A Plant-Based Prescription for Type 2 Diabetes

In 2021, it was estimated that over 4 million South African adults were living with diabetes, a chronic metabolic disorder characterised by dysregulation of blood sugar.

In terms of lifestyle diseases, type 2 diabetes mellitus [T2DM] is arguably a leading scourge of our modern consumption habits, underscoring the seemingly inevitable detriments of society’s high intake of calories, refined sugars, and animal products.

Could plant-based diets help prevent and manage the burden of T2DM in our country? A new study from South African medical non-profit Physicians Association for Nutrition (PAN) suggests a plant-based prescription may offer various health benefits.

Lifestyle Medicine – a Missing Link in Modern Healthcare

A T2DM diagnosis is not always a life sentence. Optimising lifestyle factors can prevent, manage, and potentially reverse T2DM. South African health systems recommend three months of lifestyle modification for all persons diagnosed with T2DM, with or without pharmaceutical interventions.

A high-quality diet, regular exercise, improved sleep, and stress management can be powerful lifestyle changes for health and well-being.

21 Days of Plant-based Eating for Diabetes

Dietary shifts increasing plant-based food consumption are gaining popularity worldwide, with the most common health benefits including protection from chronic diseases. In 2021, UBUNTU Wellness Centre in Cape Town developed the UBUNTU 21-day whole food plant-based eating challenge for T2DM. Participants were provided medical care and guided by a recipe book, Healing Diabetes and Other Lifestyle Disease: Cooking Africa’s Plant-Based Whole Foods.

Integrating Plant-based Nutrition into South African Health Systems

Medical non-profit organisation, PAN South Africa, is part of a global community working with health professionals, health science students and policymakers on the role of plant-forward dietary patterns for chronic disease, climate change and pandemic risk.

To influence medical practice in South Africa, PAN South Africa teamed up with North-West University to publish a case study of the participants’ and healthcare workers’ experience of the plant-based eating challenge in the South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study followed the first 10 participants of the challenge. Through interviews with participants and their physicians, the research unpacks unique perspectives on how the challenge impacted their health and fit into their daily lives.

Dr. Nanine Wyma, Managing Director of PAN South Africa, says, “Most plant-based nutrition research is based on populations in the Global North, or high-income countries. It is vital to adapt plant-based dietary concepts to South African populations who are suffering from high burdens of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancers.”

Among the participants with T2DM, the plant-based dietary approach improved their blood sugar control, and some reduced or discontinued their medications. Participants also lost weight, reduced their abdominal circumference, and gained psychological benefits.

“Seeing what [plant-based eating] can do in terms of chronic disease management, this was very powerful,” said a physician who monitored participants of the challenge.

The Reality of Plant-based Eating in South Africa

Health may be a powerful motivator for dietary change, but food choices are influenced by a number of contextual factors – personal, interpersonal, organisational, cultural and healthcare systems.

African food environments still largely promote animal-based diets, making it difficult to access a diversity of fruits, vegetables, and healthy plant-based meals. PAN South Africa explored and outlined these factors in the published study and hopes that the findings improve health promotion and the understanding of plant-based diets among South African healthcare professionals.

Learn More About Plant-based Nutrition

Talk to your doctor or dietician about a plant-based diet if you’d like to better address your lifestyle habits in treating a T2DM diagnosis. PAN South Africa has a plant-based friendly healthcare provider database to help find a suitable professional.

PAN South Africa also presents a range of learning opportunities for health professionals. With the Plant-Based Nutrition Journal Series, licensed health professionals can receive three CPD points for free each month. Health science students are also invited to get to know PAN University, where students host educational events, film screenings and fun activities involving plant-based food on university campuses nationwide.

For more information, follow PAN South Africa at @pan_southafrica on Instagram, or visit


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