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Despite the fact that one in 10 Americans have or will be diagnosed with diabetes — with 95% of them suffering from Type 2 diabetes — many people aren’t aware how a plant-based diet can help prevent, manage and even reverse the health effects of the disease.
Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body’s ability to regulate and use glucose (or blood sugar) as fuel is impaired. The pancreas produces less insulin, the hormone that helps cells process sugar from blood, and cells become insulin-resistant and begin to take in less sugar. This results in higher levels of blood sugar in the body, which can lead to numerous health complications over time.
The diet of many Americans includes fast food, processed meats, highly refined grains and sugar-sweetened beverages. When combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, this calorie-dense diet can lead to weight gain and insulin resistance – some of the many contributing risk factors for diabetes.
Left unchecked, diabetes can contribute to an increased risk of heart disease, nerve damage, limb amputations, kidney disease and eye damage. But there’s good news: Type 2 diabetes can be reversed.
There’s a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests a plant-based diet can help individuals prevent, manage and reverse some of the health effects of Type 2 diabetes. Experts believe this is due in part to replacing saturated fat found in animal products with unsaturated fat, which could make the body more sensitive to insulin. Eating more fiber-rich produce increases fullness and helps with weight loss, which improves diabetes outcomes. As plants are minimally processed and contain antioxidants, they can also reduce inflammation.
Plant-based diets encourage eating the following:
• Fruits
• Legumes
• Nuts and seeds
• Vegetables
• Whole grains
As the name suggests, plant-based diets discourage eating most or all animal products – which include red meat, fish, poultry and dairy. Switching to a plant-based diet doesn’t mean never eating cheese again; rather, it means most of the food an individual consumes in a day comes from plant sources.
For individuals who are diabetic or are considered prediabetic, screenings are an important tool for health care providers. Screenings can include the following:
• HbA1C test. This blood test measures average blood sugar levels for the past two to three months. A higher A1C level means a higher risk of diabetes complications. Providers may request this test several times per year to monitor an individual’s condition, depending on their needs.
• Retinal exam. Diabetes can damage the blood vessels in the eyes. This can be discovered through a regular eye exam with an eye doctor. Eye doctors have specific equipment that can scan the retina for damage, and search for other warning signs of diabetes-related damage including glaucoma. Often, individuals won’t notice changes with their eyes until the damage becomes severe.
For more information about ways to eat healthy and get active, visit AHealthierMichigan.org.

Shanthi Appelö is a registered dietitian and health and wellness spokesperson at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.
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