Could going vegan help solve America’s insulin problem?

A literature review out of West Virginia University suggests diabetics or those at risk for diabetes and metabolic syndrome could lower that risk by sticking to a largely plant-based diet.

The study, authored by doctoral student Rachel A. Wattick and published in Current Diabetes Reports, looked at a range of plant-based diets, including veganism, vegetarianism and semi-vegetarianism, and found the more a diet relied on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts, the more it lowered a person’s risk of developing diabetes. Among those who already had diabetes, plant-based diets were linked to improved blood sugar levels, lower BMI and a reduced dependence on insulin.

Wattick and her mentor, Melissa Olfert, considered a range of published reports for their research, most of them from the past five years. One study found 39 percent of participants who treated their diabetes with medication or insulin could stop taking pills or giving themselves injections after they adopted a near-vegetarian diet.

“The research seems to show that veganism is the most therapeutic and protective diet for controlling and maintaining health with diabetes, but if we consider people’s current habits, and if they do eat meat regularly now, even beginning a semi-vegetarian diet—having meat just once a week—can help,” Wattick said in a WVU release.

In another study included in Wattack and Olfert’s analysis, patients who ate a typical diet saw a diabetes rate of 7.6 percent. The rate dropped significantly with the less meat a person ate—semi-vegetarians, pescatarians, ovo-lacto vegetarians and vegans had diabetes rates of 6.1 percent, 4.8 percent, 3.2 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively.

“If you can make changes that you can adhere to, that’s important,” Wattick said. “And you could have your own diet that you follow that is very strict, but then if you’re visiting family or you go out to eat, it’s okay sometimes to accommodate those situations. It’s not going to totally throw everything off.”

A recent study led by Olfert found patients who had or were at risk for metabolic syndrome spent $29 more per week on groceries when following the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate guidelines than those who didn’t, suggesting going vegan or vegetarian could be a costly switch.

“Is it cheaper? No,” Olfert said in the release. “But you have to weigh the pros and cons of a healthier plate for $29 more a week versus getting fast food or grab-and-go, high-sodium and empty-calorie convenient meals in the grocery story. Those are going to be what we consider calorie-dense but nutrient-poor foods, and that is the very crux of what promotes metabolic syndrome.”

According to the release, West Virginia has the highest incidence of diabetes in the U.S. but one of the lowest average household incomes, so using plant-based diets to minimize insulin doses or even eliminate them could help counteract the potentially deadly rising costs of insulin in the country.