Embracing Whole Food Plant-Based Diets to Combat the Global Type 2 Diabetes Epidemic
The global burden of type 2 diabetes has been rising at an alarming rate, with poor carbohydrate quality identified as a significant driver behind the staggering increase in new cases. A research model developed by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, published in the journal Nature Medicine, indicates that over 14.1 million cases of type 2 diabetes were caused by poor diet in 2018, accounting for more than 70% of new diagnoses worldwide. The study highlights the urgency of promoting healthy whole food and plant-based diets as a preventive measure against type 2 diabetes.
The research analyzed data from 184 countries between 1990 and 2018, identifying three dietary factors that contributed significantly to the global type 2 diabetes burden: inadequate consumption of whole grains, excessive intake of refined rice and wheat, and overconsumption of processed meat. Drinking too much fruit juice and not eating enough non-starchy vegetables*, nuts, or seeds had a lesser impact on new cases of the disease.
In response to these concerning findings, organizations such as the International Vegetarian Union (IVU) have made significant efforts to educate the public and health professionals about the benefits of whole food plant-based diets. Our Vegan Food Academy offers an entire category dedicated to Whole Food Plant-Based recipes, and our Vegan Nutrition Guide for Adults, available in English, Portuguese, and Spanish, provides valuable information for health professionals about the safe administration of these diets.
Geographical differences in dietary habits were also examined in the study, with Central and Eastern Europe and Central Asia, particularly Poland and Russia, experiencing the highest number of type 2 diabetes cases linked to diet. This is attributed to the consumption of red meat, processed meat, and potatoes. High incidence rates were also found in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in Colombia and Mexico, due to the high consumption of sugary drinks, processed meat, and low intake of whole grains.
The study's findings emphasize the need for a global shift in dietary habits, with a focus on promoting healthy whole food plant-based diets as a key preventive measure against type 2 diabetes. The International Vegetarian Union's initiatives, such as the Vegan Food Academy and the Vegan Nutrition Guide for Adults, are excellent examples of the kind of resources that should be made more widely available to help individuals and families make informed choices about their diets.
Unchecked and with incidence rates projected to rise, type 2 diabetes will continue to impact population health, economic productivity, healthcare system capacity, and drive health inequities worldwide. It is crucial that clinicians, policymakers, and private sector actors prioritize nutritional education and support the widespread adoption of healthier dietary choices to address this global epidemic. Encouraging whole food plant-based diets not only has the potential to significantly reduce the incidence of type 2 diabetes but also to improve overall public health and well-being.
* A member of the family of vegetables that does not contain starch (sugar molecules joined chemically). Nonstarchy vegetables are usually lower in sugar and higher in fiber than starchy vegetables. Examples are broccoli, carrots, celery, peppers, tomatoes, and zucchini.
O’Hearn, M., et al. (2023). Incident type 2 diabetes attributable to suboptimal diet in 184 countries. Nature Medicine. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41591-023-02278-8
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