It’s surprising, but vegans are 62% less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than meat-eaters. Registered dietitian Mayuri Bhawan explains…

It’s human nature to believe that you’re the exception – that something bad won’t happen to you. Like diabetes. Unfortunately, this chronic condition is on the rise, especially in South Africa.

Last year there were over 1,82 million cases of diabetes in South African adults. That’s 5,4% of the country’s adult population. Right now, 16 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa live with diabetes. By 2045, that figure is expected to jump to 41 million.

November is National Diabetes Month, which means that it’s an excellent opportunity to look at the disease, its symptoms, and the small changes you can make to your lifestyle to reduce your – and your loved ones’ – chances of developing the condition. These changes may be as simple as eating less meat and instead substituting plant-based alternatives.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a chronic condition that occurs when the pancreas is no longer able to produce the hormone insulin, or when the body can’t properly use the insulin it produces. This matters because insulin is essentially a key that unlocks our body’s ability to transport and convert glucose – our primary energy source, gained from eating carbohydrate starches and sugars – from the bloodstream to our muscles and organs.

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Without insulin though, cells can’t use the glucose, and raised glucose levels in the blood (known as hyperglycaemia) can cause all kinds of damage over the long term, affecting blood vessels, nerves and organs.

Symptoms of diabetes include frequent urination (especially at night), extreme thirst, increased hunger, unexplained weight loss, tiredness and loss of concentration, blurred vision and slow healing of wounds and bruises.

Type 1 diabetes

There are two major types of diabetes. Type 1 occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the cells that produce insulin. This type of diabetes is most often seen in children and young adults and requires daily insulin injections to offset the blood glucose build-up.

Type 2 diabetes

Far more common than Type 1, Type 2 diabetes is when the body becomes resistant to the insulin it produces, or simply no longer produces enough. Type 2 is often, but not always, associated with being overweight or obese, and is typically seen in adults. Family history of the disease may also increase your risk of developing the condition.

Type 2 diabetes is also linked to poor lifestyle choices, which are all-too-easy to make given our increasingly sedentary and convenience-driven urban lives. Regularly grabbing a high-calorie takeaway via the drive-through on the way home, or indulging in a whole box of doughnuts, is not only a risk to your waistline – it’s driving up South Africa’s rate of diabetes too.

How to avoid Type 2 diabetes

Because of its behavioural associations, there are steps you can take to avoid Type 2 diabetes. This applies even if you’ve been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, where your blood glucose levels are high and you’re experiencing some form of insulin resistance, but you don’t yet have Type 2 diabetes.

The American Diabetes Association recommends the following changes to safeguard your health, even if you’re pre-diabetic.

  1. Maintain a healthy weight

Losing just 5-10% of your body weight can slow or even reverse pre-diabetes.

If that sounds overwhelming, remember to take it one step at a time. Make small changes to your diet and level of physical activity, and set realistic goals over time.

  1. Get physical

It is advised to have at least 2,5 hours of light aerobic activity every week, which translates into a brisk 30-minute walk five days out of seven. If you can only get 10 minutes at a time, that still adds up.

  1. Make healthy food choices

First, adjust your portion sizes. It’s an effective way to manage body weight and blood glucose levels.

Second, reconsider what you’re eating. Unsurprisingly, you’re advised to reduce your intake of all sugars (table sugar, honey, sweetened beverages, fruit juices, sweets, desserts and baked goods) and when it comes to starches, stick to wholegrain options as their fibre content improves glycaemic control and leaves you feeling fuller for longer.

Time to go veg – or flexitarian at least?

Another adjustment you can make to your diet to help avoid diabetes is to consume less meat and more plant-based forms of protein instead.

Researchers behind the Adventist Health Study-2 found that meat eaters had more than twice the prevalence of diabetes compared with lacto-ovo-vegetarians and vegans – even after correcting for Body Mass Index. Factoring in BMI, age and other influencing elements, vegans were still 62% less likely to develop diabetes than meat-eaters, while lacto- ovo-vegetarians were 38% less likely.

This is linked to heart disease and the higher fasting glucose levels which can lead to diabetes.

If you’re hesitant about changing your diet because you feel like you’ll miss meat, an excellent option is plant-based meat alternatives. Meat alternatives taste like the real deal but contain zero cholesterol and significantly lower amounts of saturated fat. And if you’re worried that meat-free meals are bland, there’s this eating plan to try on those trial-vegetarian or flexitarian days.

                                                                   Sample Menu
Breakfast

Kasha Cereal with Berries

Add 40g (4 Tablespoons) of Vanilla & Chia Kasha High Protein Instant Cereal with ½ Cup of Unsweetened Almond Milk. Served with a handful of Blueberries (1 Portion is ¾ Cup)
Lunch

Quinoa & Edamame Bean Salad with an Asian Ginger & Soy Dressing

120g of Steamed Edamame Beans (Shelled) added to ½ Cup of Cooked Quinoa + ½ Cup of Whole Kernel Corn and bulk up with Salad Ingredients (Grated Carrot, Sliced Spring Onion, Mung Bean Sprouts) and Dress with 1 Tablespoon of Asian & Soy Dressing
Mid Afternoon Snack

Cracker with a spread of Hummus & Vegetable Crudité

1 Rye Crisp Bread and 1 Tablespoon of Hummus with vegetable crudité (Rosa Tomatoes, Mange Tout, Cucumber Sticks)
Dinner

Fry’s Traditional Burger on a Portobello Mushroom topped with Salad Ingredients

1 Fry’s Traditional Burger based on a Portobello Mushroom. Layer with Lettuce, Sliced Tomato, Grilled Onions + Sliced Gherkins +Sliced Avocado pear (¼)

It’s not a mission to keep Type 2 diabetes at bay these days by following a healthier, balanced diet. There’s no shortage of tasty and convenient meat-free options. Fry’s products, for example, are a great alternative that allows you to get through your jam-packed days and still make smarter food choices that support a health-conscious lifestyle.

About the author: Mayuri Bhawan RD (SA) is an associate dietitian at the Grayston and Melrose practices of Nutritional Solutions, a registered dietetic practice. Mayuri graduated with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Dietetics from the University of the Western Cape, Cape Town. Mayuri is registered with the Health Professional Council of SA (HPCSA) and Association for Dietetics SA (ADSA). She is also accredited with Discovery Vitality.

Sources:

  • Tonstad S, Stewart K, Oda K, Batech M, Herring RP, Fraser GE. Vegetarian diets and incidence of diabetes in the Adventist Health Study-2. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2013;23(4):292-299.
  • Kim Y, Keogh J, Clifton P. A review of potential metabolic etiologies of the observed association between red meat consumption and development of type 2 diabetes. Metabolism. 2015;64(7):768- 779.

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.