Vegetarian Diets in the Limelight… Again!

Have you heard of Michael Pollan, an author, journalist, and professor of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley? Several years ago he wrote a book entitled In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. One of the “rules” in his book is startlingly simple yet powerful at the same time: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It’s easy to get caught up in food for many reasons: because managing a chronic disease such as diabetes, trying to lose weight, aiming to stave off the effects of aging, battling food allergies… the list goes on. Despite the many challenges that we face with choosing our foods every day, the fact is that most of us could be better off if we heeded Mr. Pollan’s advice to eat more plants.

Pollan’s book also got me thinking a little more about vegetarian diets. In some ways, they seem to have taken a back seat lately to the animal protein–laden way of eating that many Americans follow. High-protein, low-carbohydrate diets remain popular, especially among people with diabetes, in part, because these diets can help to manage blood glucose. But a vegetarian way of eating has resurfaced as of late. This week and next, I’ll mention three studies that restore the place of plant-based diets on the dinner table.

Vegan Diet Helps Type 2 Diabetes
OK, this study is several years old now, but it bears mentioning. A 22-week study published in the journal Diabetes Care in 2006 compared the effects of a low-fat vegan diet (vegan means that no animal products, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy are consumed) with a more traditional “ADA” diet in 99 people with Type 2 diabetes. Half of the participants followed the vegan diet, which provided 75% of calories from carbohydrate, 15% from protein, and 10% from fat. They were instructed to avoid animal foods and added fats, but had no restrictions on portions or calories.

The other half of the participants was asked to follow a more traditional eating plan with 60% to 70% of calories from carbohydrate and monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil; less than 7% of calories from saturated fat; and 15% to 20% of calories from protein. If they were overweight, they were also asked to cut calories by 500–1,000 per day. Neither group was provided with food but they were given help from a dietitian.

Results: Improvements in glucose and lipid levels occurred in both groups. But the vegan group surpassed the ADA group in several ways:

Conclusions: Both groups enjoyed improvements, likely in part because they were making better food choices. But the vegan group did better. And another pleasant finding: The vegan group wasn’t limited in their calories, carbohydrates, or portions, which may have made this eating plan a little easier to swallow.

Eco-Atkins Diet Helps with Weight Loss and Improved Lipids
Here’s a more recent study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2009. This study didn’t involve people who had diabetes. Forty-seven overweight men and women with high blood lipids were assigned to either a low-carbohydrate or high-carbohydrate diet for one month. The low-carbohydrate diet provided 130 grams of carbohydrate (the minimum amount of carbohydrate that’s recommended), or 26% of calories from carbohydrate, along with 31% from protein and 43% from fat. However, the low-carbohydrate diet was completely vegetarian. Protein came from gluten, soy and nuts. The high-carbohydrate diet was low in fat and also lacto-ovo vegetarian (milk and eggs were allowed), with 58% of calories from carbohydrate, 16% from protein, and 25% from fat. Both diets provided just 60% of calorie needs, designed to promote weight loss.


Conclusions: Traditional high protein diets, such as Atkins, are typically centered on eating fairly large amounts of animal protein. While these diets do result in weight loss and improved glucose, they often boost LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which could raise the risk of heart disease. This study showed that a high-protein diet based on plant protein sources helped to lower LDL, rather than raise it.

What are your thoughts? Could or would you follow a plant-based diet? More next week!

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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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