Diabetes, a chronic metabolic disease characterized by elevated blood glucose levels, has serious implications for the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys, and nerves. In the past three decades, the prevalence of type 2 diabetes, the most common form, has risen dramatically worldwide.
With 422 million people afflicted and 1.5 million deaths directly attributed to diabetes each year, this global health crisis has prompted urgent action.
How can we manage this crisis? Science continues to point to a plant-based diet, and the global medical community is taking action to make it easier to grapple with illness.
To that end, the Diabetes and Nutrition Study Group of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD) has released new recommendations emphasizing the benefits of plant-based diets in managing and preventing diabetes.
Published in the journal Diabetologia, these guidelines provide health professionals with an evidence-based approach to care.
Plant-based diets to tackle diabetes
The recommendations reflect a growing recognition of the nutritional value of plant-based diets, advising people to consume minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, vegetables, whole fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and non-hydrogenated, non-tropical vegetable oils.
Simultaneously, they stress the importance of minimizing red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and refined grains.
“Important messages are to consume minimally processed plant foods, while minimizing the consumption of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and refined grains,” the guidelines say.
Fiber, found only in plant foods, is a central focus, and those with diabetes are encouraged to consume at least 35 grams per day. This emphasis on fiber aligns with evidence showing its positive effects on blood glucose, cholesterol levels, and body weight, thus facilitating better diabetes management.
In a notable stance, the guidelines warn against very low-carbohydrate diets like ketogenic diets. These have been linked to risks such as hypoglycemia, ketoacidosis (a life-threatening diabetes complication), vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and greater mortality.
What the science says about plant-based diets
The EASD, the European equivalent of the American Diabetes Association, built its guidelines around compelling research that continue to point to a whole-food, plant-based diet as a significant tool in managing and even reversing type 2 diabetes.
One example of this research was a study published in June in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, which focused on a sample of 59 patients from a cardiac wellness program in Virginia who also had type 2 diabetes.
What happened when they switched to a plant-based diet? The patients saw improvements in blood glucose control, with 37 percent experiencing full remission of their type 2 diabetes.
The dietary pattern was rich in complex carbohydrates and low in fat, leading to significant reductions in BMI.
Unlike other studies that often rely on calorie restriction or fasting, this research emphasized daily healthy eating, making it more accessible to participants. The study also revealed a reduction in glucose-lowering medications, emphasizing diet as a primary intervention.
Furthermore, other studies have shown that processed meats, particularly those with additives like nitrates, increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, while plant-based diets minimize such risks.
The urgent need for guidelines like the ones issued by EASD is accentuated by the expected rise in diabetes cases worldwide, warns Hana Kahleova, MD, PhD, a co-author of the recommendations and the director of clinical research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
“The recommendation to consume a more plant-based diet is direly needed to avert the expected 200 million new cases of diabetes worldwide in the next 20 years,” Kahleova said in a statement.
“The clinical research I conduct consistently shows the benefits of a plant-based diet for preventing and improving diabetes,” Kahleova said.
Plant-based diets for planetary health
Beyond individual health, the EASD recommendations also consider the broader societal benefit of plant-based eating. Plant-based and minimally processed foods are noted for having the lowest environmental impact, aligning personal health with planetary well-being.
And two new studies, both published this summer, show exactly how much diet change can fight climate change.
A comprehensive analysis from the University of Oxford—considered one of the most exhaustive of its kind— found that plant-based diets can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, land use, and water pollution by 75 percent compared to high meat-consuming diets.
The research evaluated the dietary habits of over 55,000 individuals and their connection with environmental impacts, even showing that low-meat diets could reduce environmental harm by half.
In parallel, a team from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health established a link between plant-based diets and extended lifespan. Through the development of the Planetary Health Diet Index (PHDI), researchers found that adhering to a diet beneficial for both health and the environment could lower the risk of mortality by 25 percent.
Higher PHDI scores also corresponded with a decreased risk of death from specific diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and respiratory ailments.