As the rise of obesity continues to take on global proportions, so does type 2 diabetes and its related ailments. Five hundred million people worldwide are expected to develop diabetes by 2050, a population that will be increasingly vulnerable to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke, dementia, blindness, nerve damage, even cancer. The effort to limit obesity-inducing, diabetes-aggravating excess sugar leads some to put fruit, and starchier root vegetables on the “no-no” list of foods to avoid — but this could backfire, as increasing evidence continues to demonstrate the protective benefits of produce intake.

The case for eating more, not less, plant-based foods was strengthened recently by a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Researchers looked at dietary patterns and the incidence of obesity among 9,298 women and 5,502 men (average age 51) over the course of 11 years. Overall, those with the highest fruit and vegetable intake enjoyed a 7% reduction in diabetes risk. Protection nearly doubled — to 13% — specifically for root vegetables (including carrots, radishes, beets, turnips). Leafy greens (spinach, kale, chard, lettuces, watercress, etc.) offered the biggest advantage of all: A 16% lower diabetes risk.

Why might this be? Eating more fruit and vegetables means getting more fiber which in turn regulates absorption of sugar into the blood stream. Additionally, produce contains a bonanza of other nutrients and compounds under study for anti-diabetic effects. For example, some of those root veggies are actually cruciferous (e.g., turnips, radishes, rutabaga) which like broccoli and cauliflower contain sulforaphane, found to help limit diabetic vascular damage under lab conditions. Leafy greens are top sources of vitamin K, higher intakes of which have been linked to lower blood glucose levels.

Published December 1, 2012