If you have diabetes, you might be wondering if going vegan will help to lower your blood sugar. When it comes to food, there’s never a one-size-fits-all answer, however let’s dig into this so you can make an informed decision about whether or not going vegan is right for you.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic condition that affects how your body regulates blood sugar, also known as glucose. When we consume food, our bodies break down carbohydrates into glucose, which is then used as a primary source of energy. Normally, the hormone insulin (produced by the pancreas) helps take glucose from the bloodstream into the cells, where it can be utilized for energy.
In diabetes, there is a problem with making insulin, using insulin or both, which leads to high blood sugar levels. There are several types of diabetes, including type 1 diabetes, type 2 diabetes, gestational diabetes, and other less common forms. No matter what type you have, it’s important to stay on top of your health to reduce the risk for complications.
A vegan diet excludes all animal-derived products, including meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, and honey. Instead, it focuses on plant-based foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. There’s a number of reasons someone may want to go vegan including ethical concerns, environmental concerns and/or health-related reasons.
When done properly, a vegan diet can be nutritionally balanced, however, that doesn’t mean you have to go vegan to improve your diabetes. In fact, without the proper planning, eating vegan can lead to nutritional deficiencies and unpleasant blood sugar fluctuations.
Veganism for People With Diabetes
For people with diabetes, going vegan can have some advantages when done right. However it’s a decision that should be made together with your healthcare team. You need to consider nutritional needs, how medications fit in, and your medical history. It’s all about finding a balanced and practical approach to eating. Can you see yourself cutting out all animal products for the next 5-10 years? If the answer is no, then a more flexible eating pattern may be more suitable for you.
If it’s something you’re down to try, the good news is that vegan diets are usually high in fiber and complex carbs. They’re also lower in saturated fats, which can positively impact your heart health. A well-planned vegan diet also provides a range of essential vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are packed with these health-promoting nutrients and including more of these foods on your plate can help with blood sugar management long-term.
Planning is a Must
Before you decide if going vegan is right for you, there are a few things to keep in mind and nutritional planning is at the top of the list. You have to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. Vitamin B12, iron, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D are usually found in animal products. If you’re going vegan, it’s recommended you work closely with a registered dietitian to make sure you are meeting those nutrient needs. They can help plan vegan meals with essential nutrients to support stable blood sugar levels.
It’s common for vegan diets to be very carb heavy and not balanced with enough protein. For people with diabetes, this can negatively impact blood glucose and A1c readings. It’s important to include a protein source and ample fiber-rich vegetables with your carbohydrates at mealtimes.
Vegan protein sources include tofu, tempeh, all soy-based products, seitan, beans and legumes. If you know you have a hard time eating most of these protein options consistently, then that’s something to consider because you’ll want to include a few portions per day to make sure you’re meeting your needs. When people tell me they hate tofu and beans, I think, okay this might be a challenge!
Challenges of a Vegan Diet
And speaking of, let’s talk about some of the potential challenges that may come up when going vegan. You have to make sure to get all the necessary nutrients one way or another, especially vitamin B12, which is mostly found in animal-based foods. Vegans often need to rely on fortified foods or take supplements to meet their B12 needs. Another concern is getting enough protein, as plant-based sources may not have all the essential amino acids in the same amounts as animal products.
As you might know, protein is a macronutrient that helps to keep blood sugar stable, so it’s even more important for people with diabetes to make sure they’re getting enough during meal times. Having a plan in place for meal prep and grocery shopping will help make this a lot easier.
Social gatherings can also be a challenge, especially those with limited vegan options or cross contamination with animal products (ie: those irresistible collard greens cooked with ham). Going vegan requires commitment and attention to detail, as you’ll need to read food labels closely to spot hidden animal-derived ingredients. Managing diabetes can already be enough of an adjustment, and so if making the transition to eating vegan is a source of stress, you want to take that into consideration as well.
Plant Forward vs. Vegan
If you’re interested in eating healthier and want to add more plant foods to your plate, the good news is you don’t have to go vegan to reap the benefits. Planning your meals around nutrient-rich plant foods like whole grains, vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts and seeds, will provide a variety of health benefits. Instead of making meat and other animal proteins the star of the plate, you can allow those plant foods to get more shine.
It’s all about making changes that you can actually stick to, instead of completely overhauling your eating routine.
Ultimately, going vegan or plant-based is a personal choice. If it’s something you decide is right for you, it can be a great way to try out new recipes and plant foods. There’s so many creative dishes you can prepare and if you’re not ready to fully commit to it full-time, you can always have a one or two days in the week where you experiment with vegan meals. It’s all about figuring out what aligns best with your values, health goals and overall well-being. Just remember to listen to your body, stay informed and work closely with your healthcare team to ensure that your dietary choices align with your diabetes management plan.