Did you know that type 1 diabetes mellitus — also referred to simply as type 1 diabetes — is actually classified as an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune diseases are a specific group of conditions in which “your immune system mistakenly attacks your body.” While the immune system is an integral part of the human body and, in normal circumstances, keeps harmful bacteria and viruses at bay, those that suffer from an autoimmune disease have malfunctioning immune systems. Instead of sending autoantibodies — attack proteins — to kill those harmful agents, the immune system “mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as a foreign” invader to be destroyed.
When it comes to type 1 diabetes, the immune system targets and destroys “insulin-producing cells (beta cells) in the pancreas.)” When the pancreas doesn’t produce insulin, then glucose can’t be effectively removed from your blood system as you consume glucose-rich foods, and thereby your blood sugar rises. This can lead to severe health issues and can even be terminal.
With that said, in combination with specialized medication, a plant-based diet can help those with type 1 diabetes manage the symptoms of the disease. Plant-based foods are naturally low in cholesterol, generally low in glucose (when carefully selected), rich in antioxidants, and, most importantly, are jam-packed with anti-inflammatory compounds that can help mediate the inflammatory response of the immune system.
Want to learn a bit more about a plant-based diet and type 1 diabetes? Read on!
What is Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus?
As mentioned, this chronic condition is an autoimmune disease in which “the body does not make enough insulin to control blood sugar levels.”
Yet, we need to take a few steps back to really understand this disease, all the way back to the digestion of food.
Every piece of food we eat is “broken down into basic components” including fat, protein, and, most important when it comes to type 1 diabetes, carbohydrates, which is turned into “simple sugars, primary glucose.” Most likely you’ve heard a lot about glucose in recent years and in both positive and negative lights. Glucose — also called sugar — is a crucial source of energy for your body and yet too much glucose in your blood can lead to blood sugar spikes, which, if chronically experienced, can lead to health issues.
How does glucose work?
Once glucose has been broken down from the food you ingest, it “needs to leave the blood and get inside the cells” in order to provide those cells with energy.
How does glucose make its way into cells?
You’ve definitely heard this term before and that’s because it’s a crucial element to a healthy functioning human body. Insulin is a hormone that is created in the pancreas, is released when during digestion, travels through the blood and “signals the cells to take up glucose.”
Sufferers of type 1 diabetes produce either an insignificant amount or no of insulin. This means that glucose can’t be absorbed into cells, “accumulates in the bloodstream,” and leaves the body unenergized. On top of that, “high levels of glucose that remain in the blood cause excessive urination and dehydration, and damage tissues of the body.”
Type 1 versus Type 2 Diabetes
Let’s take a quick moment and differentiate between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, as they are completely different conditions with a few similarities.
While type 1 diabetes mellitus is an autoimmune disease in which antibodies make it impossible for the pancreas to create insulin, type 2 diabetes is based around an insulin resistance. This means that the “body still produces insulin, but it’s unable to use it effectively,” and ends up producing more than is necessary. Same as type 1 diabetes, this causes a buildup of glucose in your bloodstream. Research is still ongoing regarding the cause of type 2 diabetes, yet “several lifestyle factors may contribute, including excess weight and inactivity,” as well as genetics, family history, age, geography, and dietary habits.
Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus
Symptoms related to type 1 diabetes mellitus are broken down into two different categories: initial symptoms — those that come on first, suddenly, and very strong — and chronic symptoms — those that creep in, even after treatment has begun, that generally affect the entire body.
Type 1 diabetes mellitus generally always presents as “excessive urination and extreme thirst” due to the “increased glucose in the blood [which] causes the kidneys to create more urine than usual.” Due to the excess urination, the body becomes dehydrated leading to lots of water or liquid consumption to compensate. Another common initial symptom is weight loss — due to the excessive urination and loss of water — yet it’s generally accompanied “with no loss of appetite.” Initial type 1 diabetes may also present as “weakness, fatigue, confusion, nausea, and vomiting.”
All of these symptoms may be caused by dehydration, yet they may also be caused by a very serious and oftentimes deadly condition associated with type 1 diabetes called ketoacidosis. Ketoacidosis “occurs because cells can’t use the glucose they need for energy” and therefore they turn to an acid called ketones — a fuel produced by the liver — which buildup in the blood and wreak havoc. This condition may lead to heart issues, nervous system problems, and even coma or death.
