Go to main content

Published on:

Updated on:

4 Plant-Based Proteins for People With Diabetes

Plant-based proteins like tofu and tempeh help with blood sugar control and support weight loss, making them a healthy food option for people with diabetes. 

You might be looking to cut back on meat for several reasons. Red and processed meats have been linked to the development of type 2 diabetes and can worsen existing diabetes complications.

It’s recommended to limit the amount of meat (especially red meat) in your diet as it’s high in saturated fats, which can fuel weight gain and make it harder to manage your diabetes. Since meat is rich in protein, it’s important to find alternative sources. Luckily, there are plenty of plant-based protein options, like tofu and seitan, that you can add to your diet. 

“Plant-based proteins are generally lower in saturated fat and calories than animal proteins,” said Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietician nutritionist.

This means swapping out meat is especially important if weight loss is one of your diabetes treatment goals. Switching to healthier plant proteins can also improve blood sugar control and reduce your risk of diabetes complications like heart disease. This is partly because you’re taking in less saturated fat and plant-based proteins are rich in fiber – eating fiber can help you feel more full, which aids with weight management. 

If you’re looking to swap meat out of your diet, here are four great plant-based protein substitutes to add to the mix.

1. Tempeh

Tempeh is a plant-based protein made from fermented soybeansTempeh is made from fermented soybeans. It’s low in carbohydrates and high in protein, meaning that it’s unlikely to cause blood sugar spikes and will leave you feeling full. Importantly, tempeh is a whole protein. This means that, like meat, it contains all nine essential amino acids your body needs.

Tempeh provides many key minerals found in red meat, including calcium, iron, and magnesium. It’s also a good source of fiber and low in saturated fat and calories. This is important if weight control is part of your diabetes regimen.

More research on humans is needed, but animal studies show that consuming tempeh can improve blood glucose levels, lower cholesterol levels, and decrease tissue damage from diabetes.

2. Beans and other legumes

“Beans are a great option as a plant-based protein for people with diabetes,” Taub-Dix said.

Legumes like pinto beans and soybeans are rich in protein and contain compounds called saponins, which can be beneficial for glucose management. Studies show that having a meal with saponins reduces the risk of blood sugar spikes after eating.

Beans and other legumes like chickpeas and lentils support heart health and weight loss as they’re high in fiber and low in saturated fat. Beans also provide valuable nutrients including potassium, magnesium, and iron.

Because they aren’t a whole protein (meaning they do not contain all nine essential amino acids), it’s best to combine beans and legumes with whole grains like brown rice to get optimal benefits.

3. Seitan

Seitan is a plant-based protein made from gluten, the main protein found in wheatSeitan is made from gluten, the main protein found in wheat, and is a popular vegetarian option but not ideal for anyone on a gluten-free diet. 

“Seitan is a good source of protein and is low in saturated fat. However, it’s not a complete protein, so it works best when you combine it with other protein sources like whole grains that can provide the other necessary amino acids,” said Taub-Dix.

Many plant-based proteins are made from soy, so seitan is a good option for anyone on a soy-free diet.

“One thing to watch out for is that seitan doesn’t have much flavor on its own,” said Taub-Dix. “This means that it’s often prepared with high-sodium ingredients like soy sauce, which could raise blood pressure.”

Limiting sodium intake is important for people with diabetes as they are at an increased risk for heart disease. Instead of adding soy sauce or lots of salt, try cooking seitan with flavorful vegetables and add spices like pepper or cumin for taste.

4. Tofu

Tofu is another healthy plant-based option for people with diabetes because it’s a complete protein, meaning it contains all essential amino acids. It’s also low in saturated fat and a good source of fiber, iron, and calcium.

“If you opt for extra-firm tofu, you’ll get an even higher dose of calcium,” Taub-Dix added. A calcium product is used to firm up tofu during the making process. The more calcium added, the firmer the tofu, meaning extra-firm products contain more calcium. 

Studies have found that eating tofu, which is prepared from soy milk, may also be linked to lower diabetes risk. One review found that people who had more soy in their diet were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Tofu is also very versatile when it comes to cooking. 

“It basically has no taste, so it can be incorporated into many different types of dishes. It can add value while taking on the flavor of other more powerful tasting ingredients,” said Taub-Dix.

The bottom line

Swapping meat for plant-based proteins like tofu and beans is a healthy option for people with diabetes. It can help lower your intake of saturated fat, which is important if weight loss is one of your treatment goals. Plant-based proteins also contain compounds like fiber and saponins that can help boost your health and reduce blood sugar spikes.

Taub-Dix added that it’s important for people with diabetes to talk to a healthcare professional or registered dietitian before making any major changes to their diet. They can help you figure out how much protein you need, how to get enough minerals in your diet, and how to make adjustments for your particular needs.

Learn more about diabetes and nutrition here: