A healthy diet plays a key role in the management of diabetes.
If you have this condition, you may wonder whether a vegan diet can help you better manage it. Alternatively, perhaps you follow a vegan diet and have recently been diagnosed with diabetes.
If you’re interested in pursuing or continuing a vegan diet and you have diabetes, it’s essential to understand how to meal plan, shop, and self-monitor to be successful.
Although a vegan diet isn’t the only diet that can help manage diabetes, it is possible to manage the condition while following a vegan diet.
This article provides a guide to the vegan diet for diabetes, its benefits and downsides, and how to succeed on the diet, along with a 3-day sample meal plan.
- How the vegan diet for diabetes works
- Potential benefits
- Potential downsides
- Tips for success
- Pitfalls to avoid
How the vegan diet for diabetes works
The vegan diet is completely free of meat, dairy, and animal-based products. Although it can be a nutritious way of eating, it requires careful planning to make sure you’re meeting all of your nutritional needs.
For people with diabetes, following a vegan diet will require an extra layer of planning.
In general, people with diabetes need to keep their carb intake consistent throughout the day, as carbs affect blood sugar levels more significantly than protein and fat.
Meals and snacks should also be balanced with carbs, protein, and healthy fat since including noncarb foods in your meal can help reduce the carbs’ effects on your blood sugar.
All of this can be done using exclusively plant-based foods, although it may be a bit challenging if you’re new to the vegan diet.
Here are some examples of carbs, proteins, and fats that you can use to build meals and snacks if you’re following a vegan diet for diabetes:
- Carbs: whole grain flour (bread, pasta), rice, potatoes, oats, grits, quinoa, fruit (fresh, frozen, or unsweetened canned), corn
- Proteins: soybeans and soybean products (tofu, tempeh), beans, lentils, peas, peanuts, tree nuts, nut butter, seeds, plant-based meat alternatives
- Fats: olive oil, avocado oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, coconut, plant-based spreads
Fortunately, many plant-based foods, such as beans and grains, contain a mixture of carbs, protein, and fat, so they can pull double or triple duty in your meal planning.
Additionally, fiber — a type of indigestible carb — is found in most plant-based foods. Fiber helps make these foods more filling and may also help reduce their blood sugar impact.
Based on the type of diabetes you have, your physical activity level, age, sex, and several other factors, your healthcare team — including a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) — can help you pinpoint the optimal amount of carbs you need with each meal.
Summary: The vegan diet contains no meat or animal-derived products. The best way to follow a vegan diet if you have diabetes is to make sure that each meal and snack contains a healthy balance of plant-based protein, carbs, and fat.
Some of the potential, research-backed benefits of a vegan diet for diabetes include improved blood sugar management, insulin sensitivity, and weight management.
Blood sugar management
One 12-week study in 93 Korean people with diabetes compared the effects of a low glycemic vegan diet and a conventional diet for diabetes. Researchers found that following a vegan diet resulted in slightly improved blood sugar management than following a conventional diet.
Another review noted that diets that emphasized plant-based food intake, including vegan, vegetarian, and the Mediterranean diet, tended to reduce hemoglobin A1C by 0.8%.
Your hemoglobin A1C level is a measure of blood sugar management across the previous 3 months, and it’s a good indicator of long-term blood sugar management.
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However, these findings aren’t unique to vegan diets. Several other dietary patterns may help improve blood sugar management. Some diets, including low carb or Mediterranean-style diets, have more compelling evidence to support their use for diabetes management.
Insulin is the key hormone that helps maintain normal glucose levels.
Because type 2 diabetes is characterized by insulin resistance (when cells stop responding to the hormone insulin), increasing insulin sensitivity can help reduce blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as the need for insulin injections among some people with diabetes.
One way researchers measure insulin resistance is called the homeostasis model assessment index for insulin resistance (HOMA-IR).
In one 16-week study among 244 overweight adults, researchers noted that those who switched to a low-fat vegan diet had greater decreases in their HOMA-IR than those eating their normal diet, meaning they became more sensitive to insulin.
A similar study in 75 overweight adults noted that a vegan diet significantly reduced HOMA-IR, along with body weight and fat mass, compared with a control diet.
Researchers theorize that animal proteins may contribute more strongly to the development of insulin resistance than plant proteins. However, overall diet quality is likely a greater contributor than animal protein consumption or avoidance.
Finally, a vegan diet may be beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes by helping them manage their weight.
Losing weight can help improve insulin sensitivity, and vegan diets tend to be lower in fat and calories than omnivorous diets, which may make it easier to lose weight.
Alongside the improvements in insulin resistance observed in the studies above, researchers also noted that the vegan diet resulted in more body fat and weight loss.
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In another 6-month study in 63 overweight adults, researchers noted that those who followed a vegan diet experienced more than double the weight loss of those following less strict plant-based eating patterns like vegetarian, pescatarian, and semi-vegetarian diets.
Summary: There’s some evidence that a vegan diet can help improve blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, as well as aid weight loss among people with overweight or obesity.
There are some potential downsides to the vegan diet in general — and particularly for people with diabetes. Fortunately, these downsides are avoidable with careful planning.
People who eat vegan diets are at a greater risk of developing certain nutrient deficiencies than other people, particularly deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin B6, niacin, iron, calcium, omega-3 fats, iodine, and zinc, which are all more prevalent in animal foods.
