February 24, 2024

Sharon Palmer (aka The Plant-Powered Dietitian) is loved for her engaging plant-based cookbooks and blogs, which are backed by several decades of experience as a registered dietitian nutritionist. The new version of her, The Plant-Powered Plan for Beating Diabetes: A Guide to Prevention and Management, dives into ever-growing research into the benefits of veganism for diabetes management and provides 100 delicious and nutritious plant-based recipes. By breaking down the latest science into digestible summaries and underpinning research with easy-to-implement advice and easy-to-follow recipes, Palmer offers a wealth of resources to anyone interested in taking care of their health. Forks Over Knives spoke with Palmer about her longstanding passion for food sustainability, how living in a Blue Zone has impacted her perspective on diet, and why a plant-based lifestyle can be a game changer for over 130 millions of Americans living with diabetes and prediabetes.

How has your upbringing influenced your interest in plant-based diets?

Sharon Palmer: My parents both came from farming families which meant we grew a lot of our own food when I was young. We had a huge garden, we kept canned things, we made homemade bread, nothing was packaged. I was interested in nutrition and health from a young age, so I took the plant-based nutrition program at Loma Linda University in California. The people inside [Loma Linda] they are one of the longest-lived populations in the United States and were later designated a Blue Zone. However, I wasn’t vegan from the start. I was a pescatarian after college, and then I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and then I went vegan in 2011. As a dietitian who writes about the benefits of a plant-based diet, I felt I had to for my research, and it really has been a game changer for me because I realized it wasn’t hard to maintain. I felt great and knew this way of eating had the best outcome for my health, the environment and animal welfare.

Master vegetable cooking with Forks

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What changes have you noticed in your health after going vegan?

PS: I felt really light, like my body wasn’t weighed down and my digestion was more effective. And now here I am at my age, and I have very good health indicators. My blood pressure is low, my blood cholesterol is low, and my inflammatory markers are low. I’m getting older now and I don’t have to deal with all the things that most women do [my age] I’m already being treated. I believe eating plant-based has really reduced my risk of developing chronic disease.

As RDN, what has been your experience with diabetes treatment?

PS: During my 20 year career as a dietician I have seen an enormous amount of patients with diabetes. And the number has just increased over the years. We used to call type 2 diabetes adult-onset diabetes because it typically happened after someone turned 40, but now it’s happening much earlier. It’s an epidemic. And it’s not just a problem for people who already have diabetes: There’s also a huge amount of people who have prediabetes or are dangerously close to it. So it seems to me that when we talk about diabetes prevention, it’s a concern that most of us need to consider. The interesting part about lifestyle intervention is that what’s good for diabetes is also what’s good for the heart, the brain, the kidneys, the liver, it’s good for everything. Going plant-based isn’t just a diabetes-specific diet. We should all eat like this.

How did you prepare to write your new book?

PS: I did a ton of research, a literature review, and attended as many conferences on the subject as possible before sitting down to write. I interviewed colleagues and scientists who are leading the way with published research in this field. For example, research by Neal Barnards found that a vegan diet could increase beta cell function, improve insulin [sensitivity]and facilitate better blood glucose levels for people who already had type 2 diabetes. He also found that diabetic patients taking oral medications and/or insulin were able to stop their medications after 25 days on his plan. But diabetes is so peculiar; each individual responds to certain treatments, medications, and programs differently, so my book is not a one-size-fits-all prescription. It includes lots of information about the power of plant-based diets and provides different strategies so people can tailor them to meet their needs. This would be great to use in conjunction with your doctor so you can develop a personalized plan.

What are the most important elements you think about when creating and trying new recipes?

PS: I try all my recipes at home in the kitchen. I am constantly thinking of new ideas. A big inspiration for me is the seasons, what’s fresh and available in stores. I’m a big believer in local foods, sustainable foods, and farmers market shopping. When I create recipes I think: are these ingredients in season together and what kind of flavors go best with them? I also try to make sure all recipes are accessible, affordable, and call for ingredients you can find at any typical grocery store.

Are your recipes without oil?

PS: I use a small amount of oil in my recipes, but not all of my recipes. It’s very easy to omit the oil to tailor it to your specific dietary needs.

You have a master’s degree in food sustainability. How does this affect your work?

PS: I’ve always been fascinated by how food grows and how we take care of the environment through the things we eat. I studied at Green Mountain College in Vermont for two years looking at the entire food system and its impact on the planet. Not only did it further inform my understanding of the ecological benefits of plant-based diets, but it also highlighted the nuances in our food system about feeding an ever-growing population and how to curb climate change. I co-founded an organization called Food and Planet, which has a goal of empowering healthcare professionals to promote sustainable food systems. Our mission is to educate healthcare professionals so they can serve as a reliable point of contact to explain to consumers how to eat more sustainably. This could include topics like what to buy at the supermarket, how to know where food comes from, how to reduce food waste, etc.

What would you say to someone who wants to switch to plants to manage their diabetes but isn’t sure how to get started?

PS: I would like to let them know that this is such a holistic diet for your whole body and the research in this area continues to grow. When you have diabetes you really have to take care of your body more than the average person, so you have to work a little harder. Your doctor is a key element in managing your disease, but the most important thing you can do for your health is take care of yourself every single day. What are you eating, how are you moving, are you reducing stress, all of these things are part of a holistic lifestyle. And that’s powerful because it means you have control over your health. I’ve also heard from many people who are considering switching to vegetable that they are afraid of missing out on something. But there are over 20,000 edible species of plants on the planet, and these are the ingredients that add colour, texture and aroma to your dish. Because there is such incredible diversity in the plant world, you won’t get less, you’ll get more.

Try Sharon Palmer’s Raw Purple Power Salad recipe, excerpted fromThe plant-powered plan to defeat diabetes!

Raw Purple Power Salad in ceramic bowls against a gray background

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