Type 2 Diabetes: Separating Facts from Fiction
Diabetes is the fastest growing health condition in New Zealand, fueled in part by one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. More than five percent of the population are living with known type 2 diabetes (the most common type of diabetes), while many more suffer from pre-diabetes or remain undiagnosed.
It is predicted that within the next 20 years, the number of people with type 2 diabetes will increase by 70-90 percent. People of Māori, Pacific and South-Asian ethnicity, and people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, are said to be the most vulnerable to this diagnosis.
The good news is type 2 diabetes can be preventable by adopting better eating habits. For those who are overweight or obese, weight loss alone has the potential to induce remission.
Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, the confusion is rife, especially when it comes down to our diet choices, and level of consumption in sugar and carbohydrates.
Isn’t it sugar that causes type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is caused by the cells of the body becoming ‘resistant’ to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that helps move glucose, or ‘blood sugar’, to cells for energy or to be stored for later use. In people with type 2 diabetes, cells are resistant to insulin. As a result of this resistance, sugar then begins to accumulate in the blood.
Because type 2 diabetes is linked to high levels of sugar in the blood, it may seem logical that eating sugar is the cause of the disease. Contrary to popular belief, it is not sugar that causes insulin resistance, but rather the consumption of excess fat in meals and the subsequent extra fat stored within cells. This can over time progress from insulin resistance to type 2 diabetes.
As one’s body weight increases, so too does the risk of this disease. Being overweight means there is a higher level of fat stored within cells, which can impact how well insulin works. The pancreas, responsible for producing insulin, will initially increase production of insulin to compensate. Eventually, it cannot keep up and is pushed beyond its capacity, causing damage. Compounding the problem even further, the overloaded fat cells release inflammatory molecules that can be harmful to the pancreas.
How about cutting out the ‘carbs’?
A common myth linking carbohydrates to type 2 diabetes has led to increased popularity of low carb and ketogenic diets, where all carbohydrate intake is kept to a minimum.
In actual fact it isn’t the amount of carbohydrates you consume that result in type 2 diabetes, but rather the type of carbohydrates you consume. Complex, unrefined carbohydrates found in plant-based foods are full of fibre and nutrients that can actually lower blood sugar levels and improve type 2 diabetes.
While short-term use of low carb diets may lead to weight loss and subsequent improvement in glucose control, real lasting impact lies in both the reduction of our energy intake and the reduction in weight loss. Anything that causes weight loss via simple calorie restriction, even interventions as dramatic as chemotherapy or bariatric surgery, will improve glucose control and insulin sensitivity.
Playing the long game
Low carb and ketogenic diets might deliver a quick fix to control type 2 diabetes but there are much more serious long-term risks.
The most common underlying causes of death for people with type 2 diabetes are heart disease, cancer, and stroke. It is well-established that diets low in fibre and high in saturated fat are associated with an increased risk for these diseases.
Weight-loss may be your first goal to set you on the path to managing type 2 diabetes but a healthy diet over the long-term is critical to avoid exacerbating other diabetes-related health problems. A healthy whole food plant-based diet will deliver weight loss and prevent the future complications of type 2 diabetes.
Whole foods deliver the whole package
Evidence consistently shows that those following plant-based diets have lower body mass index and reduced waist circumference. There is no need to restrict how much you eat.
The fact that common biological processes underpin virtually all chronic diseases means that with a whole food, plant-based way of eating, you are not just reducing one risk factor, but having an influence on them all.
A healthy plant-based diet that is low in fat and full of wholefoods, can provide you with a fibre intake that exceeds daily recommendations. This high fibre intake not only assists with weight management but also better blood glucose control.
Remember, we need to look at the whole package – the fibre, vitamins, and minerals. Removing beneficial carbs and replacing them with high fat foods is not the solution to avoiding or reversing type 2 diabetes. Take the long-term whole food plant-based approach, not a short-term diet. By taking the long-term approach towards a plant-based, wholefood diet, you can significantly minimize your risk and improve your health for the better.
Doctor Angela Genoni is the Nutrition and Research Development Lead at Doctors For Nutrition, an organisation growing awareness about the benefits of whole food plant-based nutrition among healthcare professionals, the general public and health-related institutions. Visit doctorsfornutrition.org for more info and resources.
- Aotearoa Vegan and Plant Based Living Magazine
The articles we present in our magazine and blog have been written by many authors and are are not necessarily the views and policies of the Vegan Society.
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