Vegetarianism for Diabetics

If visions of verdant vegetables, nutty whole grains, and fresh fruit are tempting you to give up meat in favor of a healthy, plant-based diet, you may well wonder if a vegetarian diet can work for a diabetic. After all, carbs comprise the bulk of a vegetarian eating plan, and when you're diabetic, they have to be carefully tallied up in order to keep the blood sugar as close to normal as possible.  

A vegetarian diet can work, experts say, and you may well find that you feel better when you're not eating so much meat. But it does require some organization and commitment on your part.

"The advantage of a vegetarian diet is that is lower in total fat and saturated fat," says Carolyn Swithers, RN, CDE, director of the Center for Nutrition and Diabetes Management at Hunterdon Medical Center in Flemington, New Jersey. "It is also high in fiber."

"There's definitely more planning involved," says Caroline Bohl, RD, CDE, of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia in New York City. "How much planning is involved will depend on how strict a vegetarian you decide to be."

If you want to go vegan, which means you won't be eating eggs or cheese, you'll need to strategize more than someone who's going the ovo-lacto vegetarian route (you'll still eat eggs and cheese.)  Some people who call themselves vegetarians still eat fish, which makes life even easier.

Here, nutrition experts offer their top 10 tips for how a person with diabetes can be a happy, healthy vegetarian.

1. Get adequate protein. In general, a 120-pound woman needs between 50 and 60 grams of protein daily, and a 170-pound man requires 70 to 80 grams of protein a day. Calculate your protein intake until you get the hang of it, so you will know you are getting enough.

2. Consider tofu products, which are excellent substitutes for meat, says Swithers. "Soy crumbles taste almost like ground beef and soy chicken nuggets are a good option, too," Swithers says. Use the soy crumbles in tacos, spaghetti sauce or to make sloppy joes. Cooked soy "chicken" nuggets serve as a main dish protein or can be cut up and put on top of salad.

3. Stock up on canned beans, a good protein substitute. The fiber in the beans helps prevent the blood sugar from spiking too quickly, explains Constance Brown-Riggs, Ms Ed., RD, CDE, CDN, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and author of Eating Soulfully and Healthfully with Diabetes. "Fiber slows down the rate at which food leaves the stomach and thus slows down the rate at which glucose enters the bloodstream," Brown-Riggs explains. Keep in mind that a half cup typically has around 15 grams of carbohydrates. Generally, a meal for a diabetic should contain about 45 grams of carbohydrate, Swithers says. Calculate the beans into the total carb intake.

4. Use beans for protein and flavor.  Blend with garlic and make hummus, use in salads, wraps and soups or mash for a dip.  One bean dish to avoid, however--baked beans made with lots of sugar and molasses. If you use canned beans, rinse them to get rid of excess sodium. If you prefer dried beans, make a great pot at the start of the week and use throughout the week.

5. Avoid convenience foods. It's tempting to eat a lot of processed vegetarian dinners since they are quick and easy. But keep in mind that these can contain assorted preservatives and some contain hydrogenated fats, too. Your best strategy is to read the label.

6. Read labels on veggie burgers. Veggie burgers are a quick and easy option, but remember that these typically have fillers like rice, so count the carbs carefully. Typically a veggie burger contains 15 to 17 grams of carbohydrate.

7. Go nuts! Nuts can supply protein, and though they are a rich source of fat, it is typically "good" fat. "The healthiest are almonds, walnuts, pecans and pistachios," Bohl says. "Macadamia nuts and Brazil nuts are a little higher in the bad fat." Use nuts sparingly in salads, or as a topping on vegetables, and as a snack. A quarter cup of cashews has 13 grams of fat, two and one half grams of which are saturated. A quarter cup of pistachios has 13 grams of fat, one and one half grams of of which is saturated.

8. Spread it out. Peanut butter is a good source of meatless protein but also high in fat. Two tablespoons has 16 grams of fat, three of which are saturated. Make an open faced peanut butter sandwich, or spread it on whole grain crackers. Monitor your intake, though, since it has 190 calories in 2 tablespoons.

9. Try polenta. It makes a delicious vegetarian option, and it is relatively low in carbs. Four tablespoons, which constitutes a single serving, has 4 grams of carbohydrates. Prepare polenta and spread it out in a pan to dry, then cut it into squares and use in place of regular lasagna noodles. You can also use polenta squares in place of bread to hold chopped vegetables as a crudite.

10. Hold the desserts. Don't rationalize eating more sweets and junk food just because you've given up meat. Sure, a special occasion treat is all right, but the best snacks are the non-starchy vegetables like cucumbers, red pepper slices, green beans, cauliflower and broccoli. Keep a platter of these in the fridge to munch when you feel hungry.