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Can You be a Vegetarian if You Have Diabetes?

April 23, 2013

Washington Hospital Seminar Highlights the Benefits of Meal Planning

You are what you eat. While most of us have heard that before, it's particularly true for people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, you know that everything you eat affects your blood sugar (glucose) level. But what if you are a vegetarian? How does eating a vegetarian diet affect diabetes? Is it safe?

"There are a lot of health benefits associated with a vegetarian diet," said Anna Mazzei, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Washington Hospital. "There is no reason people with diabetes can't eat a vegetarian diet with proper meal planning."

She will talk about ways people with diabetes can ensure that they get enough nutrients while keeping blood glucose levels under control when she presents "Meal Planning: Peaks and Pitfalls of a Vegetarian Diet" on Thursday, May 2, from 7 to 8 p.m. The seminar is part of Washington Hospital's free monthly Diabetes Matters education series and will be held at the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium, 2500 Mowry Avenue (Washington West), in Fremont.

Diabetes occurs when the body does not produce enough insulin or is not able to use it properly. Insulin is a hormone needed to convert sugar, starches, and other food into energy. When this process doesn't work properly, glucose levels in the blood can get too high.

Vegan or Vegetarian?

Mazzei will first explain the different degrees of vegetarianism. Vegans don't eat any animal products. That means they don't eat meat, fish, seafood, poultry, dairy products, or eggs.

"I don't see a lot of people with diabetes who are vegans," Mazzei said. "It is possible, but proper meal planning can be more of a challenge for vegans."

The second level of vegetarianism is the lacto-vegetarian. Dairy products are the only animal products they will eat, Mazzei explained. Next is the lacto-ovo vegetarian, who will eat both dairy products and eggs.

"Some people who call themselves vegetarians will also eat fish or seafood," she added. "It's much easier to get sufficient levels of protein if you eat dairy, eggs, fish, or seafood."

Mazzei will talk about some of the benefits of eating a plant-based diet. For example, fruits and vegetables contain an abundance of phytochemicals like carotenoids and flavonoids that help to reduce the risk for cancer. They are also packed with vitamins and minerals.

Plant-based diets are naturally higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, she added. A high-fiber diet can help you feel fuller longer and may help you eat less overall. In addition, when fiber intake is greater than 50 grams per day, it may help to lower blood glucose levels, according to the American Diabetes Association.

Mazzei will also talk about some of the pitfalls of being a vegetarian. The number one concern is that plant-based diets are often high in carbohydrates, which raise blood glucose levels, she said.

Portion Control

"Vegetarians tend to get a higher percentage of their calories from carbs," she added. "It's imperative that you control portion sizes to help control blood sugar."

Most carbohydrates come from plant-based foods such as grains - rice, barley, oats, and wheat - as well as fruits and vegetables, she explained. In addition, dairy products such as milk and yogurt are also high in carbs.

"You have to make good choices, which is why meal planning is so important," Mazzei said. "Beans are probably the most nutritious high-carb food because they contain protein, fiber, B vitamins, and iron. Even though they are high in carbohydrates, they don't spike blood sugar as much as other starchy foods like white rice or potatoes. Beans have a low glycemic index."

She said proper meal planning is important not only for keeping blood glucose under control, but also to ensure that you get all the nutrients you need, including protein. That is more difficult for vegans because protein sources that aren't animal products are limited. It's much easier for vegetarians who eat dairy products, fish, or seafood, which are good sources of protein and other nutrients.

"You really need to eat a variety of grains, fruits, and vegetables to get a wide range of nutrients," Mazzei added. "Foods that are fortified with vitamins and minerals can also help. I'll show some examples of meals that provide a wide range of nutrients. Being a vegetarian is doable and even healthy if you have diabetes, it just takes planning."

To learn more about Diabetes Matters and other diabetes programs at Washington Hospital, visit www.whhs.com/diabetes.