie, diet-based, weight management programme.
The participants on this study consumed “low-calorie meal replacements of 850 calories a day, made up of four soups and shakes”, which contained the necessary nutrients. They were then encouraged to gradually introduce additional healthy foods so that once they lost weight they could maintain a lower weight.
So, while they were not given a vegan diet as such, it would be relatively easy to follow this plan using only plant-based foods (though some people might choose to add some vegan-friendly vitamins and minerals if they felt they couldn’t get them from a calorie-restricted diet such as this). But there are some good vegan-friendly meal replacement shakes available these days that could work for this purpose.
Low Glycaemic Index Vegan Foods
One of the main aspects of diets that can help people with diabetes manage their condition or those with type 2 diabetes who are looking to put it into remission, is that they tend to contain low proportions of carbohydrates. Given that carb-based foods tend to be calorie-heavy, it stands to reason that if you are following a diet that includes just 850 calories a day (as used by the research on type 2 diabetes remission) you probably don’t want to tuck into a bowl of pasta.
Foods that are low in carbs also tend not to have as rapid an effect on blood sugar levels and thus allow people with diabetes more time to monitor and balance the amount of glucose in their blood (for instance, when planning when to inject insulin and at what dosage).
Another way of assessing the suitability of foods when it comes to managing diabetes or aiming for a low-carb diet (whether vegan or not) is to look to the glycaemic index (GI) and glycaemic load (GL) of particular foods. The glycaemic index is a scale from 0 to 100 that aims to give an indication about how much a person’s blood sugar level will have risen two hours after consuming the food in question. The maximum value of 100 is assigned to pure glucose. The glycaemic load, meanwhile, attempts to build on the GI by also taking into account the size of the serving of a particular food, so some foods that have a relatively high GI could have a low GL.
As we discussed in our article on Low Carb Vegan Foods, there are plenty of vegan-friendly foods that fall into the low glycaemic index and low glycaemic load categories. Such foods – whether vegan salads, tofu, beans, most (non-starchy) vegetables, many fruits (for example, berries, apples and grapefruits), or various wholegrains – are not only good for you and can help maintain a healthy body mass index, but they are less likely to cause rapid changes to blood sugar levels, which can be problematic to people with diabetes. They are also less likely to be high in saturated fat that can have implications for cardiovascular health.
Links Between Meat, Dairy and Diabetes
There has been a growing interest in the possible links between meat and dairy consumption and (type 2) diabetes in recent years, with various research studies suggesting there is a case to answer. For instance, a 2017 study undertaken at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that “higher intake of red meat and poultry is associated with significantly increased risk of developing diabetes”.
This was a large study (of over 60,000 participants) undertaken over a five year period with follow ups for an average of 11 years after the initial data were collected. It found that red meat in particular increased the risk, with those in the highest quartile of red meat consumption seeing a 23% increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
In terms of dairy consumption, the saturated fat content (especially in full fat milk, cheese and other dairy products) could contribute towards obesity and even insulin resistance, with around 2.4g of saturated fat per 100ml of whole milk. This compares to 0.3g of saturated fat per 100ml of oat milk (Oatly Whole) or 0.1g per 100ml of almond milk (Apro Unsweetened). Many research studies over the years have shown links between the consumption of saturated fat and obesity, increases in levels of cholesterol and various cardiovascular problems.
Veganism & Diabetes: Conclusions
Many (though by no means all) plant-based foods and foods that are often viewed as vegan staples – such as beans, whole grain foods, most vegetables and pulses – are low glycaemic index or glycaemic load foods. These types of products can help people with type 1 diabetes manage their blood sugar levels effectively by reducing the likelihood of glucose spikes.
That is not to say that a healthy non-vegan diet could not be effective in that way; or indeed that non-healthy (high glycaemic index) foods that happen to be vegan friendly could not make things more challenging for someone with diabetes. But the main point here is that someone with diabetes can get all the right kinds of foods while following a vegan diet.
When it comes to type 2 diabetes, there is some evidence to suggest links between meat consumption and the development of diabetes, but there is certainly room for plenty more research to be undertaken in this area. One thing that is quite clear though, a poor diet and a lifestyle that includes little exercise is likely to lead to someone becoming overweight and thus have an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Research has showed how a low-carb, reduced calorie diet can help some people put their type 2 diabetes into remission when the people following the diet are able to lose weight (and maintain their new lower weight). Again, this is something which is not exclusive to a vegan diet, but it is certainly something that is likely to be relatively straightforward for those following a plant-based diet due to the main food types many vegans opt for anyway.
Overall, a vegan diet does not stop someone getting diabetes per se and changing to a vegan diet (in the absence of other measures such as a calorie-controlled regime) is unlikely to suddenly put someone’s diabetes into remission. But the many health benefits of a vegan diet suggest that a well-planned vegan diet can help reduce the chances of getting type 2 diabetes and help those with type 1 diabetes to manage their condition effectively. There is certainly no reason why someone with diabetes should not follow a vegan diet.