Does a Vegetarian Diet Lower the Risk?
There have been several claims bounding around the internet that a vegetarian diet can alleviate the symptoms from reactive hypoglycemia, prediabetes, or insulin resistance. For example, The Reactive Hypoglycemia Sourcebook (Kenrose, 2009) claims a vegetarian diet can make hypoglycemic symptoms disappear. The American Dietetic Association’s position is that a typical vegetarian diet is associated with lower incidences of every major disease, including Type 2 Diabetes (Craig et. al, 2009). Do these claims hold up to scrutiny?
The notion of vegetarianism as a tool for combatting reactive hypoglycemia is fairly new. However, there is a surprising amount of research that backs up the idea. A study by Loma Linda University (22,434 men and 38,469 women) found that vegans had the lowest risk of type 2 diabetes, followed by vegetarians (Tonstad et. al, 2009). Meat eaters had the highest risk. Type 2 diabetes is closely linked to insulin resistance, a close cousin of reactive hypoglycemia. Similar research from the George Washington School of Medicine found that vegetarians are half as likely to contract the disease. A lower BMI (Body Mass Index) is not only associated with lower risks of Type 2 diabetes, it’s linked to vegetarianism as well. Similar studies have come from the department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina (Turner-McGrievy, 2008). Why does a vegetarian diet lead to a lower risk of reactive hypoglycemic episodes and Type 2 diabetes? The answer is more complex than simply comparing the two diets. Care must be taken to compare lifestyle choices as well. For example, it’s technically possible for a vegetarian to eat the same types of foods as a typical meat eater (white hamburger buns, white pizza dough topped with cheese high in saturated fat, french fries, high-fat mayonnaise etc.).
There is enough evidence to suggest that a vegetarian or vegan diet can help alleviate symptoms of reactive hypoglycemia. However, just like diet and exercise is a “cure” for being overweight, a vegetarian diet is only a “cure” in context. For example:
When authors refer to a vegetarian diet, they are not referring to a typical American diet (pizza, fries, mac ‘n’ cheese) sans meat. They are referring to dietary changes that include more whole grains, fresh produce, nuts, and other alternative protein sources.
A vegetarian diet is only helpful for as long as the patient continues on the diet. If a reactive hypoglycemic returns to a previous diet high in saturated fats and protein and low in fresh produce and whole grains, the symptoms will ultimately return.
Barnard ND, Katcher HI, Jenkins DJ, Cohen J and McGrievy G. Vegetarian and vegan diets in type 2 diabetes management. Nutrition Reviews. 2009 May;67(5):255-63.
Craig WJ, MAngels AR; American Dietetic Association. Position of the American Dietetic Association: vegetarian diets. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009 Jul; 109 (7): 1266-82.
Kenrose, S. The Reactive Hypoglycemia Sourcebook, 2009.
Tonstad S, Butler T, Yan R, Fraser GE. Type of vegetarian diet, body weight, and prevalence of type 2 diabetes. 2009 May; 32(5):791-6. Epub 2009 Apr 7.
Turner-McGrievy GM, Barnard ND, Cohen J, Jenkinds DJ, Gloede L, Green AA. Changes in nutrient intake and dietary quality among participants with type 2 diabetes following a low-fat vegan diet or a conventional diabetes diet for 22 weeks. Journal of the American Diet Association. 2008 Oct; 108(10):1636-45.