According to researchers who study metabolic disorders, both genetics and lifestyle factors — especially one’s diet and exercise habits — can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes.
We’ve known for decades that to prevent and reverse diabetes naturally, eating a nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory diet is key.
In fact, a new study found that the quality of someone’s diet plays as big a role as genetics do in determining if someone will develop diabetes.
What types of foods are included in a diabetic diet plan? As explained more below, some of the best choices include fresh veggies and fruits, high-fiber foods like legumes and nuts, fish, and whole grains.
Study Findings: Nutritious Diet May Lower Diabetes Risk
A study published in the journal PLOS Medicine in April 2022 sought out to determine if people’s genetics and diets interact in a way that leads to higher incidence of type 2 diabetes.
The study included nearly 36,000 adults living in the U.S. who participated in either the Nurses’ Health Study or the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. At the start of the diet, none of the participants had diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer.
Participants’ genetic risk was characterized using polygenic scores, while diet quality was assessed using the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI).
Findings showed that despite someone’s genetic risk for type 2 diabetes, if that person ate a “low quality diet” he or she had approximately a 30% increased risk of developing diabetes compared to if that person ate a “high quality diet.”
Overall, low diet quality and increased genetic risk seemed to have about equal impact on determining if someone will develop type 2 diabetes.
In conclusion, eating a healthy diet is associated with lower diabetes risk across all levels of genetic risk.
What It Means
If you follow a diet that scores high on the AHEI, you’ll be better protected against type 2 diabetes and other health conditions, too, including certain types of cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
What is a “high quality diet” according to the AHEI?
The AHEI was created by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It’s intended to serve as an alternative to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Eating Index.
The AHEI grades people’s diets based on scores ranging from 0 (non-adherence) to 110 (perfect adherence). Scores are based on how often someone eats certain foods, including healthy/whole foods and unhealthy/processed foods.
Foods that contribute to a high score on the AHEI, and therefore foods that should be emphasized in people’s diets, include:
- Fresh vegetables and fresh fruits (ideally five or more servings a day) — leafy greens, cruciferous veggies and berries are among the best choices
- Whole grains (five to six servings a day)
- Nuts and seeds
- Beans, legumes and vegetable protein (such as tofu)
- Fish (two to three servings per week)
- Healthy fats, such as olive oil, avocado oil, flax oil, peanut oil
- Low-fat dairy products, such as unsweetened yogurt or kefir
- Water, herbal tea, teas and coffee
Foods that should be avoided, which contribute to a low-quality diet include:
- Sugary drinks, such as soda or fruit juices
- Ultra-processed foods made with added sugar, additives and lots of sodium
- Fast food and fried foods
- Butter and saturated fats, such as lots of cheese and processed meats
How does a healthy diet reduce the risk of diabetes?
Diabetes is a condition that impairs your body’s ability to process nutrients properly, especially glucose (sugar/carbs). It occurs when someone’s body doesn’t make or respond to proper amounts of the hormone called insulin, which helps take glucose from the blood and move it to cells to be used for energy.
A healthy diet is essential for keeping blood sugar levels steady. It also helps reduce inflammation, which can worsen metabolic disorders, including diabetes. Finally, eating well can ward off weight gain and obesity, which are tied to a higher risk for diabetes.
The best type of diet for diabetics should include a mix of nutrient-rich, low-carb ingredients, including non-starchy veggies, protein foods and heart-healthy fats. Added sugar intake should be kept to a minimum to help keep blood sugar levels in the normal range. Protein, fiber and fat all help slow absorption of sugar, so these are important components of every meal.
Tips for Eating with Diabetes
Which nutrients help prevent diabetes? As mentioned above, some of the most important nutrients in an insulin resistance diet include:
- healthy fats, such as omega-3s and monounsaturated fats
Here are tips for adding these nutrients to your diet:
- Read ingredient labels when shipping. Avoid things with added sugar and long lists of ingredients.
- Add more veggies and fruits to all of your meals. Aim to make half your plate fresh produce.
- Opt for plant-based protein options, such as beans and legumes, as well as fish over proteins like beef, pork or fried chicken.
- Add prebiotic and probiotic foods to your meals, which support gut health and therefore can help manage inflammation. These include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, artichokes, chicory, barley, asparagus, cocoa, berries, apples and other high-fiber foods.
- Use healthy fats when cooking, such as olive oil, but avoid frying with vegetable oil or using too much butter.
- Skip most foods found in packages and boxes, especially processed meats, frozen meals and many dairy products.
- Cook more at home, and eat less takeout and restaurant food. This will help slash your sodium, fat and calorie intake.
- Results from a 2022 study found that consuming a nutritious diet may reduce diabetes, regardless of someone’s genetic risk.
- What nutrients control diabetes? The best type of diet to follow for metabolic health is one that’s low in added sugar and refined carbs and high in fiber, protein, healthy fats, prebiotics and probiotics.