Study: Vegetarian Diet, Physical Activity Protect Against Diabetes in Black Population

    November 2011 - New research shows that following a vegetarian diet and exercising at least three times a week significantly reduced the risk of diabetes in African Americans, who are twice as likely to be diagnosed with diabetes when compared to non-Hispanic whites.

    "These findings are encouraging for preventing type 2 diabetes in the black population, which is more susceptible to the disease than other populations," said Serena Tonstad, MD, a professor at Loma Linda University and lead author of the research, published in the October issue of Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Diseases.

    In addition to being at a greater risk for developing diabetes, black persons in the U.S. are also more likely to suffer from diabetes-related complications, such as end-stage renal disease and lower-extremity amputations, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

    "A vegetarian diet may be a way to counteract the increased diabetes risk for the black population," Dr. Tonstad said.

    Dr. Tonstad's research showed that, compared to non-vegetarian blacks, vegan blacks had a 70 percent reduced risk of diabetes, and lacto-ovo vegetarian blacks (those who consume dairy, but no meat) had a 53 percent reduced risk of diabetes. Dr. Tonstad said one explanation was the protection associated with foods typically consumed in higher amounts in a vegetarian diet. Fruits and vegetables have a high fiber content, which may contribute to a decreased occurrence of type 2 diabetes. In addition, whole grains and legumes (beans) have been shown to improve glycemic control and slow the rate of carbohydrate absorption and the risk of diabetes.

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    The study also showed that black participants who exercised three or more times a week, compared to once a week or never, had a 35 percent reduced risk of diabetes.

    The findings used prospective data (following persons over time) of 7,172 black Seventh-day Adventists participating in Adventist Health Study-2. Adventists are a Protestant religious group that promotes vegetarianism and advocates abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, which results in less confounding (distortions) when studying associations between diet and disease. Participants were given a questionnaire that asked how often they consumed 130 foods and food groups. Participants were then categorized into a dietary category (vegan, lacto-ovo vegetarian, etc.) based on their responses.

    The study also analyzed data of 34,215 non-black Adventists and found similar protections against diabetes for a vegetarian diet. These findings confirm results from past cross-sectional research (examining persons at one point in time) that showed a vegetarian diet offered protection against diabetes.

    This research was funded in part by a grant from the National Institutes of Health and by the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University.

    Source: Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center