Vegans have endured the ridicule of their carnivorous (and even vegetarian) peers since long before Instagram memes and Reddit boards. But in recent years—whether thanks to Beyoncé or documentaries like Forks Over Knives—the idea of swapping animal foods for plants has finally gone mainstream.
If Beyoncé being on-board isn’t enough to win you over, get a load of this: A study recently published in Nutrients found that ditching animal products can slash type 2 diabetes risk and lead to a “significant reduction” in BMI (body mass index).
The study followed two groups of 75 overweight adults for 16 weeks. One group stuck with their normal diet while the other switched to a low-fat vegan diet focused on fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains.
After the four months, not only did the vegan dieters lose significantly more body fat—particularly belly fat—than the normal dieters, but their blood sugar levels dropped and their insulin function improved. According to the American Diabetes Association, shedding excess body fat can lower type 2 diabetes risk; plus, declines in insulin function and high blood sugar are both telltale signs of the development of this chronic disease. Given that, the researchers believe this study indicates that veganism (done right) can help prevent and reverse type 2 diabetes (which now affects more than 100 million Americans, by the way).
What makes a vegan diet so magical? In its proper form, veganism emphasizes not vegan donuts and packaged meatless meatballs, but whole, high-fiber foods, like vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. The fiber in these foods slows digestion, regulates blood sugar, and supports weight loss and management, says Julieanna Hever, M.S., R.D., C.P.T., of The Plant-Based Dietitian.
These plant-based foods also provide antioxidants, which can neutralize free radicals—and research has linked the oxidative stress caused by free radicals to type 2 diabetes, adds plant-based diet specialist David Sonenberg, M.S., R.D.
The Benefits Beyond Diabetes
The perks of plant-based eating don’t stop there: Studies show vegans enjoy up to a 75 percent lower risk of developing high blood pressure, a 42 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, and a drastically lower risk of developing a number of cancers.
Not to mention, plant-based foods are rich in compounds called phytonutrients, which boost your immune system, improve skin and bone health, and fight inflammation, according to advocacy group Produce for Better Health Foundation.
And, since oxidative stress has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and eye diseases like cataracts and macular degeneration—in addition to type 2 diabetes—the antioxidants in a plant-focused diet have far-reaching effects on our health.
Not only does a whole food, plant-based diet help prevent some of these other chronic health issues, but it can also help resolve them after they crop up, says Hever. In fact, healthy vegan diets have been shown to improve blood pressure and reverse even advanced stage cardiovascular disease.
Make the Jump (The Right Way)
Reaping the benefits of a vegan lifestyle means eating the right vegan foods. “Anyone who focuses on eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, herbs, and spices will reap the benefits of a whole food, plant-based diet,” says Hever. You can’t load up on packaged foods loaded with added oils, sugars, and salt—like French fries and vegan cupcakes—and expect your blood sugar or heart health to improve.
Swapping out staples like eggs, chicken, and cheese for plants is no easy task, so experts recommend transitioning to a vegan way of eating slowly. Start by making just one meal per day with 100-percent whole plant foods, says Andy Bellatti, R.D., of Andy Bellatti Nutrition. Once that feels routine, switch another meal over. Then another.
Make the change easier by taking advantage of plant-based meals you might already eat—like oatmeal with fruit, bean and rice burritos, pasta with veggies and marinara sauce, bean chili, and tofu-vegetable stir-fries—and exploring Pinterest and Instagram for new recipes to try, says Hever. If you’re struggling to find meals you like or are skeptical about meeting your nutritional needs, enlist a pro, like a registered dietitian, to help you get started.
And when it comes to those vegan cookies, just follow the 80:20 rule: Make sure 80 percent of your foods are minimally processed (think an apple versus apple pie or edamame versus a tofu ‘chicken nugget’). This way you have wiggle room for treats without sacrificing those vital health benefits.