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Healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes

The consumption of healthy plant-based foods is associated with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes (T2D), according to a new study by experts in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The research sheds new light on the role of fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, and legumes in diabetes prevention.

“While it is difficult to tease out the contributions of individual foods because they were analyzed together as a pattern, individual metabolites from consumption of polyphenol-rich plant foods like fruits, vegetables, coffee, and legumes are all closely linked to healthy plant-based diet and lower risk of diabetes,” said Professor Frank Hu.

For the investigation, the researchers set out to identify the metabolite profiles related to various plant-based diets. They wanted to examine how specific metabolites may affect the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Since there are differences in the chemical makeup of foods, an individual’s diet is reflected in their metabolite profile. Technological advances have made it possible for experts to identify of all the different metabolites present within a biological sample by using a comprehensive analysis called metabolomics.

Type 2 diabetes is a major threat to public health. The global prevalence of the disease has more than tripled in less than two decades, reaching over 450 million cases in 2019. The burden of type 2 diabetes is increased by the numerous complications it can cause, such as kidney damage and heart disease.

Plant-based diets that are rich in high quality foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, have been known to reduce the risk of diabetes, yet the underlying mechanisms have remained unclear.

The researchers analyzed blood plasma samples and dietary intake of more then 10,000 individuals who had participated in the Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, or the Health Professionals Follow-up Study.

For the analysis, the team distinguished between healthy and unhealthy plant foods based on their association with T2D, cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and other conditions, including obesity and high blood pressure.

The study revealed that participants who were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes had a lower intake of healthy plant-based foods. They were also more likely to have high blood pressure and cholesterol levels, have a family history of diabetes, and to be less physically active.

The metabolomics data showed that plant-based diets were associated with unique metabolite profiles. These patterns varied significantly between the healthy and unhealthy plant-based diets. Overall, the metabolite profile scores for healthy plant-based diets were associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, regardless of diabetes risk factors such as weight. 

“Our findings support the beneficial role of healthy plant-based diets in diabetes prevention and provide new insights for future investigation,” said the study authors. “Our findings regarding the intermediate metabolites are at the moment intriguing but further studies are needed to confirm their causal role in the associations of plant-based diets and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.”

The study is published in the journal Diabetologia, the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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