It’s no secret that following a plant-based diet is good for us in many ways. Studies have shown that adopting a vegetarian lifestyle—or, at the very least, eating more plant-based foods—has a positive impact on the environment and on our health, reducing our risk of heart disease, obesity, and even diabetes.
If you are living with diabetes and are thinking about embracing a vegetarian lifestyle, there are several things to consider. First, to what extent will you eliminate animal products from your diet? Some vegetarians opt to eliminate all animal flesh, including fish and seafood, but still eat animal-derived products like milk, cheese, yogurt and eggs. Other vegetarians, such as vegans, choose to eliminate all animal-derived food products from their diet.
Whatever dietary path you plan to take, it is always important to be mindful of how the foods you eat will affect your blood glucose levels, whether they’re derived from animals or plants. Here are some key tips to keep in mind before you “go veg.”
Go Heavy on the Veggies
One of the risks of going veg when living with diabetes is the tendency for new vegetarians to replace high-protein meat with high-carbohydrate foods. One way to avoid this is by sticking to the ADA’s plate method. Fill half your plate at every meal with non-starchy vegetables; think leafy greens, vibrant peppers or those found in the cruciferous family—broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. The other half of your plate is reserved for one serving of plant-based protein like beans, legumes or tofu and one serving of grains/starchy foods, such as rice, sweet potatoes, quinoa, etc. You can swap out the kinds of foods you choose to put in each category for breakfast, lunch and dinner but the ratios of the food groups remain the same.
Fill Up on Plant-Based Protein
Many skeptics of vegetarian diets fear that they will not be able to get enough protein through plant-based foods. Rest assured that you can get all the protein you need just by eating a wide variety of whole foods each day.
Foods like nuts and seeds are high in protein, dietary fiber, and healthy fats and can easily be added to things like oatmeal, smoothies, or salads to bump up protein content and nutritional value.
Beans and legumes are also a great source of whole-food protein and should definitely be included in a vegetarian diet. Some beans contain higher amounts of carbohydrates than others so it’s important to be mindful of serving sizes. That said, beans also contain a whopping amount of dietary fiber to help mitigate the effects of the food’s natural starches, helping to steady blood glucose levels and keep you feeling full for longer.
Some “meat alternatives” also serve as a great source of protein, such as organic tofu or tempeh, which is derived from fermented soybeans.
Avoid Overly-Processed Faux Foods
More and more people are adopting a vegetarian lifestyle, allowing for food companies to meet the demand for more plant-based meat alternatives or “faux meats” on the market. These days you may find an entire aisle dedicated to meat and dairy alternatives in any given health food store. One of the joys of changing to a vegetarian diet is exploring different tastes, textures, and foods to replace any animal foods you may have once regularly consumed. Unfortunately, not all meat and dairy alternatives out there are created equal—some are derived from whole foods, while others may be created in a lab and are highly-processed.
Avoid any overly-processed meat or dairy alternatives by becoming an avid label-reader. If that soy-based sausage you are thinking of purchasing has a long list of ingredients or is made with things that you can’t pronounce, you are likely better-off choosing another option.
Choose Carbs Wisely
This is a point I bring up with all of my clients living with diabetes, whether they’re vegetarian or not. The quality of the carbohydrates you choose to eat is just as important as the quantity when it comes to the effect on blood sugars.
Even if a food is considered “vegetarian,” meaning it doesn’t contain any animal products, doesn’t mean it should automatically get the green light to consume. Oreos, for example, are a vegan food and should only be eaten in moderation, as with any treat.
When choosing quality carbohydrates, think of those that are higher in fiber to help stabilize blood sugars. Things like whole grains, winter squash, and other starchy veggies are great options for every-day meals and contribute an abundance of nutritive value to your diet. Other options like pasta, white rice and noodles should be eaten on occasion, as they don’t necessarily provide as many good-for-you vitamins and minerals and their fiber content is relatively low, setting you up for a boost in blood glucose.
Adopting any particular diet or lifestyle is a personal choice and not one that should be taken lightly. Specifically, following a vegetarian diet while living with diabetes may take a bit more time and effort at first to ensure that you are mindful about the types and quality of foods you are consuming. Despite the extra effort, you will ultimately get to reap all of the benefits that comes with eating more plant-based foods—more energy, improved digestive health, the list goes on!
Keep in mind is that some individuals can experience certain nutrition deficiencies when following a vegetarian diet, depending on how restrictive you choose to be with animal foods and how varied you are with your meals. If you are considering following a vegetarian lifestyle, be sure to talk to your physician or registered dietitian first to come up with a plan that’s right for you.