Diabetes is the 7th leading cause of death globally and claims millions of lives every year .
Unhealthy eating patterns are one of the top causes of diabetes and multiple scientific studies have claimed that consuming less meat, dairy products and refined grains can reduce the risk of diabetes [3,4,5].
Carbohydrates in the food are broken down to sugar called as glucose by the chemicals in the small intestine and are passed into the bloodstream.
An abdominal organ in the digestive system called the Pancreas releases a hormone referred to as insulin to regulate the glucose/sugar levels in the blood .
One of the primary functions of insulin is to open the blood cells so that glucose can be absorbed by the cells and converted into energy.
Types of Diabetes
However, if an individual is diagnosed with Diabetes, then either the pancreas has stopped producing enough insulin (Type-1 diabetes) or the insulin produced by the pancreas is not utilized properly by the body (Type-2 diabetes), the condition also referred as insulin resistance .
As a result, the glucose level keeps building up in the body (Hyperglycemia) and the pancreas releases extra insulin but over time it’s not able to produce enough insulin .
At the same time, the cells get starved and eventually end up using up stored protein and fat in the body which can lead to serious damage.
There is also a 3rd type of diabetic condition termed as Gestational diabetes which is a temporary condition during pregnancy. Insulin sensitivity goes down by 50-70% and at the same time, insulin secretion increases drastically thereby increasing the risk of diabetes .
Type-2 is the most prevalent and is responsible for 90% of diabetic cases across the globe .
As far as dietary patterns are concerned, it is known that certain foods with high carbohydrates levels can increase the sugar levels in the body or some harmful chemicals and substances found in meat and dairy can affect insulin sensitivity thereby increasing risks of this disease [1,2,3].
Quick Facts about Diabetes
The below graph highlights the countries that have the highest number of diabetic people in the world. In recent decades, Asia has undergone a massive rapid transformation and that has led to a change in income, lifestyle and dietary patterns. It’s now become the diabetes capital of the world.
Find more statistics at Statista
Causes of Diabetes
In this section, we would be only focusing on the dietary reasons responsible for type-2 diabetes.
Saturated and Trans fatty acids found in meat and dairy products have been linked to high risk of Type-2 diabetes [2,4,7].
A report published to understand the link between meat consumption and diabetes risk concluded that the fatty acids found in animal products can have an adverse metabolic effect on insulin sensitivity [4,7].
Clarified butter or Ghee used for cooking in India and other South Asian countries, has an extremely high trans fatty acid content to the level of 50% .
The report inferred high consumption of animal products as well as refined grains as the major reasons for the diabetic epidemic in Asia [2,4].
Haem iron found in meat and meat products is absorbed much easier by the body than non-haem iron.
However, elevated iron levels are thought to impair insulin sensitivity and increase blood glucose concentration thus leading to higher type 2 diabetes .
Researchers have found that even after mediating haem iron concentrations in meat, they found other compounds like advanced glycation end products and trimethylamine N-oxide that have strong mechanistic links to insulin resistance .
Also, iron can promote oxidative stress by increasing the formation of harmful chemicals capable of damaging pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin .
Salt/ Sodium or nitrates used as preservatives in red and processed meat is considered to increase the risk of Type-2 diabetes .
These nitrates are converted to a substance called nitrosamines either due to chemical reactions in the meat or once consumed .
Nitrosamines could also be produced from heterocyclic amines or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons while cooking meat at very high temperatures .
Different studies have proven that nitrosamines are toxic to pancreatic Beta cells and capable of decreasing insulin secretion thereby increasing the risk of diabetes [10,11].
High Glycaemic Index Foods
It would be an incomplete analysis without mentioning the role of the foods with a high glycaemic index (GI) in increasing diabetes risk.
Foods high in carbohydrates or starch are known to have a high glycaemic index and capable of causing a high increase in blood glucose level.
As a result, the insulin demand increases and may lead to pancreatic β-cell exhaustion eventually .
Foods like sugar-sweetened beverages, white rice, potatoes, white bread, sugary foods etc. fall in this category.
Apart from the diabetes risk factors involved from consuming animal protein, scientists have also attributed foods with a high GI index as a major cause [2,4].
Meat and dairy products are high in total, saturated and trans-fat content with a risk of weight gain and obesity [2,4,7].
Multiple studies have highlighted the high risk and probability of developing diabetes-2 in people who are overweight and obese [2,3,13].
More detailed analysis of the link between diabetes and obesity covered in the obesity article.
Reducing Risks of Diabetes
Eating a plant-based diet which is low in saturated fats and glycaemic index is beneficial in reducing risks of diabetes.
Consume Healthy Fats
Foods that are high in saturated fats and cholesterol found usually in animal products and fast foods can increase the risk of diabetes.
On the other hand, polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) and Mono-unsaturated fats (MUFA) may be beneficial in terms of insulin sensitivity and could decrease the risk of diabetes.
Nuts consumption has indicated a favourable effect on type-2 diabetes patients. Walnuts especially have certain bioactive compounds such as plant sterols, dietary fibre, polyphenols and antioxidants.
Similarly, Olive oil is another healthy source of a vegetable fat (MUFA) that has beneficial factors known to reduce oxidative stress, improve insulin sensitivity and glycemic control, all of which are considered as strong risk factors for Type-2 diabetes [15,16].
Eat More Greens & Non-Starchy Veggies
Non-starchy veggies are low in carbohydrates and sugar and a great source of essential nutrients.
Most of the green vegetables fall in this category. The magnesium content found in leafy vegetables has been found to be protective against diabetes risk .
Consume More High Fibre Food
High cereal fibre intake reduces type-2 diabetes risk. Consuming fruits and legumes high in fibre can reduce type-2 diabetes risk as well as oxidative stress.
Components in high fibre food that may be protective against chronic disease risk are resistant starch, magnesium, phenolic compounds etc .