Want to Go Vegetarian? What to Do If You Have Diabetes

Feel better and eat well as a vegetarian
young woman eating vegetable pizza

By Sue Cotey, RN, CDCES (Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist ) 

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If you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, choosing to be a vegetarian can be a healthy option. In fact, research shows that following a vegetarian or even a plant based diet (often referred to as vegan) can help you better manage your diabetes. These types of diets have also shown to help prevent or reverse type 2 diabetes. 

I began following a plant based diet over 10 years ago when the documentary “Forks Over Knives” came out, which focuses on the health benefits from this type of eating. The results of the research highlighted in this documentary just made sense, and it is working well for me and my family members.

A look at fat and fiber

When following a vegetarian or plant based lifestyle, you reduce the saturated and trans fats in your diet, which can reduce your risk of chronic disease. These types of fats can clog and damage arteries. And compared to a typical American diet, vegetarian and plant based diets are higher in fiber. The recommended amount of fiber for adults with or without diabetes is 20 to 35 grams per day. When you follow a vegetarian or plant based diet, you will likely meet or exceed this amount.

Foods that are high in fiber are slower to digest so elevations in your blood sugar are less likely to occur. Fiber also provides a feeling of fullness, which usually reduces the overall number of calories eaten and may help you lose weight too.

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There are different types of vegetarian diets, with the three most common being:

  • Plant Based— No meat or products from animals  (including red meat, poultry, seafood or any product made with meat), eggs or dairy products.
  • Lacto-vegetarian — No meat or eggs, but they do consume dairy products.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian — No meat, but they do eat both dairy products and eggs.

You may consider yourself a vegetarian, but keep in mind you could still be eating unhealthy processed foods. A healthy plant-based diet means avoiding all meat (including fish), dairy and eggs. It is composed of whole foods, which means avoiding refined and processed foods (such as olive oil or any artificial foods with chemical additives).

If you choose to follow a vegetarian diet, you will want to eat a variety of vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts and low-fat dairy products (if you include dairy) to ensure that you get the daily nutrition you need.  Try to eat foods in their whole or natural state, for example, an apple instead of apple juice – and include the peel for even more fiber.

About protein

There has always been concern that you might not get enough protein if you’re a vegetarian, but today there are so many options for getting protein, including:

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  • Dried beans or canned beans, including black, pinto, garbanzo, navy and kidney.
  • Bean products such as hummus, fat-free refried beans, baked beans or falafel.
  • Lentils and peas.
  • Nuts and nut spreads, including almonds, almond butter, peanuts, peanut butter, walnuts, pistachios and cashews.
  • Soy and soy products such as soy milk, edamame, soy nuts, tofu and tempeh.
  • Meat substitutes, including veggie burgers, black bean burgers and meatless chicken nuggets.

There are so many great food options for vegetarians today. And because it has become more common than ever, restaurants everywhere have become more vegetarian friendly. If you are new to being a vegetarian, there are many phone apps that can help you. If you need help determining if foods are vegan or vegetarian, there are apps that allow you to scan the UPC codes at the grocery store. Others can help you find local vegan-friendly restaurants using your GPS location.

If you are considering a vegetarian or plant based diet, I recommend that you speak to your healthcare provider first – and just as important, meet with a registered dietitian. Some providers may recommend a vitamin B12 supplement, but if you have diabetes, you still need to monitor carbohydrates and a dietitian can help you learn how to do that.

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