However, you can get all of these nutrients by either supplementing or purposefully including plant-based foods that are good sources of these nutrients in your diet.
Here are some examples of vegan sources of these nutrients:
- Vitamin B12: fortified nutritional yeast, fortified cereals, tempeh
- Vitamin B6: chickpeas, potatoes, bananas, fortified cereals
- Iron: fortified cereals, white beans, dark chocolate, lentils, spinach, tofu
- Calcium: fortified orange juice, tofu, fortified cereals, turnip greens, kale
- Omega-3 fats: chia seeds, flaxseeds, canola oil, soybean oil, edamame
- Iodine: seaweed, iodized salt, soy milk, almond milk
- Zinc: fortified cereal, pumpkin seeds, cashews, chickpeas, almonds, kidney beans
It can also be difficult for people on vegan diets to get enough protein and the right variety of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to maintain optimal health.
Protein is necessary for creating new bodily tissues, and amino acids play a variety of roles in your health.
Although again, this problem can be solved with a little bit of planning. Great vegan sources of protein include:
- Soy: tofu, tempeh, soy nuts, black soybeans, soy milk
- Legumes: chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans, peanuts, peanut butter, lentils, peas
- Nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, nut butter, nut milk
- Seeds: chia seeds, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower butter
- Grains: quinoa, oats, teff, amaranth
- Protein powders: pea protein, soy protein
In addition, most vegan protein sources are considered incomplete — meaning that, unlike animal protein sources, they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids in the right amounts.
To make sure you’re getting all of the amino acids you need, mix up your protein sources and get your protein from various plant-based sources each day.
One final pitfall of the vegan diet that can affect people with diabetes, in particular, is that it’s easy to overdo it on the carbs, which can affect your blood sugar levels.
Plant foods tend to be higher in carbs than animal foods, so a vegan diet will naturally be higher in carbs than an omnivorous diet. If you eat many highly processed vegan foods, it can be easy to eat carbs above what your healthcare team recommends.
While carbs as a whole aren’t unhealthy and can certainly be part of a healthy diet for diabetes, it’s important to moderate your intake to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Summary: Some of the downsides of a vegan diet include an increased risk of certain nutrient deficiencies, the challenge of getting adequate protein, and the potential to eat too many carbs. With planning, all of these downsides are avoidable.
Tips for success
Want to succeed at a vegan diet for diabetes? Here are some tips to help you start strong and stay on track:
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- Plan ahead. Meal planning and having some healthy snacks on hand will go a long way in helping you succeed. Additionally, make sure to check out the menu in advance when you’re planning to dine out.
- Eat plenty of nonstarchy veggies. Nonstarchy vegetables are very low in carbs but full of fiber and nutrients. They’ll have a minimal effect on your blood sugar while helping you feel full and satisfied.
- Balance each meal and snack. Make sure that each meal and snack contains a healthy balance of carbs, fats, and protein, along with some nonstarchy vegetables if possible.
- Supplement wisely. Vegan diets can be low in certain nutrients so supplementation is typically necessary. To choose the right supplements, have your doctor order a blood test to see if you’re low in nutrients like iron, B12, and vitamin D.
- Mix up your proteins. Eat a variety of plant-based protein sources to ensure that you’re getting essential amino acids in the amounts that you need for optimal health.
- Monitor your blood sugar regularly. If you have diabetes, even if you’re not on a vegan diet, you should check your blood sugar regularly to stay aware of your blood sugar patterns and notify a healthcare professional if you notice any concerning trends.
Summary: To succeed at a vegan diet with diabetes, make sure to plan, balance each meal and snack, take supplements if necessary, vary your proteins, add lots of nonstarchy veggies to your meals, and regularly check your blood sugar levels.
Pitfalls to avoid
Likewise, here are some pitfalls to avoid when following a vegan diet for diabetes.
Excessive processed food intake
Highly processed foods — including vegan ones — are often loaded with sugar and additives and poor in fiber and protein. The same goes for drinks like sodas and fruit juices.
Although you don’t have to avoid these foods totally, you should limit them, especially if you have trouble managing your blood sugar levels.
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Excessive ultra-processed food intake has been linked to weight gain and an increased risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer.
Low fat and low protein meals
On the same note, you should try to avoid meals or snacks that primarily comprise carbs and contain little protein or fat.
Protein can help reduce carbs’ effect on your blood sugar levels and may help enhance sensations of fullness.
In addition, fat sources like olive oil may provide some additional health benefits like improving heart health and helping boost the absorption of certain nutrients.
Summary: Avoid large amounts of highly processed food, and make sure that your meals and snacks contain a balance of fat, protein, and carbs to promote optimal health on a vegan diet.
It’s possible to help successfully manage your diabetes with a vegan diet. Research shows that vegan diets may help improve blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, as well as reduce body weight among overweight people.
However, you’ll need to make sure you’re getting enough of the protein and nutrients you need, avoiding excessive carbs, and not building your diet around highly processed foods.
That said, the vegan diet isn’t the only one that’s research-backed for diabetes. Other diets that are helpful for people with diabetes include the Mediterranean diet and low carb diet.
Regardless, whether you’re new to veganism or veganism is an important part of your life, you can rest assured that you can follow a vegan diet with some careful planning if you have diabetes.