How to Balance a Vegetarian Diet When You Have Type 2 Diabetes

The vegetarian diet is a diet that does not contain any meat, poultry, seafood, or any products that contain these foods. There are some types of vegetarian diets. For example, the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet is based on foods such as grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, dairy products, and eggs.

Vegan diets, which are another form of vegetarian diet, exclude all animal products, such as eggs, dairy, and anything else that comes from an animal like honey.

For people with type 2 diabetes, following a vegetarian diet can seem a bit tricky because excluding animal products like meat, fish, and poultry can limit sources of protein.

While it might seem like the best option is to eat a diet high in protein, since they tend to be lower in carbohydrates, it is possible to eat a vegetarian diet and maintain a healthy weight in addition to controlling blood sugar.

In fact, there are those who argue that a vegetarian or vegan diet is better, as research has found a link between type 2 diabetes and red meat intake due to increased insulin resistance and lower overall glycemic control.

Other studies indicate that vegetarian and vegan diets can improve plasma lipid concentrations. And they have also been shown to reverse the progression of atherosclerosis.

Having a higher intake of vegetables, whole foods, legumes and nuts has been linked with a lower risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. It has also been linked to better glycemic control in both healthy and insulin resistant individuals.

The key to eating a vegetarian diet when you have diabetes is to make sure you eat  adequate amounts of protein and healthy fats, choose high-fiber carbohydrates, and control the portions you eat.

Get enough protein in your vegetarian diet.

When it comes to diabetes, protein is a very important nutrient. It boosts immunity, promotes satiety, and slows digestion, which can help regulate blood sugar levels. Typically, when we think of protein, turkey, chicken, fish, and meat come to mind, but vegetarian foods also contain protein.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics states that plant protein can meet protein requirements when a variety of plant foods are consumed and energy needs are met.  Plant-based proteins include beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains like quinoa, barley, and bulger.

Lacto-ovo-vegetarians can also get protein from eggs and yogurt. The key is to make sure you eat a variety of meals every day and add some protein to each meal.

Get enough good fats.

Some studies have shown that people who follow vegetarian diets can see reductions in their bad cholesterol. Perhaps this is because vegetarian diets are generally rich in n-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, fiber, and plant sterols. And they’re also low in saturated fat found in animal products like beef and processed meats.

On the other hand, vegetarian diets can be lacking in omega-3 fatty acids, especially those that exclude eggs and fish. Studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart and brain health.

Type 2 diabetes can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, so maintaining your heart health is important. If you don’t eat eggs or fish, you may need an omega-3 (DHA/EPA) supplement.

High-fiber carbohydrates in the vegetarian diet.

Studies have shown that vegetarians consume 50-100% more fiber than non-vegetarians. A high fiber diet helps regulate blood sugar levels, lower cholesterol, and feel full.

Legumes and whole grains contain slow-digesting carbohydrates and are high in fiber, which can help improve glycemic control. It is important to monitor your carbohydrate intake, as they are the macronutrient that impacts blood sugar the most.

Typically, 1/2 cup of beans, 1 small potato (about the size of a computer mouse), 1/3 cup of cooked grain (grain variations may apply) contains 15-20 grams of carbohydrates, per what you can only eat limited amounts. Learning to count carbohydrates will help you achieve good blood sugar control.

Depending on your carbohydrate allowance for each meal, you can adjust your intake based on them. You can also use your glucose meter as a resource to test how your body responds to certain food combinations.

In order to reach recommended hemoglobin A1c levels of 7% or less, the American Diabetes Association recommends that your blood sugar level be 180 mg/dL or less two hours after a meal. Or 120 mg/dL or less if you are pregnant.

If when you measure your blood sugar level two hours after eating, the number is consistently above this goal, you may be consuming too many carbohydrates in your meals. Discuss this with a diabetes expert or registered dietitian so that you can adjust your diet or medication intake.

Meet with your medical team to discuss the possibility of a vegetarian diet.

Before changing your diet, it is always important to speak with your healthcare provider. If you are considering trying a vegetarian diet, you should consult with a registered dietitian. They can help you individualize an eating plan that meets your carbohydrate, protein, vitamin, and mineral needs.

Depending on the type of vegetarian diet you decide to follow, you may need to take supplements of nutrients that you may be lacking, such as iron, zinc, iodine, calcium, vitamin D, and B12. Your dietitian can also show you how to increase the absorption of certain nutrients by combining foods and implementing cooking techniques.

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