How a Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Improves Insulin Resistance
By Libby Rome
Insulin resistance is the body’s inability to break down blood sugar. It can lead to Type 2 diabetes, which is when blood sugar levels become too high. Minimizing insulin resistance in Type 2 diabetics can reduce or even eliminate their need for medicine and their risk of diabetic complications. Marc Ramirez from southern Texas was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes the same year that it claimed his mother’s life, and he felt doomed to follow suit. “I remember asking my doctor if I could ever stop taking the insulin injections. His response was ‘No.’” However, after switching to a Whole Food Plant-based (WFPB) diet, Marc shares “In less than two months, I was off of all my medications.”
Type 1 diabetes is an irreversible auto-immune disease where anti-bodies destroy the body’s ability to make insulin. Minimizing insulin resistance in Type 1 diabetics reduces the amount of insulin they need to inject and can improve overall blood sugar management.
The primary cause of insulin resistance is fat consumption. The British study ‘,’ shows that insulin resistance is caused by “inflammation that can either be increased or decreased by the fatty acid composition of the diet.” The type of fat we consume is also important. Type 1 diabetics Robby Barbaro, MPH, and Cyrus Khambatta, PhD, promote a WFPB diet for diabetes management, prevention, and reversal. Their New York Times best-seller Mastering Diabetes explains that “saturated fat – the primary component of coconut oil and most vegetable oils – is the most common trigger for insulin resistance because even small amounts can impair the function of insulin receptors in your muscles and liver within hours of a single high-fat meal.” Monounsaturated fats, as found in avocadoes, nuts, and seeds, are preferred. The U.S. KANWU Study Group’s study ‘ shows how switching from animal fats to plant-based fats improves insulin resistance.
The elimination of meat further improves insulin resistance. Paraphrasing two clinical studies, physician and public health specialist Dr. Michael Greger explains in How Not to Die, “Those eating plant-based diets average significantly lower insulin levels and have less insulin resistance, even compared to nonvegetarians at the same body weight. In fact, those who eat meat have up to 50 percent higher insulin levels in their bloodstreams.”
A WFPB diet consists of unprocessed or minimally processed vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. It avoids foods that promote insulin resistance, such as meat and heavily processed foods like oil and cheese. Some WFPB foods may also improve insulin resistance; antioxidants and phytonutrients from plant-based foods like beans, leafy greens, and berries, can decrease inflammation. WFPB foods are also the least caloric and most nutrient-dense foods available, making them ideal for healthy weight loss or weight management. Eliminating excess body fat may further improve insulin resistance.
Many diabetics are nervous about eating high-carbohydrate foods because carbs make their blood sugar rise sharply. However, due to the low fat and high fiber content of WFPB foods, blood sugar levels will increase temporarily, but return to normal more quickly than they would when consuming the carbs along with meat or fat. Minimizing the fat can lead to more predictable and manageable blood sugar levels, since its impact is often unpredictable and can cause blood sugar levels to remain high for several hours. The fiber additionally optimizes digestion, which slows down sugar absorption and reduces spikes.
Matthew Silvio from Dallas, Texas, has realized the benefits of this way of eating. Matt has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 20 years and says, “I have never had the control that I now have had for the past 3 years eating a whole food plant-based diet. This diet allows for a more diverse choice of foods, particularly for diabetics where a food such as fruit is often neglected due to association with high blood sugar spikes, which I now eat multiple times per day. Eating between 500-700 grams of carbohydrates, being an ultra-endurance athlete, and maintaining an A1c below 5.2 for the past 3 years is the product of removing animal products and increasing nutrient-dense plant foods.”
A WFPB diet improves insulin resistance, which can help manage Type 1 diabetes or can prevent or reverse Type 2 diabetes. The proof is clear in extensive studies and real-life results. It may take time to dispel the myth that diabetics must eat a low-carb diet, and for dietary recommendations to change. In the meantime, we can leverage the knowledge about a WFPB diet to improve our own insulin resistance.
5 Tips to Improve Insulin Resistance
Follow these guidelines to help minimize, prevent, or eliminate insulin resistance. Remember to work with your physician to adjust any medications.
- Limit your fat intake to plant-based sources such as avocadoes, nuts, and seeds.
- Avoid foods that promote insulin resistance, such as saturated fat, meat, and heavily processed foods.
- Eat an abundance of whole foods that promote insulin sensitivity, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes (e.g., beans), and whole grains.
- Search the Internet for “WFPB recipes” or “whole food plant-based recipes” to discover new ways of enjoying compliant meals, snacks, and desserts.
- Instead of cooking with oil, use water, balsamic vinegar, vegetable broth, salsa, or other sauces.
Libby Rome is a certified nutritionist and author from Houston. In 2017, she was misdiagnosed with Type 2 diabetes then six months later, correctly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. She struggled to manage her condition for the first two years, until switching to a whole food plant-based diet. Her blood sugar average (A1c) improved from 6.6 to a healthy 5.2, and her average daily blood sugar time-in-range increased from 70% to 94%. She also reduced her insulin use by nearly half, despite tripling her carb consumption. Libby is certified in Dr. John McDougall’s Starch Solution, a sustainable whole food plant-based diet for optimal health and weight.