A vegan diet is highly beneficial for people with diabetes. The foods are rich in dietary fiber, protein, and healthy fats that improve glycemic control (1). But not all vegan foods are healthy for people with diabetes (examples include potato wafers or bread). That is one reason you need experts’ advice before trying the vegan diet for diabetes.
In this post, experts explain how a vegan diet helps manage diabetes. They also discuss the foods to eat and avoid, a sample menu plan, benefits, and precautions. Scroll down to get started with a dietitian-approved vegan diabetes diet.
In This Article
Definition: What Is The Vegan Diabetes Diet?
A vegan diabetes diet is a dietary strategy to manage diabetes through the consumption of only plant-based foods and avoiding all animal-sourced products (honey, yogurt, cheese, milk, etc.), processed foods, and saturated fats.
But does eating a plant-based diet actually help reverse or manage diabetes? Is there any research study to back this claim?
Benefits: Why The Vegan Diet Is Good For Diabetes
A vegan or plant-based diet has been studied by researchers extensively. Such a diet was found to have positive results on many health conditions, including diabetes (2). Dr. Mubashar Rehman, Ph.D., says, “Managing diabetes is about controlling the body’s glucose levels. A vegan diet makes it easier to control not only the sugar levels but also the cholesterol intake and saturated fats. This is why going on a vegan diet is beneficial for diabetic patients.”
Here are the 7 reasons a vegan diet is good for people with diabetes.
1. May Help Manage Weight
Brittany Lubeck, MS, RD, says, “Vegan diets are high in nutrients like fiber and antioxidants. A vegan diet, especially one that primarily consists of whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, tends to be lower in carbohydrates than the modern Western diet.” Many studies have also shown that vegan diets help reduce body weight and BMI in people with diabetes (1), (4).
2. May Help Manage Insulin Resistance
Insulin is a hormone that encourages glucose uptake by cells, where it is converted to usable energy. Kaytee Hadley RDN, MSNHL, CPT, says, “The saturated fat found in animal products contributes to inflammation and belly fat, causing insulin resistance.” Insulin resistance hampers glucose uptake by cells and leads to high blood sugar. Studies have proven that a plant-based or vegan diet helps improve blood sugar control by making the body more insulin sensitive (1), (5).
3. May Help Manage HbA1c Levels
HbA1c or hemoglobin A 1c levels are tested to diagnose diabetes and prediabetes. An HbA1c value of 5.7% to 6.4% is diagnosed as prediabetes, while that of 6.5% or higher is diagnosed as diabetes. Hemoglobin’s main function is to carry oxygen from the lungs to all parts of the body. Excess glucose in the blood causes the hemoglobin to get coated with glucose (6). A study found that people who consumed a plant-based diet reduced HbA1c values compared to those on conventional diets (7).
4. May Help Manage LDL Cholesterol Levels
Consumption of excess red meat and animal products and processed foods can elevate LDL cholesterol levels. This may eventually block arteries and lead to cardiovascular issues (8). But eating a vegan diet and exercising regularly can help lower LDL cholesterol. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition confirms that people on a vegan diet tend to have low LDL cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of heart disease (9).
5. May Reduce Diabetes-Related Complications
Major diabetes-related complications include kidney disease, diabetic retinopathy, neuropathy, and nephropathy. Studies have proven that a plant-based or a vegan diet helps reduce the risk of diabetic retinopathy, chronic kidney disease, neuropathy, and nephropathy (10).
6. May Reduce Metabolic Syndrome Risk
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of conditions including obesity, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. It increases the risk of heart disease and insulin resistance. As per a study, consuming a plant-based diet can help reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome by 56%. A plant-based diet also helps reduce inflammation that helps prevent excess fat accumulation (11).
7. Promotes Psychological Wellbeing
A vegan diet can also help improve psychological wellbeing. Researchers studied the effect of a plant-based diet on people with diabetes. They found that a plant-based diet helped reduce HbA1c levels (reduced blood sugar) and cholesterol as well as improved emotional wellbeing. It reduced depressive symptoms and improved the quality of life in people with diabetes (12).
Going on a vegan diet is the best way to manage diabetes or reverse prediabetes. But not all vegetables and fruits are ideal for people with diabetes. One has to choose low-GI foods and also be mindful not to consume vegan junk food (like potato chips). Read to know the foods to eat and avoid.
