Eat Your Vegetables: Daily Intake Could Reduce The Risk of Diabetes

Posted Tue, 08/24/2010 - 5:01am by Denise Reynolds

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The number of people in the United States who have diabetes has tripled since 1980 to about 17 million. Diet is the major contributor to the trend, particularly as obesity (a key risk factor) continues to rise. In my experience as a Registered Dietitian, many people who have diabetes sometimes get conflicting information about how to manage their condition with proper food intake. New research finds that one key habit — increasing the daily intake of green leafy vegetables — can have a significant impact.

Researchers from the University of Leicester in the UK conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis of studies that have been conducted on the impact of fruit and vegetable intake on blood sugar control. They narrowed down the field to six studies that met their inclusion criteria.

Overall, they found that there was a benefit to consuming more fruits and vegetables. Specifically, consuming 1.35 servings of green leafy vegetables was associated with a 14% reduction in the risk of type 2 diabetes. While the first thought for most people is spinach and lettuce, this food group also includes cabbage, cauliflower, and herbs such as parsley and dill.

Fruits and vegetables help fight chronic diseases such as diabetes by providing essential nutrients that may be missing in the typical Western diet. Nutrients such as beta-carotene and vitamin C have antioxidant effects, ridding the body of free radicals that can cause damage called oxidative stress. It is thought that high blood glucose levels can cause the production of free radicals which can go on to further damage the pancreatic beta cells (where insulin is made) and worsen diabetes. Dietary antioxidants have been associated with improved blood sugar control in a previous study published in the journal Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases.

Another benefit to increased fruit and vegetable intake is the lowered fat content, primarily when plant sources are used to replace saturated or trans fats found in meats or packaged convenience foods. Diabetics are more susceptible to the development of heart disease. In 2004, the American Diabetes Association notes that 68% of patients who died of diabetes-related deaths had heart disease. 16% had stroke as a comorbid condition.

Green vegetables are also good sources of magnesium, the fourth most abundant mineral in the body. Magnesium is used in more than 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including the regulation of blood sugar levels. One-half cup of spinach provides 20% of the recommended daily value for magnesium in adults.

You may be thinking, "Why eat fruits and vegetables when I can take a nutrition supplement?" The researchers stress that the benefits come from the consumption of foods rather than dietary supplements. In fact, a recent study conducted in Australia found that the onset of type 2 diabetes may be triggered by the intake of antioxidant vitamin supplements. In addition, leafy green vegetables are filling and low calorie. Focusing on the addition of at least one serving at each meal can help you eat less, helping to lose excess body weight. You can't get that with a supplement.

For those who don't usually eat the recommended 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, the task of getting more into the diet may seem daunting. It just takes a little effort and a little planning. Try some of these easy tips from Fruits and Veggies, More Matters, a website sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Vegetables in the morning? Sure, just add spinach, peppers, mushrooms or other favorite vegetable into an omelet.
  • Top breakfast cereal, yogurt, or pancakes with a fresh fruit topping. (Avoid sugary "fruit" sauces or syrups; these contain very little actual fruit)
  • Make a fruit smoothie for a quick, on-the-go breakfast.
  • Keep fresh cut, washed fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator in plain sight so you'll be more likely to grab them instead of other handy junk foods.
  • Carry fresh fruit or cut carrots/celery for a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack.
  • When planning meals, set a goal to have at least one side dish as a non-starchy vegetable.
  • When going out to eat, order a salad for an appetizer.

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