In the last decade, reports have shown that Black Americans were nearly three times more likely to follow a vegan diet. Even as far back as 2015, a survey conducted by the Vegetarian Resource Group found that 8 percent of Black Americans reported never eating meat, fish, or poultry, compared to 3.4 percent of the overall population.

Could one of the main drivers for making this diet change be health-related? Two new studies point to the importance of nutrition when it comes to improving health for Black Americans. 

One study found that type 2 diabetes—which is known to be caused by several factors including being overweight or obese—is associated with an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer, particularly among Black Americans with low socioeconomic status.

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In the cohort study of 54,597 adults, a diabetes diagnosis was associated with a 47 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer compared with participants without a diabetes diagnosis. This association was greater for participants without recent colonoscopy screenings and participants with a more recent diabetes diagnosis.

The study identified biological mechanisms such as hyperinsulinemia and hyperglycemia as potential explanations for the observed link. 

Hyperinsulinemia, characterized by an excess of insulin in the blood due to insulin resistance, and hyperglycemia, indicating elevated blood sugar levels, were noted as significant contributors to the heightened risk of colorectal cancer in individuals with type 2 diabetes.

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The research team also underscored differences in access to healthcare and cigarette smoking as additional contributing factors. These findings expand on previous research, emphasizing the multifaceted nature of the association between type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.

Plant-based diet to prevent diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is one of the most globally challenging and prevalent metabolic disorders affecting an estimated one in 10 adults. According to the National Institutes of Health, Black American adults living in the United States are nearly twice as likely to develop type 2 diabetes as white adults.

Biological factors and lifestyle factors, including obesity, are said to play a role in this disparity.

The new study advocates for comprehensive healthcare strategies that consider biological, lifestyle, and socioeconomic factors to effectively mitigate the risks associated with these prevalent health conditions.

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Lifestyle changes, such as those related to nutrition, underpin a general approach to diabetes risk reduction and management. Current diabetes guidelines recommend dietary patterns, such as Mediterranean and vegetarian patterns. 

Previous studies have also indicated that plant-based foods have benefits for diabetes risk. 

A study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that lifestyle changes that include a whole food, plant-based diet can reverse type 2 diabetes.

“The prevalence of diabetes is growing, as is recognition in the healthcare community that diet as the primary intervention can achieve lasting remission in individuals with type 2 diabetes,” Gunadhar Panigrahi, MD, the study’s first author, said in a statement. 

Other studies have also suggested that nut consumption may have a potential role in the prevention and management of type 2 diabetes, with mechanistic studies assessing nuts and individual nut-related nutritional constituents supporting this possibility.

One study review published earlier this year in the journal Nutrients suggests that higher nut consumption may have beneficial effects on diabetes prevention and management. In particular, the review discovered that some but not all large cohort studies have found that higher consumption of total nuts, walnuts, and peanuts was significantly associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. 

Moreover, the inclusion of nuts in the diets of individuals may have a beneficial effect on glycemic control and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality in those with type 2 diabetes.

Whole grains slow memory loss

In addition to preventing and reversing diabetes, a plant-based diet has been shown to have other positive health benefits for Black Americans. In a new study published in the journal Neurology, researchers from Rush University in Chicago found that Black individuals who consume more whole grain-rich foods, including breads, cereals, quinoa, and popcorn—all of which are plant-based foods—may experience a slower rate of memory decline compared to their counterparts who consume fewer such foods.

The study, conducted over six years and involving 3,326 participants without dementia, indicates an intriguing association between a whole grain-rich diet and cognitive health.

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Xiaoran Liu, PhD, the study’s lead author, highlighted the potential implications for public health, especially in the context of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. “It’s exciting to see that people could potentially lower their risk of dementia by increasing their diet of whole grains by a couple of servings a day,” Liu said in a statement.

The study involved 60 percent Black participants and 38 percent white participants, with an average age of 75. Participants were divided into five groups based on the amount of whole grains in their diet, ranging from less than half a serving per day to 2.7 servings per day. 

Notably, a higher proportion of Black participants exceeded one serving per day of whole grains compared to their white counterparts.

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After adjusting for various factors such as age, sex, education, and smoking, researchers discovered that Black individuals with the highest whole grain intake (more than three servings a day) experienced cognitive decline at a rate of 0.2 standard deviation units per decade slower than those with the lowest intake (less than one serving per day). This decline was assessed through a global cognition score summarizing four cognitive tests.

Liu emphasized the need for more extensive studies to validate these findings and explore the potential effects of whole grains on cognition in diverse racial groups. “These results could help medical professionals make tailored diet recommendations,” he added. “More large studies are needed to validate our findings and to further investigate the effect of whole grains on cognition in different racial groups.”

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