Vegetarian Diet for Diabetics

Trade your T-bone for tofu? If you're considering giving up meat in the interest of health, you may be wondering if you can you be a healthy vegetarian and have diabetes?

Diabetics are constantly told to limit their intake of carbohydrates, which is exactly what's contained in fruits and vegetables. But experts say it's possible to go meatless and still keep your blood sugar in the normal range.

A meat-free meal plan is actually a healthy way of eating, says Bridget Lopez, RD, CDE, of Long Island College Hospital in New York. Vegetarians tend to eat a diet that's higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat than meat eaters. "Vegetarianism is a good option and can be very helpful at controlling the appetite," Lopez says.

Alissa Rumsey, RD, of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, says that to be successful at following a vegetarian diet, it's important to choose carbohydrates carefully and keeping close track of how many grams of carbohydrates you consume at each meal.

"It's all about being aware of what you are eating," Rumsey says. "But it's definitely possible to have good blood sugar control when you are a vegetarian."

Here's what to keep in mind when planning your meals:

  • Eating complex carbs like whole grains helps you digest food more slowly and feel full longer, says Lopez. Choose brown rice, whole wheat bread, and whole grain pasta, and avoid white bread and baked goods made with white flour.
  • It's important to get enough protein since you're not eating beef and chicken. If you're okay with eating dairy products, you can rely on eggs, lowfat cheese, and yogurt. Other good protein sources are soy products: soybeans, tofu, and tempeh. There are also innumerable products on the market made with soy, from veggie burgers to pasta dishes. And tofu comes in so many varieties and flavors that it's easy to choose one for stir-fries and even pizza toppings.
  • To get enough protein from non-soy sources, stock up on dried beans and legumes, Rumsey recommends, and consider buying nut butters—not just peanut butter, but almond and cashew butter as well. These can be spread on a piece of whole wheat toast for breakfast, or used as a dip with apple slices for a snack.
  • Combine two different non-meat sources of protein to get the complete protein that meat contains. For instance, serve beans and rice for dinner, or enjoy a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread for lunch.
  • Portion control is crucial, Rumsey says. Become familiar with the nutrition facts panels on processed foods and keep portion sizes in line. Not sure how many grams of carb you can have at a meal? "For a grown man, it could be five servings of carbohydrate at a meal," Rumsey says. "For a woman, it's more likely to be three." Keep in mind that a serving equals about 15 grams of carbohydrate, she says.
  • While some starchy vegetables must be factored into the meal plan, the non-starchy vegetables can be eaten in unlimited qualities. Don't just think in terms of salads to fill you up. Lightly steam broccoli florets, cauliflower florets, baby carrots, and string beans. Chill and serve with a fat-free dip or with some hummus (making sure to "count" the hummus, of course.)
  • Finally, incorporate fiber and vitamin-rich fruit into your meal plan. But remember that it's not "free," so here, too, watch portion sizes closely.