This month, you’d be hard-pressed not to find a colleague or friend eschewing animal products in favour of Veganuary. If you have stepped foot in a supermarket any time in the last five years, you’ll have noticed a “meat alternatives” section within the animal produce aisles. Interest in plant-based diets has boomed in the past decade for both health and environmental reasons, inspiring innovative minds to bring to the market various meat-free products.1 If you suffer from type 2 diabetes, and already contend with complex nutritional needs, veganism may seem like an even more daunting undertaking, but research suggests that a meat-free diet may provide significant benefits to managing your health.2
Though being vegan is certainly no magic cure, some studies indicate that switching from a meat-based diet to one that centres on plant-based products, can help control blood sugar levels in those at risk of, or who have type-2 diabetes.2
Diabetes is one of the top 10 leading causes of mortality in the world,3 despite being mostly preventable.4 This prevalence is set to increase with figures in the UK alone suggesting that one in ten adults may suffer from the disease by 2030.5 Given its mostly preventable nature, we’re going to dig further into the world of plant-based eating to identify the true benefits of veganism in people with diabetes.
Plant-based diets are becoming increasingly recognised as one of the healthier and more sustainable lifestyle changes that anyone can adopt.1 A vegan diet is an exclusively plant-based diet, meaning that those who strictly follow veganism abstain from the consumption and use of all animal-based products, such as: milk, eggs, meat, animal-tested beauty products, leather clothing, and packaging that uses animal produce such as gelatine capsule shells.6,7
Multiple factors have contributed to the rise in interest of plant-based diets, including8:
Obesity and diet are major risk factors for type 2 diabetes, particularly in an aging and more sedentary population.9 With diet, type 2 diabetes can be prevented, halted, and in some cases, reversed.10
Some diets, including plant-based diets, offer significant advantages in managing type 2 diabetes.9 Studies dating back to 1994 have demonstrated that changing to a diet free of animal products produced notable improvements in triglyceride, total cholesterol and fasting blood glucose levels; and even removed the need for glucose-lowering medicines in some cases.8
Vegan diets are low in fat, meaning they give the body cells that are involved in storing excess glucose a chance to breathe and function properly while maintaining high insulin sensitivity.11 In those with a healthily functioning pancreas, insulin is released as they consume anything that can raise blood glucose levels. The role of insulin is to help cells absorb the glucose out of the blood so that it may be used as a source of energy or stored to be used as energy later, while simultaneously lowering blood sugar levels.12 Regularly experiencing high blood sugar levels over months or years, can cause damage to your blood vessels, eyes, nerves, and kidneys.13
Meat and animal products contain more fat than their plant-based alternatives.14 Eating large quantities of fatty foods can decrease insulin sensitivity, meaning that the less fat you eat, the more likely you are to have better functioning insulin.15 In people with type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells become resistant to the effects of insulin regardless of whether the pancreas continues to produce insulin.12,16.
In turn, your body will be unable to move sugar out of your blood, resulting in excess glucose remaining stagnant within the blood stream. In addition, the pancreas may not be able to produce enough insulin to keep up with the body’s needs, leading to a decrease in insulin production, which is known as insulin deficiency. This combination of insulin resistance and insulin deficiency leads to high blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.12,17,18
Those who follow vegan diets that emphasise the consumption of fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and abstain from the consumption of any animal products, often have lower body weights, increased insulin sensitivity, and a reduced risk for diabetes.9,19 Where meat consumption can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes, introducing more fruit and vegetables into your diet can reduce your risk of developing the disease by 25-49%.20
However, adopting a vegan diet can be difficult. It requires a lot of self-discipline and careful planning to ensure that you:
Though most vegan foods are good for you, not all vegan foods are healthy.21 For instance, vegan junk food and desserts, which can often be made using copious amounts of salt, sugar, and fat, are not going to help you shred the pounds and will cause your blood sugar to spike.21
As a rule of thumb, regardless of the diet you wish to adopt in the New Year, opting for whole grains instead of refined products, and eating less salt, saturated fats, and sugar will help you to reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes.22 And remember, even if veganism isn’t for you, consuming even small amounts of meat, perhaps once a week, can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 29%.9
Traditionally, when we think of ‘protein’ in our diet, we tend to attribute it to meat and milk-based protein powders; so those new to the vegan diet become stumped, oblivious to the fact that the next best high-protein meal grows from the ground beneath them.
Some people may argue that we all eat way more protein than our body needs.23 We kid ourselves into thinking that we need to maintain bodybuilder-levels of protein intake to polish our high-res dad bods, and so the thought of consuming a handful of nuts, seeds, and various beans as a protein alternative becomes daunting.
