After you have been diagnosed with heart disease or diabetes, one of the first things your doctor is likely to ask you is, “How is your diet?” Both diabetes and heart disease are preventable diseases, and managing your diet and nutrition is a major step in preventing and managing both. Let’s dive into the details of how a plant-based diet can help to prevent and/or reverse your diabetes and heart disease.
Following a plant-based diet emphasizes beans, legumes, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds while reducing or eliminating animal products. Plant-based diets are high in fiber and low in saturated fat, which can improve body weight, blood glucose levels and cholesterol levels.
Vegetarian Diets and Diabetes
According to data from the CDC, an estimated 34 million people are diagnosed with diabetes, and 88 million people are diagnosed with prediabetes. Learning that you have either condition may surprise you, but managing your blood sugar levels is very doable, especially with a well-balanced diet. Over the last twenty years, there have been numerous studies focused on managing diabetes by eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds and nuts and reducing intake of refined grains, red and processed meats. Following a plant-based lifestyle may improve glycemic control and blood lipid levels. A plant-based diet provides vitamins and minerals that help your body slow down food digestion, which also controls your body’s insulin response and blood sugar levels. Over the long term, people who have adopted plant-based diets have even reversed their type 2 diabetes.
A few simple steps to follow when planning to treat your diabetes include:
(1) Eat a plant-based diet
(2) Limit high-fat foods
(3) Frequently choose foods that are low on the glycemic index
(4) Aim to eat about 40 grams of fiber daily
Looking for more information on the glycemic index and foods to choose? This blog post explains the glycemic index and foods you’ll want to choose. If you’re feeling stuck about how to manage your condition, this article Foods to Eat with Prediabetes will help!
Vegetarian Diets and Heart Disease
Research suggests that following a plant-based diet is associated with a 40% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease . Researchers think that a vegetarian diet improves several modifiable risk factors such as visceral fat levels, blood glucose, and blood pressure. A few studies have shown that a plant based lifestyle can even reverse cardiovascular disease (link this text). Another study showed that a vegetarian diet prevented and reversed plaque build-up in the arteries. Following a well-planned plant-based diet will include a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes, which contain high amounts of vitamins and minerals.
When managing heart disease, your diet should focus on fibrous foods. Fiber’s role in the body is to help slow down digestion of fats and sugar in the blood, which results in better regulated blood sugar and improved digestion and nutrient absorption. There are two different types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber acts like a sponge and absorbs all the cholesterol in your digestive system. Insoluble fiber acts like a toothbrush and “scrubs” your digestive tract – loosening the plaque and cholesterol so it can be eliminated. Soluble fiber is found in oats, beans, lentils, vegetables, and some fruits. Insoluble fiber is similarly found in whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. The bottom line – all plants have fiber, the more fiber you can eat, the better!
When it comes down to managing diabetes or heart disease with your plant-based diet, create guidelines that are easy to follow. First, stock your fridge full of fruits and vegetables. Second, plan each meal to include protein, starchy vegetable or whole grain (peas, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, wild rice) and non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus). Third, ask for help if you get stuck!
Working with a dietitian or nutritionist will help you create a great vegetarian/vegan meal plan that will be high in fiber and rich in nutrients to help you look and feel your best.
Morgan Fereck is a Registered Dietitian at OnPoint Nutrition. Her work focuses on helping clients create healthier habits by teaching a step by step approach to improving their nutrition and lifestyle. Morgan is a vegetarian and loves finding new, healthy, and creative recipes to keep things interesting!