The Power of Plants: Reversing Diabetes with a Plant-Based Diet

Is it possible to reverse type 2 diabetes with a plant-based diet? This is our story

In the summer of 2022, shortly after returning home from a relaxing month in France, my husband was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. To say this was a shock would be an understatement. Though the illness is prevalent in both our families, I was convinced we were doing everything possible to avoid becoming part of the grim statistics of this and other lifestyle-related diseases. We cooked real food, ate seasonally with plenty of vegetables, stayed away from sugar (except for my occasional baking) and had meat and fish (organic and the best we could afford) two or three times a week max. I do, however, admit that eggs and dairy were staples in our diet. Not only did I view these foods as ‘good sources of protein’ in our vegetarian meals, but weekends usually meant a fine piece of artisanal cheese to round off our Saturday dinner and eggs for breakfast on Sunday. And yet, despite our ‘balanced’ diet, diabetes had us in its ugly grip. My husband was now one of the 1.1 million people in the Netherlands diagnosed with this devastating illness. In fact, a recent report published by the University of Maastricht warns of an impending ‘diabetes crisis,’ revealing that another 1.4 million individuals are prediabetic. Worldwide, diabetes is affecting an estimated 530 million people, and with the current obesity epidemic (even being overweight is a leading risk factor, so I dare say those numbers are higher), the future looks even more dismal. 
Diabetes complications include blindness, amputations, kidney failure and cardiovascular disease, resulting in approximately six years of reduced life expectancy. Each diagnosis can potentially place an even greater strain on our increasingly burdened healthcare systems and add to the billions of euros spent on medical costs annually. Doctors are trained to treat diabetes with medicine rather than lifestyle interventions, but by relying solely on medication, we fail to address the root cause of the illness. 

Reversing Diabetes with a Plant-Based Diet: Choosing nutrition over prescription

Notably, a study published by The Lancet Planetary Health in 2019 showed that nutrition is largely, if not entirely, missing from medical education programs, not only in the U.S. but also in Europe. The good news is that plant-based diets are particularly effective in preventing, controlling and even reversing type 2 diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity and promoting weight loss. And while plant-based diets cannot reverse type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune condition), they can significantly reduce the need for insulin. After studying the research of doctors such as T. Colin CampbellNeal Barnard and Michael Greger, we witnessed remarkable results through the power of plant-based nutrition. We both lost weight effortlessly, and my husband reversed his diabetes within two months—without the need for the rollercoaster of expensive pharmaceuticals and their long list of side effects.

The Cause

Diabetes is primarily caused by a disruption in the body’s ability to manage blood glucose levels due to insulin resistance. Normally, insulin (a hormone released by the pancreas) helps glucose enter cells to be used for energy, but in the case of insulin resistance, cells become less responsive to insulin, leaving excess glucose in the bloodstream. This leads to consistently high blood glucose levels. Notably, the main cause of insulin resistance is fat toxicity, or the excess accumulation of fats in muscle cells and the liver, which are not meant to store significant amounts of fat. Numerous research studies going as far back as the early 1900s and referenced in groundbreaking books such as T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study (one of the most comprehensive studies on nutrition, clearly showing the dangers of a diet high in animal protein and the benefits of plants), Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes and Mastering Diabetes by Cyrus Khambatta PhD and Robby Barbaro MPH, have revealed that excessive fat consumption poses a major risk factor in developing diabetes. 
By using a ‘key and lock’ analogy, we can explain this process in layman’s terms. Basically, think of insulin as the ‘key’ that allows glucose to get into the cells. With type 2 diabetes, fat (known as intramyocellular lipid, which builds up inside the cells over time) is gumming up the lock, preventing glucose from entering the cells and leaving it to circulate freely in the blood. Therefore, it makes sense that by flushing the fat out of the cells, insulin will be able to function properly again, allowing glucose to enter and stabilizing blood sugar levels. Not all fats are created equal, however. Saturated fats, found mainly in animal products, are particularly problematic because they are more likely to cause insulin resistance compared to unsaturated fats found in whole plant-based foods such as nuts, seeds, olives and avocados, as explained on (a nonprofit organization founded by Dr. Michael Greger, providing science-based evidence on the latest in nutrition research). Nevertheless, once diabetes has been diagnosed, it’s advised to keep all fats (including vegetable oils) to a minimum in order to reverse the illness.

Reversing Diabetes with a Plant-Based Diet: Low-carb is not the answer

Knowing that fat is the culprit of insulin resistance is a strong argument for why low-carb or ketogenic diets don’t work in the long run for the treatment of diabetes and may actually be “throwing fuel on the fire,” as Greger says in this eye-opening video. When you are insulin resistant, your body can’t properly handle carbs. Eat a banana, a bowl of pasta or any other carb-rich food, and insulin levels will shoot right up. While omitting these foods on a low-carb diet will obviously lower blood sugar, this approach isn’t actually treating the problem but making it worse. Why? Because, Greger notes, these diets are “confusing the symptom—high blood sugars—with the disease, which is carbohydrate intolerance.”This is also explained by Dr. Neal Barnard (president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) here.
Unfortunately, many diabetics have a misplaced fear of carbohydrates, but the truth is that once we are no longer insulin resistant, we can enjoy carbs without having to worry about our blood sugar rising. Complex carbohydrates, which are digested more slowly and do not cause the sharp spikes in blood glucose levels that simple sugars do, are found in whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables. They are essential for a healthy diet and a source of necessary nutrients and fiber, which actually help in maintaining stable blood glucose levels. Of course, beyond failing to treat diabetes, low-carb diets that are chock-full of fat and deficient in fiber have the potential to lead to a host of other illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and cancer.