Eat: Foods List For The Vegan Diabetes Diet
- Vegetables: Broccoli, cauliflower, bitter gourd, bottle gourd, spinach, chard, arugula, kale, edamame, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, purple cabbage, scallions, carrot, green beans, squash, onion, etc.
- Fruits: Apple, grapefruit, muskmelon, avocado, strawberries, plum, pears, oranges, lime, lemon, and tangerines.
- Whole Grains: Barley, sorghum, wheat, broken wheat, red rice, black rice, brown rice, quinoa, millet, and amaranth.
- Protein: Lentils, beans, tofu, mushrooms, teff, mock meat, and nutritional yeast.
- Healthy Fats: Olive oil, avocado oil, rice bran oil, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, melon seeds, pepita, chia seeds, and moderate amounts of peanut butter, almond butter, and sunflower seed butter.
- Beverages: Water, fenugreek seed water, freshly pressed fruit or vegetable juices, and tea and coffee without cream and sugar.
- Herbs And Spices: Rosemary, thyme, dill, cilantro, fenugreek, cinnamon, pepper, cardamom, star anise, coriander, cumin, turmeric, cayenne pepper, ginger, garlic, etc.
That’s a long list of foods you can eat! Take a screenshot and save it to refer to it when you go grocery shopping again. But there are also foods that you must avoid when on a vegan diet for diabetes. What are they?
Avoid: Foods Not To Eat
- Sugary Foods: Sugar, cakes, pastries, candies, doughnuts, dried fruits, maple syrup, high fructose corn syrup, packaged sauces, etc.
- Refined Carbs: White rice, bread, pasta, refined flour, and breakfast cereal.
- Trans Fats: Chips, wafers, onion rings, onion blossom, biscuits, cookies, dairy whiteners, frozen foods, ready-to-eat foods, canned foods, etc.
- Fruits And Vegetables: Potato, sweet potato (without skin), beetroot, green peas, pumpkin, watermelon, pineapple, papaya, and sapodilla.
- Fats And Oils: Salted nuts, safflower oil, and corn oil.
- Beverages: Packaged fruit and vegetable juices, alcohol, tea or coffee with sugar and cream, and sports drinks.
- Others: Fish, meat, sausage, salami, milk, yogurt, cheese, honey, etc.
Knowing what to eat and avoid is the first step to managing diabetes. The next step is to design a meal plan that will work for you. You may refer the following sample vegan diabetes diet plan.
|Meals||What To Eat|
|Early Morning (7:00 a.m.)||2 teaspoons fenugreek soaked in water overnight|
|Breakfast (8:00 a.m.)||Avocado toast (whole-wheat bread) + Grapefruit juice|
|Snack (10:30 a.m.)||½ cup muskmelon|
|Lunch (12:30 – 1:00 p.m.)||½ cup quinoa with boiled chickpeas + ½ cup cooked or raw veggies and greens|
|Snack (4:00 p.m.)||5-6 cucumber slices with ¼ cup homemade hummus|
|Dinner (6:30 – 7:00 p.m.)||1 cup roasted cauliflower, green beans, bell peppers + 3 oz. pan-tossed tofu|
Your vegan diabetes diet does not have to be boring. The diet plan mentioned above includes nutritious plant-based foods that have flavor and crunch. In addition to the diet, you also must take care of your lifestyle to manage diabetes. The following section takes you through certain lifestyle tweaks that you can make.
Lifestyle: Improvements To Manage/Reverse Diabetes
- Exercise Regularly
Exercising and staying active are crucial for diabetes management. Mix cardio and strength training to keep your workout routine fun (13). Get 4 to 5 hours of exercise per week to reduce BMI and body weight and reduce the risk of diabetes-related complications like cardiovascular disease, retinopathy, neuropathy, and nephropathy (14).
- Follow A Routine
A well-thought-out routine that accommodates your daily activities and integrates the new diet and lifestyle seamlessly is the best way forward. Without a routine, you will not be able to plan and achieve your goal – to manage and probably reverse diabetes. Create a weekly routine, make to-do lists, and journal your progress.
