Is a Vegetarian Diet Better for Diabetes?

Research suggests that well planned, vegetarian diets that are rich in whole grains, fiber, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated fats can help improve blood sugar and may even prevent diabetes. Here, a registered dietitian and type 1 tells you what you need to know.

Is a vegetarian diet better for diabetes

Vegetarian diets are becoming more mainstream. The words Meatless Monday, vegan and plant-based are the new buzzwords in today’s nutrition frenzy. But you might be skeptical to try a vegetarian diet if you have diabetes fearing you will consume too many carbohydrates and no animal protein to stabilize your blood sugars.

Eggs, cheese, meat, fish and other protein sources have long been considered “safe” for people with diabetes because they don’t raise blood sugars as do carbohydrates found in grains, fruits, and legumes—all cornerstones of the vegetarian diet. But it turns out, following a meatless Monday or vegetarian approach may be beneficial to your waistline as well as your diabetes control.

New research points to the protective effects a plant-based diet can have on people at risk of developing diabetes or with existing diabetes. Vegetarians and vegans tend to live longer and have a lower risk of developing diabetes as well as other chronic conditions like heart disease, hypertension, certain types of cancers and obesity.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recent position paper, a well-planned vegetarian diet that is rich in whole grains, nuts, and soy, seeds, fruits, and veggies can be nutritionally adequate and suitable for all life stages. The key word here is well-planned. Vegetarians can be at risk for nutritional deficiencies, in particular, iron, vitamin D and calcium if not appropriately planned. People with diabetes may need to consider additional factors if choosing to adopt a vegetarian-type eating pattern.

Although there is no “one size fits all" diet for people with diabetes, more organizations are recognizing the advantages of plant-based diets in the treatment and prevention of type 2 diabetes. Recently, the 2017 Diabetes Care Guidelines emphasized a healthful eating pattern with nutrient-dense foods that includes plant-based and Mediterranean diets. Additionally, the Canadian Association of Diabetes has included in their guidelines a plant-based diet as nutrition therapy for individuals with type 2 diabetes due to its effectiveness in targeting multiple modifiable risk factors.

What Is a Plant-based Diet?

Plant-based or vegetarian diets are devoid of most or all animal products. There is no single version of a vegetarian diet, but rather a spectrum of vegetarian patterns that vary with the types of animal products (eggs, fish, dairy) they include. People choose to follow a vegetarian lifestyle for many reasons including animal rights, environmental factors or for better health. That being said, vegetarian diets do not necessarily equate to a nutritious diet. A person can avoid animal meat, but still consume excess calories from donuts and vegan chips as they are considered vegetarian. Below are 5 different types of vegetarian diets:

  1. Vegan. Excludes eggs, dairy or other animal-based products. Includes only foods from plants (fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, grains, and nuts).
  2. Lacto-vegetarian. Includes dairy products but no egg.
  3. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian. Includes eggs and dairy products.
  4. Pescatarian. Includes fish
  5. Flexitarian. Eat mostly a vegetarian diet with limited meat, eggs, and dairy

How a Vegetarian Diet Can Improve Blood Sugar Control 

Excess weight and diabetes go hand in hand. Almost two-thirds of Americans are overweight. Not surprisingly, around 80%-90% of people living with diabetes are overweight or obese. Plant-based diets are associated with a lower body mass index and may yield better weight loss results than non-vegetarian diets. Some observational studies have seen vegetarian diets perform better than non-vegetarian diets with greater weight loss results.

Despite the common misconception of over-reliance on carbohydrates, people who follow a well-planned vegetarian diet consume foods which are low-glycemic, higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat, which translates into better blood sugars. A study done in Diabetes Care compared a low-fat vegan diet versus an American Diabetes Association Diet in individuals with type 2 diabetes. Ironically, the vegan diet yielded greater improvements in weight, glycemic control, and cholesterol compared to the ADA diet. Forty-three percent of individuals lowered their diabetes medications vs 23% in the ADA group. 

The unique portfolio of foods found in vegetarian diets promotes metabolic improvements in people with diabetes. Additionally, the lack of saturated fat and reliance on lean proteins like nut butter, soy, and legumes makes for a healthier heart.  Needless to say, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in people with diabetes, so heart health is especially important.

Is It Safe to Eat No Meat?

Following a vegetarian diet will not “magically” improve your diabetes—that would just be wishful thinking. Diabetes is a very individualized chronic condition: what works for you may not work for another. Meet with a registered dietitian will help you understand the fundamentals of vegetarian eating and help you develop a well-balanced, nutritionally-adequate vegetarian diet.

Here are some additional pointers to consider:

  • Count your carbs. Eating a vegetarian diet will NOT eliminate carb counting Remember fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains contain carbohydrates and will impact blood sugars.  People with diabetes need to keep portion sizes in check and count carbohydrates accurately to avoid elevations in blood glucose. 
  • Choose high fiber whole grains. Avoid relying too much on highly-processed carbohydrates like white flour, pastries, and white bread. Instead, choose high-fiber grains like quinoa, brown rice, bulgur, and oatmeal. These whole grains have a lower glycemic impact due to the fiber and additional protein content.
  • Pack in the protein. Protein remains an important nutrient for people with diabetes because it can stabilize blood sugars as well as help with satiety.  Being a vegetarian does not mean you eliminate protein. Make sure you include other non-animal options like tofu, beans, soy, nuts, and nut butter in every meal. For ovo-vegetarians, eggs, cheese, yogurt, and milk are other nutritious sources of protein.
  • Get plenty of veggies. Vegetarians should be consuming five servings of fruits and vegetables per day.   A good rule of thumb is to fill your plate with half a cup of non-starchy vegetables like dark leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms.
  • Consider taking a supplement.  Nutrients of concern include calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and iron. Vegans are at higher risk for low calcium and vitamin D due to the lack of dairy sources. Depending on what food groups you exclude, taking a supplement might be advisable. Be sure to consult your doctor or registered dietitian.

Well planned, vegetarian diets that are rich in whole grains, fiber, legumes, nuts, and unsaturated fats can help improve blood sugar fluctuations in people with type 2 diabetes and may even help prevent the appearance of diabetes. However, there is no such thing as a perfect diet for people with diabetes.

Do you need to become vegan or eliminate all animal products to see health benefits? Not at all. The research clearly states that eating more fruits, whole grains, and less meat is associated with overall improved health. Vegetarianism isn’t a diet; it’s a lifestyle.

If you’d like to experiment with this way of eating, I recommend starting out with the flexitarian approach. Instead of eliminating meat altogether, start to gradually reduce the amount of meat you consume. If you typically eat meat for lunch and dinner, try eating it at dinner time and having a plant-based meal at lunch. See how that works for you.

Or, join the Meatless Monday bandwagon and slowly incorporate more plant-based products rich in fiber and low in saturated fat. After all, there can be no harm in eating more fruits and veggies.

I’d love to hear your results. Follow me on Instagram or Twitter @nutrichicos

Updated on: June 6, 2019
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