Q. I am a healthy, normal weight woman in my early 20s. I am also a vegetarian. Because there is a strong family history of type 2 diabetes (both parents and all four grandparents), my doctor suggested I adopt a relatively low-carb diet to reduce the risk of getting the disease myself. But does going low-carb require me to give up my vegetarian lifestyle? Can a plant-based diet also reduce my risk, even if it’s high in complex carbs like whole grains and beans?
A.The good news is that being a vegetarian does substantially reduce the risk of getting Type 2 diabetes, despite the fact that vegetarians diets tend to be higher in carbohydrates than omnivorous diets. Much of this risk reduction has to do with the fact that vegetarians are less likely to be overweight.
However, does this still hold true when diabetes runs in the family? Keep in mind that genes aren’t the only things that are passed down from generation to generation. We also tend to inherit lifestyle habits and eating patterns.
If your parents and grandparents developed Type 2 diabetes despite maintaining healthy body weights and eating healthy diets, then there might indeed be a rather profound genetic predisposition to the disease. If, on the other hand, your diabetic family members also tended to be overweight, sedentary, and with less-than-healthy eating patterns, genes may have had very little to do with your family history of Type 2 diabetes.
Either way, however, the fact that you are thinking prevention before developing any risk factors (such as elevated blood sugar, insulin resistance, or being overweight) gives you more options than you might have later on. If being a vegetarian is important or preferable to you, I think you can safely continue on this path.
More important than whether or not you eat meat is the nutritional quality of your food choices. You can have a vegetarian diet based on nutritious whole foods or one that’s based on highly-processed meat-free junk food. (And the same can be said about non-vegetarian diets!)
I think the key to your doctor’s advice is in the word “relatively.” To me, this suggests an approach I frequently recommend for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike: Limit your consumption of refined carbohydrates (foods made with flour and/or added sugars) but not necessarily nutritious, complex carbohydrates like legumes and whole, intact grains.
See also: How to build a healthy vegetarian diet