spinach salad

Beat diabetes with plants

Eating a diet high in plant-based foods was linked to a 20 percent reduced risk in developing type 2 diabetes.

Know how spinach shrinks down when you cook it? Eating a diet packed with lots of spinach and other plants may be able to shrink risk of developing diabetes, too. A recent study found that a plant-based diet may substantially lower a person's risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Past studies have linked a veggie diet with improved health, but this is the first to make distinctions between healthy plant-based diets and less healthy ones that include things like sweetened foods and beverages, according to a release about the research. The study also considered the effect of including some animal foods in the diet.

Harvard researchers followed more than 200,000 male and female health professionals across the U.S. for more than 20 years who had regularly filled out questionnaires on their diet, lifestyle, medical history and new disease diagnoses as part of three large long-term studies. They evaluated participants' diets using a plant-based diet index. Plant-derived foods got higher scores and animal-derived foods got lower scores.

A high adherence to a plant-based diet that was low in animal foods was associated with a 20 percent reduced risk of type 2 diabetes compared with a low adherence to that type of diet. Eating a healthy version of a plant-based diet was linked with a 34 percent lower diabetes risk, while a less healthy version—including foods such as refined grains, potatoes and sugar-sweetened beverages—was linked with a 16 percent increased risk.

Even modestly lowering animal food consumption—for example, from five to six servings per day to about four servings per day—was linked with lower diabetes incidence.

"This study highlights that even moderate dietary changes in the direction of a healthful plant-based diet can play a significant role in the prevention of type 2 diabetes," Ambika Satija, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Nutrition, lead author of the study, said in the release. The results have been published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

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