If you'd like to protect yourself from diabetes, then you may be wondering what the best diet is to follow. And while there is no one right way to eat for everyone, there are certain types of diets that can better help you to manage your blood sugars compared to others.
One of those healthy options is the vegetarian diet; research shows that an effective approach to lowering your risk of diabetes is to cut out meat and go all in with plants.
A vegetarian diet could reduce your diabetes risk
There's great news for all those vegetarians out there – you are less likely to have diabetes if you follow a plant-based diet.[1-4] Research also shows that if you are currently a meat eater, then switching to vegetarianism could decrease your odds for getting diabetes by about 50%.
Additional evidence suggests that vegetarianism may also help to treat diabetes and lower the risk of diabetes-related complications.
A 2018 review study on this subject concluded that vegetarian diets can be confidently recommended to people who have either prediabetes or diabetes. So if you are at a higher risk for diabetes, or if you already have it, then cutting out animal products and becoming vegetarian could help you to protect your health from further complications.
Why is vegetarianism good for diabetes?
You may be wondering why following a plant-based diet is protective against diabetes.
There are several possible reasons that might make this kind of diet beneficial, including:
When you are vegetarian, you are likely to increase your intake of fiber, fruit, and veggies.
Plant foods provide you with high amounts of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Plant-based diets are thought to help you control your weight, which is important for preventing diabetes.
Removing animal products helps you to reduce saturated fat and trans fat consumption.
Vegetarian diets can help you to reduce inflammation, which can contribute to blood sugar concerns.[2,3]
As you can see, there are many benefits to eating fewer animal products and more plant foods. But it is important to keep in mind that not all versions of vegetarianism are equally healthy.
Healthy vegetarianism vs. not-so-healthy vegetarianism
Vegetarian diets can be very good for you, especially if you have blood sugar concerns and want to protect yourself against diabetes. But the type of vegetarian diet matters; not all versions of vegetarianism have the same benefits.[3,4]
Some foods that technically fall under the vegetarian category are actually associated with an increased diabetes risk. Those include foods like refined carbs, starches, and sugars. While these foods are technically vegetarian, they are definitely not good for you if you want to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
So although vegetarianism in general is good for you, not all vegetarian foods are.
A recent 2019 study found that while plant-based diets in general were linked to lower diabetes risk, the strength of the association was stronger when the diet included only healthy plant-based foods like whole grains, legumes, nuts, and vegetables.
Here's the bottom line: if you want to eat a vegetarian diet, then it is important to make careful choices about what you do and don't eat. Remember, just because something is vegetarian doesn't mean it is good for you or your blood sugars.
Tips for following a healthy vegetarian diet to reduce your diabetes risk
Here are six tips to help you create a well-balanced diet full of healthy plant-based foods:
1. Choose healthy protein sources
One of the biggest areas of challenge for new vegetarians is to get enough healthy protein into the diet. Without meat and animal products, you might have to branch out and get more creative. Foods like nuts, nut butters, seeds, beans, lentils, quinoa, and soy products are all healthy protein alternatives to choose from.
2. Avoid refined carbs and opt for whole grains instead
Even if you are vegetarian, you still need to monitor your carbohydrate intake. It's easy to fill in gaps in your diet left behind from meat products with more carbs. But that won't do you any favors.
Limit refined carbohydrates so that you can maintain balanced blood sugar levels. And when you do choose to eat carbs, focus on whole grains instead. Whole grains like oats, quinoa, and brown rice are much easier on blood sugar levels than refined grains like white flour.
3. Stay away from sugar
Whatever type of diet you follow, it is always important to avoid sugary foods. A plant-based diet doesn't give you any passes when it comes to sugar intake.
Don't be fooled into thinking vegan cookies, candies, or desserts are healthy. A sweet is still a sweet – even if it is vegan and doesn't contain any animal products.
4. Limit starchy veggies
Watch your intake of starchy veggies that have a higher glycemic index like potatoes, corn, peas, and winter squash. These kinds of vegetables tend to be rich in lots of nutrients that can support your health, but they are higher in carbohydrates compared to other vegetables and they can have bigger impacts on blood sugar.
Be thoughtful with serving sizes of starchy vegetables, and eat them with protein and fat to lower the glycemic response.
5. Don't forget about healthy fats
Healthy fats are essential in any diet. Omega-3 fatty acids are one important type of fat that can be harder to get when you are vegetarian, as people often consume them in fish or eggs. Vegetarian sources of omega 3s include flax, walnuts, and chia seeds.
6. Eat a variety of foods
To make sure you are eating a well-balanced diet with all the various nutrients your body needs to function optimally, it is important to make sure you consume a wide range of healthy foods. The greater variety of colorful veggies, whole grains, and plant-based protein sources you consume, the better.
7. Consult with your healthcare provider or a nutritionist
It isn't always easy to make sure you get all the right nutrients when removing animal products from your diet. Talk over your dietary changes with your physician or a nutritionist to make sure your vegetarian diet is well rounded and fulfills your body's needs.
Vegetarianism can be a very healthy option, especially if you are looking for a diet that could help protect you against diabetes. Research findings suggest that people who eat plant-based diets are less likely to develop diabetes.[1-4]
Just remember that not all versions of vegetarian diets are created equal. To make the most of being vegetarian and to reap the health benefits of plant-based eating, you'll still want to be very thoughtful with your food choices.
Avoid refined carbs, sugar, and starchy veggies. Stick with healthy protein sources like nuts, legumes, and seeds; include healthy fats like omega-3 fatty acids; and choose nutritious whole grains. And don't be afraid to get creative. Remember: the greater variety of healthy foods within your diet the better!
Chiu THT, Pan WH, Lin MN, Lin CL. Vegetarian diet, change in dietary patterns, and diabetes risk: a prospective study. Nutr Diabetes. 2018 Mar 9;8(1):12.
Olfert MD, Wattick RA. Vegetarian Diets and the Risk of Diabetes. Curr Diab Rep. 2018 Sep 18;18(11):101.
Qian F, Liu G, Hu FB, Bhupathiraju SN, Sun Q. Association Between Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2019 Jul 22;179(10):1335–44.
Satija A, Bhupathiraju SN, Rimm EB, et al. Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies. PLoS Med. 2016 Jun 14;13(6):e1002039.
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