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Veganism is trending. In the past year, several professional athletes and celebrities have come out promoting a plant-based diet. New vegan products have emerged in restaurants and on grocery store shelves, and a peak in interest has flooded physicians' and dietitians’ offices. Now, a new study gives even more incentive to try it out.
A systematic review covering 11 clinical trials and published in the British Medical Journal compared plant-based diets with other diets in individuals in their 50s. It found a plant-based diet could potentially improve the health of the majority of individuals, especially people living with Type 2 diabetes.
Though the sample size of the studies reviewed were small, the results were impressive. Researchers learned the diet significantly improved psychological well-being, quality of life and management of Type 2 diabetes.
Additionally, markers that may predict cardiovascular disease (such as cholesterol and triglycerides) were also decreased. This was an important finding since having diabetes makes you more likely to develop heart disease.
In six of the studies reviewed, participants either cut down or completely eliminated medications for diabetes or other associated conditions, such as high blood pressure. Four of the studies compared a plant-based diet to official diabetic associations' recommended diets, and in all cases, the plant-based diet was associated with better results.
Anastasios Toumpanakis, the lead author, noted the study included controlled trials conducted in five different countries across four continents. That indicates the results can most likely be applied to other settings and individuals.
The benefits of a plant-based diet
Dr. Jeffrey Soble, associate professor of cardiology at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago (and a vegan himself) was not involved in the study but commented that this research only builds on the evidence that a primarily plant-based diet is healthy — not only for people with diabetes but for everyone.
Soble noted we're bombarded with low-carb, high-protein and high-fat diets that have very little evidence showing long-term effectiveness. Comparably, Soble noted numerous studies show the metabolic benefits of plant-based diets. Recent studies have shown plant-based diets can help to reduce the risk of obesity, certain cancers and early death.
Toumpanakis explained the diet can be consumed during all stages of life, referencing a 2016 position paper from The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that stated a vegetarian diet (defined in the paper as a diet that does not include meat, seafood or products containing those foods) is appropriate for all stages of life, including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood and athletes.
One major benefit of a vegan diet is weight loss. Toumpanakis noted that in all but one of the included studies, the people following a plant-based diet had no portion control, meaning there was no restriction in calorie intake. Despite that, people experienced weight loss, which has been shown to improve diabetes control.
How to incorporate a plant-based diet
Adapting a vegan diet is not always easy. In fact, the study showed participants struggled with starting it.
Soble stressed the ability to follow a plant-based diet is highly dependent on a few things:
- the diets of the people around you
- how available plant-based foods are
- how educated you are on vegan cooking
It's important to remember not all vegan food is healthy. After all, most candy and white bread products are vegan.
A majority of the studies in the meta-analysis were not only vegan but low-fat as well. So Soble encourages his patients to focus more on moderate amounts of olive, safflower and canola oils.
As in any healthy diet, it's crucial to decrease your consumption of white refined grains and sugar, as well as add in more fruits, vegetables, and plant-based proteins like beans and legumes.
If going completely vegan seems too difficult, Soble noted any shift away from the traditional American diet (filled with sugar, fast food and processed food) is movement in the right direction. Starting with a Mediterranean diet would be a very healthy first step, he suggested.
This study, and those that came before it, provide strong incentives to reduce animal products in the diet. Talking to your physician, dietitian or someone you know who is already on the diet may also help you in incorporating a vegan pattern into your lifestyle.
For more healthy living advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter. Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat.