Veganism is becoming one of the fastest-growing lifestyle choices. As it continues to rise, larger supermarkets are stocking more vegan products while restaurants and cafés are updating their menus with more plant-based options.
The reasons people choose to follow a vegan lifestyle vary from the concern about animal welfare and the planet, to the proven health benefits. In fact, there are more and more top athletes from around the world who are punting the health benefits of eating more plants. (Pro tip: the documentary The Game Changers on Netflix is definitely worth a watch).
We are passionate about plant-based living. From wanting to leave this planet in a better state, to remaining healthy and energetic so that we can see our little ones grow up, it is our mission to make it easier to ‘go vegan’ for as many people as possible!
As with any new movement that has just hit the mainstream, Veganism is often met with skepticism. While it is becoming more accepted that a plant-based diet has a host of positive health benefits, such as increased energy, better sleep, clearer skin and improved sports recovery time, it’s worthwhile exploring more complex and serious conditions like diabetes – especially this month which is World Diabetes Month (World Diabetes Day is the 14th of November).
So, the question is, can following a healthy vegan diet help to manage diabetes as well as improve one’s condition?
Vegan diets are often lower in saturated fat, are naturally cholesterol-free, higher in fibre and other protective substances like antioxidants, which are all important to include in one’s diet should you have lifelong management disease like diabetes.
One of the more controversial nutrients in the vegan debate are omega 3s. Omega 3s offer cardiovascular protection, prevent cognitive decline and depression, and improve eye health, amongst others. However, perhaps less studied, are the effects of omega 3s in the treatment of diabetes.
A new study from England found that women who ate more omega 3s have a healthier mix of gut bacteria. These bacteria have been found to reduce the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes. The study looked at the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and the composition of the gut microbiome. High levels of omega-3 in the blood were correlated with higher levels of a compound called N-carbamylglutamate (NCG) – a compound that potentially reduces oxidative stress in the gut. The researchers believe that the omega-3 present in the gut induces bacteria to produce this substance.
Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals and antioxidants are out of balance. Free radicals can cause large-chain chemical reactions in the body; these reactions are called ‘oxidation’. Oxidative stress can cause damage to many of tissues, which can lead to a number of diseases over time, and can cause the development of insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, β-cell dysfunction and Type 2 diabetes.
In addition, another study found that omega 3s raise levels of a hormone called adiponectin, which increases insulin sensitivity. Researchers felt this might help prevent or control Type 2 diabetes.
Granted, these two studies mainly concentrated on fish oil supplements thus posing the question of whether plant-based omega3s are as effective. Many doctors take the stance that it is important to eat fish if you have diabetes. Many people equate fish with good health, mainly because they contain omega 3 fatty acids.
To better understand this, let’s unpack the nature of omega 3s.
There are three important omega3 fatty acids (ALA – alpha-linolenic acid; EPA – eicosapentaenoic acid and DHA – docosahexaenoic acid). Of these three types of fatty acids, plant-based foods typically only contain ALA. ALA is the trickier of the three to process and the body has to convert ALA into EPA and DHA in order to get the benefits.
The body is completely capable of converting ALA into EPA and into DHA. But while ALA is very efficient in converting to EPA, you require large amounts of ALA to produce optimal amounts of DHA. This is one of the reasons why omegas from fish are thought to be better – because they contain EPA and DHA.
However, it is quite possible, with a varied and healthy plant-based diet, to get in enough ALA to sufficiently produce EPA and DHA.
One of the promising plant-based omega3 sources is flaxseed oil. Flaxseed oil does not contain EPA or DHA, it only contains ALA. But remember the body can convert ALA into EPA and DHA. One study showed that women who consumed one tablespoon of flaxseed oil (containing 6600 – 7700mg of ALA) were able to convert 21% (or 1386 – 1617mg) of ALA into EPA and 9% (594 – 693mg) of ALA into DHA. These quantities are above the recommended dosages for general health maintenance.
Other vegan sources of omega 3 include:
- Soy-based food (soy milk, tofu, edamame beans, etc)
- Hemp seeds
- Chia seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sunflower seeds
- Sea vegetables like seaweed, wakame and nori
- Algae like spirulina and chlorella
If you are getting your omega 3s from plant-based sources, it is important to be aware of factors that can interfere with the conversion process:
- High intake of omega-6 fats interfere with the ALA conversion
- High alcohol intake
- Deficiency in certain nutrients including some B vitamins and minerals such as zinc and magnesium
- Trans-fatty acids from fried foods and hydrogenated oil
By controlling these factors and ensuring we eat a varied diet of plant foods rich in ALA, we can allow for the natural and efficient conversion of plant-based ALA into EPA and DHA.
But why not just get your omega 3s from fish?
Our oceans are no longer clean habitats for fish. They are rife with pollution and toxins, which are impacting the fragile eco-systems and have led to the poisoning of a large number of species. Fish and fish oils now often contain dioxins, PCBs, pesticides like DDT, flame-retardant chemicals, and heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and cadmium. These toxins can negatively affect human health.
If you’re considering going plant-based, it’s possible to have both a healthy and balanced diet, as well as offering a number of health benefits, especially for people with diabetes. The good news is that it’s never been easier to begin.
Nutrition tips to ensure you get the omega 3s you need from plant-based sources:
- Unheated flax oil used in a dressing on foods is a very effective way to add it to your diet.
- Plant-based protein alternatives fortified with flaxseed oil, like these Fry’s Fish-Style Fillets, are a convenient way to bring plant-based omega 3s into the diets of children and salad-wary eaters. Additionally, the Fry’s Fish—Style Fillets also have the same amount of omega-3 as tuna.
- Quality flax oil or algae-based supplements are easy to add to a daily routine. Vegans and vegetarians just need to make sure they choose a brand with gelatin-free capsules.