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Vegetarian Meal Plans and Diabetes

Vegetarian diets: An option for people with diabetes?

There seems to be a never-ending debate about which type of meal plan is best for managing diabetes. Is a meal plan low in carbohydrates the answer? What about a low-fat meal plan, the DASH diet, vegetarian meal plan, or a Mediterranean-style diet? According to the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA) newest nutrition recommendations, there is no one diet or eating pattern that is best for everyone with diabetes. Research has found that all of these have the potential to work when managing diabetes.

When deciding which type of meal plan to follow, think about your health goals. Do you need to lower your A1C, blood pressure, and/or cholesterol? Is losing weight one of your goals? Also, consider your food preferences and your lifestyle. From there, you can work with your healthcare provider to pick the meal planning approach that is best for you. If prefer not to include meat, poultry, fish, or other animal products, then a vegetarian meal plan is certainly an option.

What is a plant-based diet and what are the benefits?

You’ve probably heard the term plant-based diet before, which is another way of saying vegetarian diet. A vegetarian diet is an eating pattern based on plant foods with little or no animal products. There are several types of vegetarian diets, and they vary in terms of what is and is not included. The most common types are:

  • Vegan — Omits all meat, eggs, and dairy products.
  • Lacto-vegetarian — Omits all meat and eggs. However, dairy products are included.
  • Lacto-ovo vegetarian — Omits all meat. However, both dairy products and eggs are included.

There are also people who people choose to follow a semi-vegetarian diet. This means dairy, eggs, and fish are all included, but no red meat or poultry are eaten.

Regardless of the type of meal plan you choose to follow (vegetarian or not), it is important for all of us to include a variety of nutritious plant foods. Think vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. These foods provide us with important nutrients such as fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Research in the general population has linked following a vegetarian diet to a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Those who follow a vegetarian diet also tend to have lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels. (LDL cholesterol is the bad type of cholesterol).

While there is much less research that looks specifically at people with diabetes, several studies have found that a vegetarian diet can help with weight loss. And when weight is lost on a vegetarian diet, it may also improve A1C and heart disease risk factors.

Vegetarian diets: What you need to know

Vegetarian diets might be associated with weight loss and other benefits, but following a vegetarian diet is not an automatic ticket to better health. You still need to follow the some important guidelines for healthy eating.

Keep Portions Under Control

It is always important to keep portions in perspective! Eating too much of even healthy foods can cause you to take in extra calories, which will lead to weight gain. Remember that some plant-based foods like whole grains, beans, and fruit are also high in carbohydrate, and eating more than your meal plan allows may raise blood glucose. Pay attention to your hunger cues and keep portion size at the top of your mind when you serve up meals.

Choose The Most Nutritious Foods Most of the Time

Continue to choose your foods wisely. You can still eat cookies and cheesy pizza if you follow a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. But remember that those choices are best saved for special occasions, and you still need to work the foods you choose into your meal plan. As we said before, it is important to stay focused on nutritious plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and the like. At the same time, limit less nutritious foods like sugary drinks, refined grains (white bread, pastries, salty chips) and sweets (cookies, ice cream, and other desserts).

Meat substitutes: What’s the skinny?

Meat substitutes are products that look and taste similar to different types of meat. Many meat substitutes are soy-based or gluten-based. Some examples are veggie burgers, soy bacon, soy crumbles, tempeh, or seitan. Plant-based diets are becoming very popular and now you can find a variety of these products in most grocery stores. There are also many other foods that can provide plant-based protein in your meals such as beans, lentils, tofu, hummus.

All of these are meatless options for those who follow a vegetarian diet, but make sure you check nutrition labels before buying them to see how they fit into your meal plan. Important things to consider are serving size, calories, carbohydrates, and sodium.

The bottom line?

Vegetarian diets are an option for people with diabetes. However, it is still important to control portions and make smart food choices. Most of the time you should be choosing high-nutrient plant foods and limiting refined grains, salty snacks, and sweets. To read more about vegetarian diets and diabetes, visit diabetes.org.

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