02 November 2018

Going vegan may boost diabetics' mood and health

Researchers believe that a plant-based diet helps diabetics toward better control of their condition.

Diabetes is a formidable foe that can tax the bodies and the spirits of people diagnosed with the blood sugar disease.

But a plant-based diet may help boost the physical and the mental health of unhappy people with type 2 diabetes, a new evidence review reports.

Diabetics who switched to a plant-based diet tended to experience a significant improvement in their emotional well-being, according to the combined findings from 11 prior studies.

The researchers behind the review believe this is because a plant-based diet helped them toward better control of their diabetes.

No animal products

"They feel more in control of their health, and therefore their mood and overall well-being improves," said study lead author Anastasios Toumpanakis. He is a doctoral candidate with the University of London, in England.

Diet is central to the control of type 2 diabetes, which affects more than 30 million people in the United States, the researchers said in background notes.

Vegan diets eliminate all animal products from their food, including eggs and dairy, said Rahaf Al Bochi, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

For their evidence review, Toumpanakis and his colleagues collected data on 433 participants in 11 different clinical trials. Of those trials, eight involved fully vegan diets, while the remainder were vegetarian. The trials lasted an average 23 weeks.

People eating plant-based diets experienced an improvement in their physical health and better control of their diabetes, the findings showed.

Improved psychological well-being

"These studies demonstrated that this eating pattern helped them to better control their serum glucose [blood sugar] levels, as well as improve their lipid and cholesterol levels," Toumpanakis said.

People eating the plant-based diets also experienced a marked easing of their diabetes-related nerve pain, with the results suggesting that such an eating plan might slow progressive nerve damage associated with diabetes, the researchers said.

In six of the studies, patients were able to cut down or discontinue drugs they were taking either for their diabetes or for symptoms of diabetes.

The studies also found that people experienced improved psychological well-being. Depression levels dropped, while overall quality of life improved.

"We would say that people with type 2 diabetes following a plant-based diet might be happier because, as the studies suggest, the majority found that through this eating pattern they can have a better control of their condition," Toumpanakis said.

"If through diet they can have the power to improve their physical symptoms and their glucose levels, and reduce or even stop some of their medication, then this has a huge impact on their quality of life," he added.

Only an association

Toumpanakis said there's nothing to be lost in switching to a plant-based diet, noting that both the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists and the American College of Endocrinology promote vegetarian or vegan diets as the optimal nutrition plan for people with diabetes.

But the study didn't prove that a plant-based diet improved the patients' mental and physical health, just that there was an association.

And Al Bochi isn't ready to embrace the review's findings.

She noted that of the 11 studies included in the review, only four tracked the people's psychological well-being.

"Keeping that in mind, we're working with very small sample sizes," Al Bochi said.

Importance of regular meals

Prior studies have shown that food can play a role in a person's mood, she said, but "whether there's an exact mechanism with meat products and mood, I'm not sure if there is an actual association."

In addition, protein can increase the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can help improve mood, she noted.

Al Bochi suggested that people can best control their mood through food by making sure they eat regular meals, to prevent the "hangry" feelings that can come from blood sugar swings.

"There's a lot of different nutrients we know that can help with mood. I'm not sure if eliminating certain groups like meat products can have a positive effect on mood," Al Bochi said.

The evidence review was published online in the journal BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care.

Image credit: iStock


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Dr. May currently works as a fulltime endocrinologist and has been in private practice since 2004. He has a variety of interests, predominantly obesity and diabetes, but also sees patients with osteoporosis, thyroid disorders, men's health disorders, pituitary and adrenal disorders, polycystic ovaries, and disorders of growth. He is a leading member of several obesity and diabetes societies and runs a trial centre for new drugs.

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