Plant-Based Diets Rich in Whole Carbohydrates Might Be Good for People with Diabetes

For many people with diabetes, the idea of a diet rich in carbohydrates goes against everything they’ve been taught about how to manage their condition. However, the results of two new case studies suggest that high-carbohydrate plant-based diets that are centered around whole foods may actually improve insulin sensitivity and be beneficial to people with diabetes.

The case studies were published by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in the Journal of Diabetes & Metabolism. Both of the studies tracked people with type 1 diabetes who elected to follow a plant-based diet high in whole-food carbohydrates. These diets included large amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Before, during, and after the diet change, each person’s care team measured their blood sugar control, heart disease risk factors, and other health measurements to see how well their high-carb diets performed.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Елена Дзюба

The first case study followed a female patient diagnosed in 2018. With a starting A1c of 8.7 percent, she originally started a low-carb high-fat diet, which stabilized her blood sugar, but her cholesterol increased and she required an increased amount of insulin per gram of carbohydrates. After she began eating a plant-based diet and cut out dairy products, eggs, and meat, her cholesterol decreased to below its original level, her A1c dropped to 5.4 percent, and she was able to decrease her insulin dosage.

In the second case study, a 42-year-old man who had been diagnosed with diabetes at age 25 eliminated animal products from his diet and focused on whole foods and plants, increasing his carbohydrate intake from 150 to 400-450 grams per day. His new diet resulted in weight loss, a decreased need for insulin, and a reduced A1c (from 6.2 percent down to 5.5-5.8 percent).

Photo: Adobe Stock/Montri

“This study challenges the misconception that carbs are the enemy when it comes to diabetes,” says study author Hana Kahleova, MD, PhD, director of clinical research at the Physicians Committee. “The patient in this case study experienced the opposite: Adding more healthful carbohydrates to her diet stabilized her glycemic control, reduced her insulin needs, and boosted her overall health.”

These case studies, along with a previous small 10-person study, suggest that a diet high in whole-food carbohydrates and fiber may be beneficial to people with diabetes, particularly type 1 diabetes. However, randomized clinical trials will be needed to corroborate these results and determine whether they can be generalized to fit the rest of the population.

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Other studies have shown that low-fat plant-based diets are helpful for people with type 2 diabetes and that vegetarian diets can cut a person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes in half. Now it seems that plant-based diets are good for both main types of diabetes, not just for people with type 2 or at risk of type 2.

“Decades of research has proven that a plant-based diet can be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes. Now, these groundbreaking case studies are offering hope that the same may be true for those with type 1 diabetes,” adds Dr. Kahleova.

Please remember to consult your doctor before making significant changes to your diet and exercise routine, as not every lifestyle change is safe for every individual.

Elizabeth Nelson

Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?

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