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The best foods to eat to reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes

The findings from a recent study suggest that even a moderate increase of fruit and vegetables in your diet can help reduce your risk of Type 2 diabetes.
Nutrients found in produce have been associated with a lower risk of developing non-communicable diseases, including Type 2 diabetes.
Nutrients found in produce have been associated with a lower risk of developing non-communicable diseases, including Type 2 diabetes.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

A recent study from the British Journal of Medicine (BMJ) suggests that eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruit may reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes by up to 50%. As a large case study that spanned 16 years and focused on more than 23,000 participants with diverse eating patterns from eight European countries (Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the UK), this study was especially significant.

“The overall number of subjects make this a truly powerful investigative effort,” said Dr. Mauricio Gonzalez, an internal medicine and emergency medicine doctor based in New York City, who was not involved in the study.

What to eat for Type 2 diabetes

It’s well known that fruits and vegetables are rich sources of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. In a number of studies, such nutrients have been associated with a lower risk of developing non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes. But Gonzalez explained that while there is a body of evidence associating high intakes of fruits and vegetables with improved health, “experts have spoken against the validity of (the types of) studies that rely on questionnaires — due to recall bias,” since they can be subject to human error and provide less reliable data.

In the BMJ study, researchers analyzed serum plasma, which is believed to provide more accurate data for assessing fruit and vegetable intake. The researchers examined blood samples from study participants to create biomarker scores. Plasma vitamin C along with six single carotenoids were measured, and the findings suggested that dietary patterns abundant in fruit and veggies are inversely associated with Type 2 diabetes, meaning that as fruit and vegetable intake increases, a person’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes decreases.

Additionally, researches found beneficial outcomes specifically related to how to prevent Type 2 diabetes, even in people who previously consumed little to no vegetables or fruits. Moderate increases in fruit and vegetable intake appeared to have a protective effect.

The best diet for Type 2 diabetes spotlights veggies and fruit

Robin Foroutan, an integrative and functional dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told TODAY that for most people, nutrition-related modifications can dramatically improve Type 2 diabetes. “This study also offers hope for people at risk for — and already diagnosed with — diabetes because it demonstrates how much power is at the end of your fork,” said Foroutan.

Gonzalez explained that any intervention that might reduce the incidence of Type 2 diabetes could “contribute greatly to the overall health of the country.” The new findings, he said, “are important because they add weight to the relationship between plant-based foods and lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes.”

For people living with Type 2 diabetes, the main focus is to keep blood sugar levels stable by modifying nutrition and lifestyle behaviors. Additionally, diabetes impacts the endocrine system, so increasing your intake of antioxidants from foods, specifically ones found in fruits and vegetables, can have beneficial health outcomes.

Here are five healthful eating tips for reducing your risk of Type 2 diabetes. If you’ve already been diagnosed with the condition, these tips can help you manage it better.

1. Fill up half your plate with fruits and veggies

A good goal for each meal is to fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and — that’s around one or two servings of vegetables and fruits per meal.

2. Be mindful of how you pair protein with fats and carbs

As you prepare your meals and snacks, you can help manage blood sugars by being mindful of the proportion of lean protein (like lean meats or poultry, fish, beans or eggs), heart-healthy fats (like avocado, nuts or fatty fish) and carbohydrates (like whole grains, beans or legumes) on the plate.

  • At mealtime: Aim to have half (or up to three-quarters) of your plate as non-starchy vegetables (like leafy greens, tomatoes, broccoli, asparagus and mushrooms) and one-quarter of your plate filled with starchy foods, including starchy vegetables, beans and grains. (You can also add some fruit.) The remaining quarter should be protein.
  • For snacks: Pairing one serving of protein with one serving of starch of your choice (like peanut butter on whole grain crackers) is a good start. Pairing carbohydrates with a source of protein or plant-based fat helps to minimize blood sugar highs and lows. “Think of carbs as a balloon that’s going to raise your blood sugar — and protein as an anchor that holds that balloon steady,” said Foroutan.

3. Eat the rainbow and reduce inflammation

An increasing body of research suggests that chronic inflammation can be a major contributor to the development of chronic diseases like diabetes. The phytonutrients in fruits and veggies can protect tissues and cells from inflammation by helping to regulate immune function. “Since elevated blood sugar creates inflammation, which causes secondary complications from diabetes, you can protect yourself by eating lots of phytonutrients from brightly colored plant foods,” said Foroutan. Different colored fruits and veggies contain different phytonutrients, so eat a variety of produce.

4. Give your meals a fiber boost

Patterns of eating that are rich in dietary fiber have been associated with lower blood sugars, blood pressure and circulating lipids. Dietary fiber, which is found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and legumes helps to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, and results in more level blood sugars, which is especially important for people with Type 2 diabetes. Gonzalez recommended trying to get 8 to 10 grams of fiber at each meal. Half of a cup of cooked lentils, for example, provides about 8 grams of fiber.

5. Spread out your fruit and vegetable intake over the day

Having fruits and vegetables at each meal exposes our bodies to a range of beneficial nutrients throughout the day. Gonzalez advised being creative about adding fruits and veggies wherever you can. “My go-to breakfast is oatmeal, flaxseeds, berries and soy milk. You can also make a smoothie with the same ingredients — and add a little bit of kale to add more antioxidants and highly bioavailable calcium,” said Gonzalez.

When making a sandwich, consider swapping out half the meat or cheese and replacing it with veggies — or add veggies into a tortilla with beans for a nutrient twist. You can also add grated zucchini, carrots, onion and garlic into your store-bought tomato sauce for a veggie boost.