A new prescription for type 2 diabetes: A low-fat vegan diet

Kickstart Insulin Function with Plant-Based Foods

By Neal Barnard, M.D.

Diabetes rates are on the rise and Washington is no exception: One in three adults has elevated blood sugar and a third of children are on their way to full-blown diabetes, which, at $85,000 or more over the course of a lifetime, is expensive to treat. Our medical systems aren’t equipped for this influx and our bodies can’t handle it.

The question isn’t “How did we get here?” but “How can we fix it?” and fast.

One solution, regardless of your health insurance plan, is already available: A plant-based vegan diet—centered around vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes—combats insulin resistance and significantly improves blood sugar control. This approach, funded by the National Institutes of Health in a landmark study in 2003, lowers A1c by 1.2 percentage points, an amount better than metformin. More recently, a vegan diet was shown to treat the symptoms of diabetic nerve pain, the pain or tingling sensation in your feet and hands.

Diabetes Inside the Cell Graphic (3)
Excess fat becomes locked inside our cells, creating insulin resistance. A low-fat, plant-based diet helps drain the fat from our cells and gives our bodies the nutrients it needs.

The “side effects” of a low-fat vegan diet are all positive:weight loss, low blood pressure, and healthy cholesterol. In a five-month study in the workplace, participants even saw gains in productivity, reduced absenteeism, and alleviation of anxiety, depression, and fatigue.

The best part is it’s easy to follow. So how do you get started?

Build your meals around the new four food groups: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes.

Vegetables: All vegetables, especially the dark leafy green, red, and orange varieties. Swap sweet potatoes for white potatoes.

Fruits: Favor apples, pears, and fresh cantaloupe over varieties with a high-glycemic load, like watermelon and pineapple.

Whole Grains: Steel-cut oats, pumpernickel, barley, rye, and pasta, cooked al dente, are on the menu.  Many people are surprised to learn that pasta has a lower glycemic load than brown rice or whole wheat bread.

Legumes: Lentils, beans, and peas are excellent sources of protein and fiber. They provide a hearty texture for bean-based burgers, soups, chili, and stew.

A plant-based vegan diet can be as simple as opting for a bean burrito at the local taco shop or ordering a veggie burger the next time you’re at the airport. Tom Brady and Beyoncé rely on plant-based fuel for star-powered performances, and it’s a strategy that former president Bill Clinton credits for saving his life. While we can’t guarantee you a spot at the Super Bowl, we’ll work with you to keep your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and insulin levels in an optimal range. We’ll even keep brownies and cake, made with healthful ingredients, like black beans and applesauce, on the menu.

To learn more about how this can work for you, book an appointment at the nonprofit Barnard Medical Center or attend one of our physician-led Food for Life cooking and nutrition classes. We’ll show you how to read food labels, provide a grocery store tour, and demo quick and delicious meals, including green smoothies, braised kale, and black bean chili. Classes are free, and the next class starts Tuesday, March 1st.

Register at BarnardMedical.org or call 202-527-7500.


At Barnard Medical Center, we know that better eating habits are often the key to better health. Our physicians and dietitians work together to create nutrition prescriptions, tailored just for you, to help you reach and maintain optimal health for a lifetime.