Attitudes towards vegan or plant-based diets are changing and more people are choosing to adopt a vegan lifestyle.

Recent research has shown that a vegan diet might have health benefits for those living with diabetes and even potentially stave off type-2 diabetes in groups of people who might be at risk of developing the condition.

Vegan diet: a brief overview

A vegan or plant-based diet excludes all animal products. Instead it focuses on the use of vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, lentils, beans, fruits and nuts. A vegan diet will also usually aim to reduce the amount of refined foods being consumed.

Following a healthy vegan diet may require more planning than a traditional non-vegan diet, in order to make sure that essential nutrients are not omitted.

The evidence for a vegan diet in diabetes prevention and treatment

One study has found that participants following a vegan diet were more likely to reduce their BMI; improve their insulin sensitivity and reduce their blood sugar levels, both when eating and when fasting.

Another study has also suggested that a vegan diet may be a good way of protecting against type-2 diabetes.

There is also some evidence to suggest that the more non-vegan your diet is the more likely you are to be diabetic.

Whilst the results show some promise, the area requires more research before any changes to current guidelines can be made. Participants in one of the studies were able to prepare their own meals, therefore it is possible that deviations from the ‘prescribed’ diet could have occurred.

In order for the findings to be of greater significance the studies would need to be carried out over a longer term and use a larger population.

What are the potential benefits of following a vegan diet?

Diabetes prevention is a vital area of research. There are over four million people living with diabetes in the UK, and at the current rate this number is set to jump to over five million by 2025. According to Diabetes.co.uk, diabetes drugs currently cost the NHS over £1 billion a year; while the condition as a whole, including the treatment of complications, costs the health service nearly £14 billion per year. .

Prevention is therefore preferable over treatment. For this reason promoting vegan diets to at-risk members of the public could prove to be a cost-effective, low risk method of intervention that could also benefit the environment on a much larger scale.

On an individual level a vegan diet has the potential to be a good diet for some diabetics for the following reasons:

  • It isn’t strictly based on calories or portion sizing, which aren’t always straightforward to measure and keep track of
  • It can be an effective way of losing weight
  • It can lower cholesterol
  • It might improve kidney function

Eating low-glycemic foods, which tend to be found more often in vegan diets, has the potential to reduce insulin resistance.

If you have been diagnosed with diabetes then your doctor or specialist may wish to discuss dietary changes, so you should speak to them before you commence a vegan diet.

Is a vegan diet nutritionally sufficient?

There are certain nutritional factors that need to be thought about before commencing a vegan diet. This is true whether you have been diagnosed with diabetes or not.

Several important nutrients to be aware of when researching a vegan diet include:

  • Vitamin B12 - an essential nutrient used by the nervous system and blood cell function. If you are deficient in this vitamin you may feel easily fatigued. Whilst B12 is not found in any plant-based foods, it is possible to include it in a vegan diet through fortified foods such as cereals or non-dairy milks. It can also be taken as a supplement.
  • Calcium - used by the body to keep bones strong and help nervous system and muscle function; this nutrient is found in many dairy products. However, it is also in abundance in some leafy green vegetables, and is often found in fortified non-dairy milk alternatives such as soy and nut milks.
  • Iron - iron found in plant products (non-heme) can be more difficult for the body to absorb than the iron found in animal products (heme). However, careful consideration when planning a vegan diet can ensure that sufficient amounts are received by the body through pulses; beans; lentils; nuts and fortified cereals, especially when consumed alongside foods high in vitamin C.

Your age, the amount of physical activity you do and the presence of any other underlying health conditions, such as inherent digestive problems or inflammatory bowel disease, may also impact how you approach a vegan diet. In some of these cases your body may require more protein in order to stay healthy or your digestive system may struggle to absorb iron from non-heme sources. However, it may still be possible to follow a plant-based diet and remain healthy. If you have concerns about commencing a vegan diet you should speak to your doctor.

Choosing a vegan diet

It is important to remember that not all vegan foods are healthy. A vegan diet still needs to be well balanced and ideally well planned. Diabetes patients will still need to think about foods in terms of glucose and glycemic load. A diet that incorporates lots of carbohydrates can have a significant impact on blood sugar. Simply changing your diet to follow vegan principles does not always guarantee a healthy diet.

A plant-based diet should also incorporate physical exercise to help participants to remain healthy. If you commence a vegan diet but you struggle to maintain your energy levels to take part in your usual exercise routine, then you may need some professional input to check that you are receiving all the nutrients your body requires.

A vegan diet may work well for some people but it is possible that it might not suit everyone. Other more traditional diets used to help tackle or control diabetes include low-fat, low-carbohydrate or low-calorie. So, if you have been diagnosed with diabetes or you are in an at-risk group, then you should speak to your doctor or specialist before you make any drastic changes to your diet.