Not all in the genes

And what about genetics? Are they solely to blame? Though it is believed that the primary risk factor for developing diabetes is genetic predisposition, we should not undermine the role of lifestyle choices. The proof is that while identical twins share the same genetic makeup, if one develops type 1 diabetes, the other is less than half as likely to get the disease. With type 2 diabetes, the risk is nearly 75%. The explanation can probably be found in environmental factors, as families usually have similar eating patterns and exercise habits. Interestingly, twin studies such as this one, looking at the effects of a plant-based diet vs. a ‘healthy’ omnivorous diet, have demonstrated that, in general, a plant-based diet provides a significant cardiometabolic advantage. 

Preventing & reversing diabetes with a plant-based diet

Adopting a plant-based diet not only helps in preventing, managing and even reversing type 2 diabetes, but it also improves overall health. Plant-based diets are associated with a lower body mass index (BMI), reduced inflammation and improved cholesterol levels. The principles of a plant-based diet for diabetes reversal involve focusing on consuming unprocessed plant foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds while minimizing or eliminating animal products and processed foods. 
Making the switch to plant-based cooking may seem daunting at first. As food and wine lovers, we certainly felt that way initially, but what we actually discovered along our journey is that the plant kingdom offers an incredible variety of flavors, textures and culinary possibilities that make our meals more exciting and satisfying than ever. Plant-based cookbooks offer a wealth of inspiration, but you can also boost your skills and grasp the basics of cooking without animal products by taking a course such as the Vegan Academy’s Masterclass Taste and Texture. Specifically tailored for anyone who would like to become a better vegan cook (whether beginner or advanced), the course is made up of seven lessons that cover essentials such as stocking your cupboard, the chemistry of cooking, techniques to enhance the flavor of your plant-based ingredients and much more. Included are 35 mouthwatering recipes featuring everything from a basic vegetable stock paste to cashew ‘cheese.’

No deprivation

One of the most important factors in starting and maintaining a plant-based diet is realizing that deprivation is not the name of the game. While our weekday menus consist of whole, plant-based foods, I will happily sit down to a vegan ‘steak’-frites or an aromatic daube de ‘boeuf’ come the weekend—with a good glass of red wine and perhaps a piece of artisan vegan cheese to finish. Recipes such as those found through the Vegan Academy prove that eating more plants is not only easy, but also incredibly delicious. For example, you could start your day with scrambled tofu on whole-grain toast. Lunch can be a hearty lentil soup. For dinner, enjoy a colorful traybake with seasonal vegetables. In the mood for a sweet treat? Try these delectable banana-walnut muffins. A nibble with your glass of champagne? You can’t go wrong with blini with lentil caviar. Make sure your food shopping experience is a delightful adventure filled with culinary inspiration by visiting farmers’ markets and loading up on the seasonal bounty that nature has provided. Then, head to your local supermarket for staples such as whole grains, legumes and spices. 

Reversing Diabetes with a Plant-Based Diet: Limit your fat content—and move!

If you have already been diagnosed with diabetes, it’s essential to ensure that fat content makes up no more than 15% of your total daily caloric intake. Cooking with minimal to no added fats can be achieved by using non-stick cookware, water or vegetable broth for sautéing instead of oil and opting for baking or steaming methods instead of frying. To replace fat in baking, consider using mashed bananas, applesauce or other fruit purées. The most important thing is balance. If you do make a recipe with oils for dinner, ensure that breakfast and lunch are very low in fat—and go for a walk after dinner! Integrating regular physical activity is essential for complementing dietary changes in managing blood sugar levels, as exercise helps improve insulin sensitivity and overall metabolic health. Even a post-meal walk can be particularly beneficial, as it helps stabilize blood sugar levels by enhancing glucose uptake by the muscles​. 

Knowledge is power

For those looking to learn more about the benefits of a plant-based diet, there are numerous resources available, besides the ones mentioned here already. The PLANTSTRONG podcast offers insights from experts and inspiring stories of individuals who have transformed their health through plant-based eating. On Instagram, accounts like Mastering Diabetes and Type 2 Diabetes Revolution provide daily tips, recipes and motivational content specifically focused on managing and reversing diabetes through diet. Additionally, the Forks Over Knives website and documentary provide comprehensive information on the benefits of a plant-based diet. Your journey to better health starts now. Empower yourself by challenging conventional approaches to diabetes management and taking control of your health. Explore the transformative potential of a plant-based diet. And, most importantly, embrace the hope that lifestyle-related illnesses like diabetes can be overcome without relying on medication. 

Disclaimer: This article is written based on my research and experience reversing my husband’s diabetes with a plant-based diet. I am not a medical professional, and I encourage you to read the science-based evidence and make your own informed decisions. 

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