MORGANTOWN — Researchers at West Virginia University are investigating how those with diabetes or at risk of developing the condition can lead healthier lives as part of the Blue Zones Project.
The Blue Zones Project is a community wellness initiative designed to enable residents to live longer, happier and higher quality lives with lower rates of chronic disease, and WVU is working toward becoming the first Blue Zones Certified university.
School of Public Health doctoral student Rachel Wattick examined the association between a range of vegetarian diets and diabetes outcomes. She and mentor Melissa Olfert, a professor with the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, found that whole plant foods play a crucial role in preventing and managing type 2 diabetes.
Olfert led a study in which 43 young adult participants who either had or were at risk of developing metabolic syndrome were asked to comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines. They were instructed to fill at least half of their plates with fruits and vegetables. Those who stuck with these guidelines found that they spent $29 more per week on groceries than those who did not.
“Is it cheaper? No,” Olfert said. “But you have to weigh the pros and cons of a healthier plate for $29 more a week, vs. getting fast food or grab-and-go, high-sodium and empty-calorie, convenient meals in the grocery store. Those are going to be what we consider calorie-dense but nutrient-poor foods, and that is the very crux of what promotes metabolic syndrome.”
Olfert and Wattick examined other peer-reviewed studies that focused on both diabetes and plant-based diets, most of which were published within the past five years.Whether veganism, which excludes meat and animal products, or semi-vegetarianism, which allows for occasional consumption of meat, they both had something in common. The more a diet consisted of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and other plant-based foods low in saturated fat, the more it lowered someone’s risk of developing diabetes.
Whether veganism, which excludes meat and animal products, or semi-vegetarianism, which allows for occasional consumption of meat, they both had something in common. The more a diet consisted of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes and other plant-based foods low in saturated fat, the more it lowered someone’s risk of developing diabetes.
“The research seems to show that veganism is the most therapeutic and protective diet for controlling and maintaining health with diabetes, but, if we consider people’s current habits, and if they do eat meat regularly now, even beginning a semi-vegetarian diet — having meat just once a week — can help,” Wattick said.
“If you can make changes that you can adhere to, that’s important. And you could have your own diet that you follow that is very strict, but then, if you’re visiting family or you go out to eat, it’s okay sometimes to accommodate those situations. It’s not going to totally throw everything off.”
In addition to the more obvious health benefits, those who stuck to a more plant-based diet also reported reduced levels of dependency on insulin shots or medication. In one study, as many as 39 percent of the participants stopped taking the pills on injections entirely after switching to a near-vegetarian lifestyle.
Furthermore, West Virginia has the nation’s highest rates of diabetes. However, the state also has one of the country’s lowest average household incomes and the cost of insulin is going up, thus making the adoption of a plant-based diet even more advantageous.
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