Long-term analysis of UK Biobank participants shows significant benefits for those embracing whole foods and avoiding processed plant-based options


In a groundbreaking 12-year study analyzing the dietary habits of over 113,000 participants from the UK Biobank study, researchers have discovered a crucial connection between a healthy plant-based diet and a significantly reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The study, published in the journal Diabetes & Metabolism, categorizes individuals into four groups based on their consumption of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

The key finding indicates that individuals in the top 25%—those primarily adhering to a plant-based diet low in sweets, desserts, refined grains, and sugary drinks—experienced a remarkable 24% reduction in their risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those in the lowest tier. Moreover, participants with the healthiest dietary patterns exhibited lower body mass index (BMI), improved waist circumference, better blood sugar levels, and lower inflammatory markers.

Alysha Thompson, the study's first author and a doctoral student at Queen’s University Belfast, emphasizes the significance of these findings, especially for individuals at high risk of type 2 diabetes. Thompson stated, "These data are really important, particularly for those thought to be at high risk of developing type two diabetes as it demonstrates they can greatly reduce their risk by following a healthy plant-based diet."

However, the study also warns of the adverse effects associated with an unhealthy plant-based diet. Individuals in the bottom 25%, who consumed higher amounts of processed and sugary plant-based foods, had a 37% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Additionally, this group exhibited increased waist circumference and higher levels of triglycerides, a form of cholesterol.

Tilman Kühn, a lecturer from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast and coauthor of the study, highlighted the role of obesity as a key mediator underlying the greater risk of type 2 diabetes among individuals following unhealthful plant-based diets. The study suggests that a healthy plant-based diet impacts various antidiabetic mechanisms, including blood sugar and lipid levels, and lower body fatness.

One intriguing aspect of the study is the revelation of the role played by the liver and kidney in reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes. Aedín Cassidy, a professor at Queen University Belfast’s Institute for Global Food Security and coauthor of the study, noted, "For the first time we have shown that improvements in both metabolism and the function of the liver and the kidney as a result of a healthy plant-based diet may explain how this diet can reduce the risk of type two diabetes."

While the study establishes an association rather than a direct cause-and-effect relationship, experts find the findings intriguing. Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior teaching fellow at Aston Medical School in Birmingham, UK, commented on the study's potential impact on future research, stating, "This suggests a number of possible designs for future research to actually assess if this type of plant-based diet can actually reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes."

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