Healthy plant-based diet linked to lower risk for type 2 diabetes

April 11, 2022

2 min read


Source / Disclosures


Disclosures: Hu reports no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.


We were unable to process your request. Please try again later. If you continue to have this issue please contact customerservice@slackinc.com.

Metabolite profiles demonstrate that eating a healthy plant-based diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and nuts can lower one’s risk for developing type 2 diabetes, according to study findings published in Diabetology.

In an analysis of dietary profiles from people in three prospective cohorts, individuals who ate more healthy plant-based foods had a different metabolite profile and a lower risk for developing type 2 diabetes than those who ate a diet rich in unhealthy plant-based foods, such as refined grains, potatoes and sweets.


Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD
Hu is a professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

“Healthy plant-based diets could be promoted for type 2 diabetes prevention,” Frank B. Hu, MDPhD, professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, told Healio. “The metabolite profiles we identified could be used to assess adherence and metabolic response to plant-based diets during dietary interventions.”

Hu and colleagues collected data from three prospective cohort studies: the Nurses ‘Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study II and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. A total of 8,827 participants with dietary intake data available were included. Blood samples were analyzed from each participant and semiquantitative food frequency questionnaires were used to evaluate self-reported dietary data. Healthy plant-based foods included whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, vegetable oil, tea and coffee; unhealthy plant-based foods included refined grains, fruit juices, potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages, and sweets and desserts; and animal-based foods included animal fats, dairy, eggs, fish, meat and other animal-based products. An overall plant-based diet index, a healthy plant-based diet index and an unhealthy plant-based diet index were developed to assess participants’ diet adherence based on their food frequency questionnaire responses. Elastic net regression combined with a test and training approach was used to identify metabolite profiles correlated to plant-based diets.

A panel of 55 metabolites was correlated with an overall plant-based diet, a panel of 93 metabolites correlated with an healthy plant-based diet and a panel of 75 metabolites correlated with an unhealthy plant-based diet.

After multivariable adjustment, participants with a higher plant-based diet index score (adjusted HR = 0.83; 95% CI, 0.76-0.9) and a higher healthy plant-based diet index score (aHR = 0.8; 95% CI, 0.73-0.87 ) had a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes.

“We did not observe an association between the metabolite profile of unhealthy plant-based diets and type 2 diabetes risk,” Hu said. “One reason could be that the metabolomics platform adopted in the present study did not adequately capture the harmful metabolic effects of unhealthy plant foods.”

Of the metabolites analyzed in the study, the gamma-aminobutyric acid, C5-carnitine and three triacylglycerol metabolites were associated with a lower plant-based diet index score and a higher risk for type 2 diabetes. Conversely, trigonelline, betaine and glycine were associated with a higher plant-based diet index score and lower risk for type 2 diabetes. Isoleucine, C22: 0 ceramide and six triacylglycerol metabolites were inversely associated with a healthy plant-based diet index and an increased type 2 diabetes risk, whereas trigonelline, hippurate and C22: 6 ceramide were associated with a higher healthy plant-based diet index score and a lower risk for type 2 diabetes.

“Further studies are needed to understand the role of healthy vs. unhealthy plant-based foods and diets in reducing the risk of other chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke and cancer, ”Hu said.

For more information:

Frank B. Hu, MD, PhDcan be reached at fhu@hsph.harvard.edu.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.