Reading Between the Lines: Harvard Study Links a Plant-Based Diet to Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

by BOLD SUPPORT June 20, 2016

Reading Between the Lines: Harvard Study Links a Plant-Based Diet to Lower Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

At first glance, this Harvard study, which links a plant-based diet to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, seems to be moving in the right direction.  The study followed approximately 200,000 men and women over 20 years, and compared the risks associated with both healthy, and less healthy plant-based diets.  However, the authors state in the study background, “Plant-based diets have been recommended to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D). However, not all plant foods are necessarily beneficial.”  This is true, however, this sentence may be confusing to many – it’s important to clarify that whole versus processed plant foods is the real difference in a healthy versus unhealthy plant-based diet, rather than the phrase “not all plant foods.”

The next problem in this study is the fact that all participants were free of chronic disease prior to the study. This leaves out the fact that a WFPB diet not only prevents disease, but can treat and reverse most diseases through diet rather than drugs. While the researchers did recommend consuming less animal products, and concluded that more plant-based food are associated with a lower incidence of type 2 diabetes, they failed to mention the overall health consequences tied to consumption of animal products.  The study goes on to recommend consuming less animal products “especially red and processed meat”, and points out that “certain animal foods” are associated with type 2 diabetes risk.  Focusing on red meat, rather than animal products in general, suggests that the researchers aren’t willing to talk about the negative health effects of animal products as a whole, which is necessary when discussing the reversal of chronic diseases and conditions.  

Next, we should examine what exactly the researchers consider to be a “healthy plant-based food.”  The study defines these foods as “whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, vegetable oils, tea/coffee.”  The inclusion of vegetable oil in this list is problematic, because it tells us that they’re leaving the concept of whole foods out of the discussion.  Interestingly, they “also excluded margarine from the indices, as its fatty acid composition has changed over time from high trans fat to high unsaturated fat”, and controlled for the consumption of margarine. 1

Their definition of unhealthy plant-based foods was equally problematic.  The list was defined as “fruit juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, sweets/desserts”, which they go on to define as “less nutrient dense” plant foods. This list is correct, for the most part, but defining potatoes as an “unhealthy plant-food” provides more evidence for the study’s ignorance of a whole foods plant-based diet. In fact, although it would be pretty boring, did you know you can eat only potatoes, and still meet your protein needs?   When vegetable oils are healthy, and potatoes are not, it’s doubtful this study is moving in the right direction.

While it’s true that study participants on a plant-based diet experienced a 20% reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and participants on a “healthful plant-based diet” experienced a 34% reduction, this still means that participants on a plant-based diet were developing type 2 diabetes.  And yet, the research is now showing that it is biologically impossible to develop type 2 diabetes when you have been consuming a whole food, plant-based diet comprised of all-natural plant based foods. And further, those who already have this disease can often treat their condition by moving to this lifestyle.  Is this study a move in the right direction, or is it just creating more confusion by telling a half truth?

You can read the study, and the following articles, and decide for yourself:

http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/plant-based-diet-reduced-diabetes-risk-hu-satija/

http://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039

 

Notes:

  1. The margarine concept arose from an observation in the 1950s-1960s that animal fat was bad and plant fat was good because of their relative associations with total blood cholesterol and heart disease. This led to the use of plant fats (unsaturated oils) instead of animal fats like lard and butter (saturated fats). But, since spreading oils on bread wasn’t as appealing to people, these unsaturated oils (liquid at room temperature) were converted to fats (solid at room temperature) by chemically bubbling hydrogen through the oils. In so doing, these new saturated fats were partly of the trans configuration and partly of the cis configuration (naturally occurring unsaturated fat). Trans saturated fats are not natural and proved to be as bad if not worse than the original saturated fats. There’s more to this story but its evolution gradually arose for the past century because of commercial interests and mis-education of the public.

 

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