The reality, however, is far from it. All of us, regardless of our dietary preferences, typically consume more than enough protein from all sorts of foods.24 The only difference is that the protein consumed in meat form can increase your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease (a common comorbidity in people with type 2 diabetes) through a variety of mechanisms.25,26,27 Instead, you could purchase plant-based meat alternatives that look and taste like meat but keep the risk of developing heart disease on the down low.20,28
Despite the benefits that plant-based alternatives provide, you need to be careful of the products you decide to supplement your diet with. Yes, plant-based meat alternatives take less of a toll on your cardiovascular health,26 but you still need to make sure that the way in which you prepare your food is healthy. There is a huge variety in the types of plant-based meat alternative products available that differ considerably in terms of ingredients and macronutrient profile.
Certain plant-based burgers, such as Tesco’s Plant Chef 2 Meat Free Beat Burgers,29 contain wheat flour, rendering them unsafe for those with gluten intolerance. They also contain palm oil, which aside from containing high amounts of saturated fat, continues to be a major driver for deforestation in tropical parts of the world.30,31 Other products, such as the Beyond Meat Plant-Based Patties, are made using ingredients that are natural, non-genetically modified, and have not directly affected animals (through testing or destruction of habitat), making them a healthier and, strictly speaking, a more vegan alternative.32
Alas, let us not forget to mention the meat-alternative-forte, which is 3D-printed meat. 3D-printed meat is a form of cultivated meat made using a 3D printer, along with a sprinkle of nutritional science and bespoke manufacturing techniques.33 One way in which 3D-printed meat can be produced is by inputting cultured animal cells into the machine which are then ‘printed’ into meat-like products.33 These meat-like products may or may not be vegan depending on the base ingredients used. For instance, 3D-printed meats using bovine cells will not be vegan (strictly speaking) despite not causing any ethical violations, whereas a 3D-printed burger made using soy and pea protein is entirely vegan.34
One printed meat brand imprinting its value on globally accredited chef Marco Pierre White is REDEFINE MEAT. Diners at Marco Pierre White’s restaurants in the UK can enjoy a realistic 3D-printed Alt-Steak made entirely out of natural ingredients that packs a nutrient-filled punch.35 With 27g of protein per serving, 3g of fat per 100g, and only 0.33g of salt per 100g, the nutritional value of this printed meat is going to be hard to contend with.36
One thing to keep in mind is that majority of plant-based meat alternatives found on supermarket shelves are processed. This means that though most ingredients used have significant nutritional value when consumed raw, the nutritional content that makes the ingredients good for you actually diminishes when processed.37 Some plant-based products also contain more sodium than the original meats. For instance, 10% beef mince has 0.4g of salt per 100g, whereas a plant-based alternative contains 2.5x the salt content.38 This inadvertently ends up exceeding salt targets and increases risk for cardiovascular diseases, particularly in those with type 2 diabetes.28,39 So, it’s worth reading that label!
We’ve compared a few of the leading meat-free meats below from around the world so you can better gauge their nutritional value40-43:
If you have type 2 diabetes or are pre-diabetic, an inherently healthier option could be to replace plant-based meat alternatives such as ‘fake’ mince with ‘meaty’ plants such as seitan, tofu, and jackfruit.44 This is because jackfruit and soy-based foods are typically lower in calories and sodium and are free from saturated fats than their processed counterparts, making them healthier to consume.44
Apart from some vegan products’ connections with the palm-oil industry, becoming vegan is considered one of the best things you can do for the planet. Human activity has pushed our planet to the limits. Meat consumption is hugely unsustainable, and leads to deforestation and climate change, as well as increasing the risks of another pandemic (and none of us want a repeat of that).45 Instead, we can opt to make the switch to a plant-based diet to help reduce the rapid depletion of Earth’s natural resources and give future generations a chance to call this planet their home.
Becoming vegan can help reduce carbon footprint — the measure of how much greenhouse gas you are responsible for producing –produced by the agricultural industry by up to 61%, greatly easing the burden of global warming on our planet.46,47
When you suffer with diabetes, what you eat is key to managing your condition and helping reduce your carbon footprint. Unfortunately, less healthy foods tend to be more convenient and less costly, making healthy diets more challenging to sustain. However, if you do decide to adopt the vegan diet to help manage your type 2 diabetes, do it mindfully.
In the same way you choose your favourite cut of meat, practice due diligence in researching the healthiest meat alternative for you. People with diabetes who are looking to implement a plant-based diet beyond January can avoid nutritional inadequacy with appropriate food choices. So, if you’re going vegan to help you in managing your type 2 diabetes, don’t deep fry your mushroom burger in fat or smother your not-a-cheese-toastie in sugar-laden ketchup, you’ll undo all that hard work!