Background: Plant-based diets have been recommended to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D). However, not all plant foods are necessarily beneficial. We examined the association of an overall plant-based diet and hypothesized healthful and unhealthful versions of a plant-based diet with T2D incidence in three prospective cohort studies in the US.
Methods and findings: We included 69,949 women from the Nurses' Health Study (1984-2012), 90,239 women from the Nurses' Health Study 2 (1991-2011), and 40,539 men from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (1986-2010), free of chronic diseases at baseline. Dietary data were collected every 2-4 y using a semi-quantitative food frequency questionnaire. Using these data, we created an overall plant-based diet index (PDI), where plant foods received positive scores, while animal foods (animal fats, dairy, eggs, fish/seafood, poultry/red meat, miscellaneous animal-based foods) received reverse scores. We also created a healthful plant-based diet index (hPDI), where healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, vegetable oils, tea/coffee) received positive scores, while less healthy plant foods (fruit juices, sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes, sweets/desserts) and animal foods received reverse scores. Lastly, we created an unhealthful plant-based diet index (uPDI) by assigning positive scores to less healthy plant foods and reverse scores to healthy plant foods and animal foods. We documented 16,162 incident T2D cases during 4,102,369 person-years of follow-up. In pooled multivariable-adjusted analysis, both PDI and hPDI were inversely associated with T2D (PDI: hazard ratio [HR] for extreme deciles 0.51, 95% CI 0.47-0.55, p trend < 0.001; hPDI: HR for extreme deciles 0.55, 95% CI 0.51-0.59, p trend < 0.001). The association of T2D with PDI was considerably attenuated when we additionally adjusted for body mass index (BMI) categories (HR 0.80, 95% CI 0.74-0.87, p trend < 0.001), while that with hPDI remained largely unchanged (HR 0.66, 95% CI 0.61-0.72, p trend < 0.001). uPDI was positively associated with T2D even after BMI adjustment (HR for extreme deciles 1.16, 95% CI 1.08-1.25, p trend < 0.001). Limitations of the study include self-reported diet assessment, with the possibility of measurement error, and the potential for residual or unmeasured confounding given the observational nature of the study design.
Conclusions: Our study suggests that plant-based diets, especially when rich in high-quality plant foods, are associated with substantially lower risk of developing T2D. This supports current recommendations to shift to diets rich in healthy plant foods, with lower intake of less healthy plant and animal foods.