Why You Should Try a Vegetarian Diet
By Adeline Jasinski
The world of plant-based foods includes many tasty (and healthy) recipes and is rapidly expanding. Can a plant-based or vegan diet help you feel better and manage your diabetes?
Vegetarian and plant-based diets are quickly becoming mainstream. A trip to your grocery store will likely reveal many alternatives to animal products. For instance, dairy milk alternatives, such as soy milk, almond milk, oat milk, and more, come in multiple flavors and brands. You can even find plant-based replacements for meat, cheese, yogurt, and just about anything you can think of at many grocery stores and some restaurants.
These products, and a plant-based diet, are touted as healthy options and several studies suggest that a plant-based diet could potentially benefit people living with diabetes. Plus you might even find some new tasty recipes to add to your rotation.
What is a plant-based diet?
While you have likely seen and probably even tried plant-based products, you might not be sure exactly what a plant-based diet is. Some confusion surrounds this term because it has no set definition. It’s a broad term that includes all diets centered around plant-based foods rather than animal products.
For some people, a plant-based diet means avoiding all animal products (this is called a “vegan” diet). For others, eating plant-based simply means you try your best to swap out a steak for a plate full of vegetables, or eggs and bacon in the morning for a bowl of nuts and berries a few times a week.
Top four reasons to consider a plant-based diet
1. Plant-based diets can help with weight management: Many people find it challenging to maintain a healthy weight in spite of their efforts to restrict calories or exercise more frequently.
The BROAD study examined the impact of a whole food, plant-based diet on 65 people who had obesity or excess weight and a diagnosis of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. Participants followed either a traditional Western diet or a plant-based diet with no caloric restrictions or exercise mandates. The plant-based diet group experienced significant losses in overall weight as well as BMI and they were able to maintain it over a 12-month period, while the group following the Western diet did not see these similar positive results.
2. Plant-based diets may be good for your heart health: Plant-based diets have been shown to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Because people with diabetes are at a higher risk for heart disease and stroke, making sure that your blood pressure and cholesterol levels are key to avoiding complications down the road.
In addition, swapping out mostly animal-based saturated fats (such as butter) with plant-based unsaturated fats (such as olive or canola oil) may also reduce insulin resistance and lower cholesterol levels.
3. Plant-based diets help promote a healthy gut microbiome: A vegetarian or vegan diet, especially one that is high in fiber, may be beneficial for your gut health by encouraging the development of more diverse and stable gut bacteria.
4. Plant-based diets are good for the environment and animals: One Italian study compared the environmental impact of the diets of people who eat both animal and plant-based foods, with vegetarian and vegan diets. Researchers tracked what the 153 participants’ ate for one week, then calculated the environmental impact of each diet based on its greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, and land and sea usage.
The study found that vegan and vegetarian diets had a smaller environmental footprint (they are better for the environment) than diets that included meat and animal-products, even when participants consumed the same number of calories.
In addition, most of the meat and cheese consumed in America comes from factory farms, which are giant industrial facilities that raise a large number of animals including chickens, cows, and pigs. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), factory farms typically cage or overcrowd the animals, confine them in spaces with poor air quality and unnatural light patterns, and fail to treat ill or injured animals. Diets that avoid animal products avoid contributing to a system that mistreats animals.
Tips for shifting to a plant-based diet
Whether you want to switch to a completely plant-based diet right away or you’re still on the fence about cutting out meat and other animal products, changing the way you eat can be challenging, and completely overhauling your diet might feel a bit overwhelming.
If you want to go vegan, that’s great. But you can also make smaller changes that will benefit your health and the world around you. Here are some ways you can do this:
Follow a vegetarian diet: Eliminating meat while still consuming eggs and dairy products might feel more manageable than going straight to a vegan diet.
Consume fewer animal-based products: If becoming a full on vegetarian doesn’t sound like something you are interested in right now, consider simply reducing the overall amount of meat, cheese, and dairy you eat. For example, swap cow’s milk for oat milk or switch out beans for meat in some of your recipes.
Add vegan meals into your rotation: Changing habits can be hard, but trying new recipes can be fun! When you find a plant-based recipe that you love, incorporate it into the rotation of meals you serve regularly. You could even try the “Meatless Monday” concept and choose one night a week to go vegan.
Increase the amount of diabetes-friendly fruits and vegetables at all meals: No matter which dietary path you choose, you can always find some benefit in increasing the amount of fruits, vegetables, certain grains, and legumes at all meals. Add a small dish of berries to your oatmeal or roasted bell peppers to your eggs at breakfast. At lunch or dinner, consider adding a green salad or a side of steamed cauliflower.
Include vegan protein sources
Anyone with type 2 diabetes needs to manage their carbohydrate and protein consumption. Following a plant-based diet can make it tempting to rely heavily on carbohydrates, but that’s not an option for people living with diabetes.
Emily del Conte, a registered dietician and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist with Evolution, says that “including protein sources with carbohydrates as part of a meal may help stabilize blood sugars. Vegan proteins, such as beans, nuts, and veggie burgers, tend to be higher in fiber and the fiber also helps with blood sugar management.”
This usually means that instead of quickly spiking your glucose levels, these plant-based proteins high in fiber will cause your glucose to rise more slowly and predictably. However, note that the way the body responds to meals that mix carbs and protein differs from person to person.
Here are some great low-carb, high-protein vegan foods:
Beans: Beans are one of the most versatile plant-based foods available. Not only do they work well in soups, over brown rice, and in salads but they are cheap and easy to prepare.
Hummus: Hummus with cut-up veggies or on top of a green salad makes a great lunch or light dinner.
Tofu: Tofu is a versatile food that readily absorbs other flavors. Try it stir-fried with vegetables, scrambled like eggs, or marinated and roasted.
Nuts and seeds: Nuts and seeds are great for snacking or sprinkled over a salad. They add a nice crunch, and their protein and fat content make them very filling.
Want to try some fun plant-based recipes? Check out Catherine Newman’s, “Fun and Easy Meatless Main Dishes for Hot Days,” (she includes a list of all her vegetarian dishes on diaTribe in the article).