- Stay Stress-Free
Staying stress-free is easier said than done. But conscious practice gradually helps reduce stress. There are many ways to practice being stress-free. Start by spending at least 20 to 30 minutes by yourself. You also can learn a new skill to keep your mind engaged productively. Understand that not all your problems require immediate attention – and neither can all problems be solved always. Make smart choices while dealing with problems by deciding if a problem deserves your time at all. Finally, get 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Sleeping reboots your brain, which will help you think clearly and make wise decisions.
- Join Support Groups
A support group can help you discuss and talk about diabetes in a closed circle of people. You will also be able to exchange recipe ideas or meet workout friends to keep you motivated to exercise regularly.
- Have A Positive Outlook
Dealing with diabetes is not easy. Your food habits and lifestyle that you are so accustomed to must change completely. The mantra to success is to have a positive attitude. You will be able to manage and possibly reverse diabetes if you take all the limes that life’s throwing at you, and make lemonade without sugar in it!
Your diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes will work together to help you manage diabetes. However, being on a vegan diabetes diet may also cause nutritional deficiencies in some. While taking supplements can help, one must also know which ones to go for. Read the next section.
Precautions: How To Overcome Nutritional Deficiencies
Brittany Lubeck, MS, RD, says “Vegans may need to take a few supplements to prevent nutrient deficiencies. They need to know what nutrients they are not getting from their diet, as some nutrient deficiencies can cause serious issues.” She advises considering taking the following supplements after consulting your doctor:
- Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 is only found in animal foods. Hence, vegans must take this nutrient in supplement form or through fortified vegan foods.
Although you can get calcium from some plant-based foods, getting enough as a vegan can be difficult.
- Vitamin D
Your body can synthesize vitamin D from the sun, but it may be a good idea for vegans to take a vitamin D supplement as well. Vitamin D increases calcium absorption, and since calcium may be hard to come by for vegans, this could be an essential supplement to add to the list.
DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is an omega-3 fatty acid. Your body can use another type of omega-3 called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), found in some plant-based foods, to synthesize DHA – but that may not be enough DHA.
It can be a challenge to eat enough protein without a daily intake of animal foods. Use plant-based protein powders (brown rice or hemp) to reach your protein goals.
There are two types of iron – heme and non-heme. While non-heme iron is found in some plant foods, heme iron is only found in animal foods. However, heme iron is more easily absorbed than non-heme iron. Hence, vegans may want to take an iron supplement or multivitamin that contains iron to prevent a deficiency.
A vegan diabetes diet is an effective nutritional strategy to manage and possibly reverse diabetes. Consuming plant-based foods and avoiding all animal products can help in diabetes treatment and even reduce the risk of other health issues. Talk to your doctor and get a customized vegan diet plan, workout regularly, and have a positive attitude. You will be able to win this!
Expert’s Answers For Readers’ Questions
What changes will I see with my insulin on a vegan diet?
A vegan diet has been found to improve insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes. Your body will be able to use circulating glucose effectively and will make you feel less hungry. You will consume fewer calories as a result.
How to get enough protein in a vegan diabetes diet?
You can get protein from nuts, seeds, lentils, beans, edamame, tofu, soy, mushrooms, teff, and quinoa. You may also go for a vegan protein supplement (sugarless) after talking to your dietitian.
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- A Low-Fat Vegan Diet Improves Glycemic Control and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in a Randomized Clinical Trial in Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes
- Plant-Based Dietary Patterns and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in US Men and Women: Results from Three Prospective Cohort Studies
- Preparing to Prescribe Plant-Based Diets for Diabetes Prevention and Treatment
- A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes
- Plant versus animal based diets and insulin resistance, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes: the Rotterdam Study
- Hemoglobin A1C
- Plant-based Diet for HbA1c Reduction in Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: an Evidence-based Case Report
- Health effects of vegan diets
- Perspective: Plant-Based Eating Pattern for Type 2 Diabetes Prevention and Treatment: Efficacy, Mechanisms, and Practical Considerations
- The Prevention and Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus with a Plant-Based Diet
- Effectiveness of plant-based diets in promoting well-being in the management of type 2 diabetes: A systematic review
- The essential role of exercise in the management of type 2 diabetes
- Exercise and Type 2 Diabetes