Long term health issues associated with type 1 diabetes include retinopathy, — eye damage that eventually leads to blindness — neuropathy, — nerve damage that leads to pain, numbness, loss of body function control, such as digestion and urination, and sores and blisters — nephropathy, — kidney disease and kidney failure — and heart disease, — due to poor circulation. On top of that, most sufferers of type 1 diabetes also suffer from hypoglycemia — referring to a condition of low blood sugar, which can be caused by type 1 diabetes treatments such as “insulin injections or pills.” Hypoglycemia has a host of other symptoms including weakness, dizziness, trembling, sudden sweating, headache, confusion, irritability, blurry or double vision, and even coma.
The Relationship Between Type 1 Diabetes and Plant-Based Foods
When it comes to type 1 diabetes, diet plays a major role. In conjunction with medication, such as insulin injections and pills, those with type 1 diabetes must be careful about the amount and timing of glucose consumption. It’s a delicate balance of making sure to consume proper amounts around the timing of medication intake in order to keep a healthy blood sugar level. Basically, is a type 1 diabetes sufferer “takes too much insulin relative to their dietary intake, or if they forget to eat, they can develop dangerous hypoglycemia,” and, on the other hand, “if they take too little insulin, or eat too much, they can develop ketoacidosis.”
What is a good diet for those with type 1 diabetes? Once again, it’s all about balance! In particular, it includes “eating ‘good carbs’ instead of ‘bad carbs’, ‘good fats’ instead of ‘bad fats.'”
How is a whole-foods, plant-based diet beneficial for type 1 diabetes?
To begin, plant-based foods are not only low in cholesterol and unhealthy fats — meaning trans fatty acids and saturated fats — but they are also high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, which are crucial in regulating any autoimmune disease. Yet, there’s far more to it than this. Based on personal experiences and anecdotes, there are various health benefits for type 1 diabetes to consume plant-based, whole foods.
In particular, eating whole and plant-based foods also boosts insulin sensitivity — which is a “major risk factor for chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer” — helps glucose levels become predictable, reduces the risk of neuropathy, protects the kidneys from damage, keeps weight manageable and healthy, and boosts energy levels — leads to a more active lifestyle, which can be essential for type 1 diabetes overall management.
Type 1 Diabetes-Friendly Plant-Based Foods
While avoiding processed foods high in unhealthy fats and added sugars is a great place to start, there are a few foods that are true champions for those suffering from type 1 diabetes. These foods are part of the whole-foods, plant-based category, but they are also rich in other nutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory compounds, while also reducing the chance of glucose overload. Before beginning any new diet or incorporating any food into your regimen, make sure to speak with a medical professional first!
With that said, once you’ve spoken with a doctor, here are a few foods to get you started!
This is a somewhat broad category that offers a variety of great healthy food options including brown rice, whole wheat, quinoa, oatmeal, fruits, vegetables, beans, and lentils. Complex carbs are filled with nutrients, but most importantly they are generally incredibly rich in protein and fiber. These two agents not only help regulate a healthy weight — or lose weight if that’s your goal — but they also support healthy and slow digestion and are lower on the glycemic index, which decreases the chance of a glucose overload.
Try some complex carb-rich recipes such as this Brown Rice Jambalaya, this Savory Lentil Soup, this 5-Ingredient Protein Quinoa Bowl, or (my personal favorite complex carbohydrate) this Apple Parsnip Oatmeal with Cranberry Sauce.
Protein is an essential macronutrient for any diet, yet it can come in handy for those suffering from type 1 diabetes. In particular, protein “provides steady energy with little effect on blood sugar.” This mean that protein can actually “keep blood sugar stable, and can help with sugar cravings and feeling full after eating.” Try incorporating plant-based protein sources such as peas, tofu, amaranth, soy milk, hemp seeds, and beans, to name just a few great sources!
You most likely hear about fiber all the time when it comes to a healthy diet and for good reason. Dietary fiber has a variety of health benefits including normalizing bowel movements and maintaining bowel health, lowers cholesterol, helps with healthy weight management, and, when it comes to type 1 diabetes symptom management, fiber has been shown to help control blood sugar levels. When it comes to obtaining dietary fiber from a whole-foods, plant-based diet, take your pick of food because there are a plethora of options including pears, avocado, apples, broccoli, artichoke, kidney beans, split peas, chickpeas, quinoa, oats, and almost all nuts, and seeds. These are just a few of the many fiber-rich plant-based foods!
With that said, when choosing fiber-rich fruits, keep in mind that these are also rich in glucose, so consume wisely and with direction from a doctor!
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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