Vegetarian / Vegan Eating Plans for Diabetics

By American Diabetes Association

Considering a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle? Plant-based eating patterns provide more carbohydrate than other eating patterns, but they can still be an option for people with diabetes. Vegetarian and vegan eating patterns are based on plant foods — such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains — with little to no animal products. The benefit to plant-based eating patterns is that they’re rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals and low in cholesterol and saturated fat, which may reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

Although there hasn’t been much research that looks specifically at the effects of vegetarian or vegan diets in people with diabetes, research in the general population has linked following a plant-based eating pattern to a lower risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.

There are a few different kinds of plant-based eating patterns that vary depending on the type and amount of animal products included. Check out these options to see if any will meet your needs:

  • Vegan: A vegan eating plan includes many plant foods, but no animal products at all. People following a vegan diet avoid all meats, poultry, eggs, fish and seafood, dairy, and (in many cases) even honey.
  • Lacto-vegetarian: A lacto-vegetarian eating plan includes plant foods and (unlike a vegan eating plan) dairy products such as milk, cheese, and yogurt. People who follow a lacto-vegetarian meal plan also avoid all meats, poultry, eggs, fish, and seafood.
  • Ovo-lacto vegetarian: An ovo-lacto vegetarian eating plan includes plant foods, as well as dairy products and eggs. People following this eating pattern still avoid all meats, poultry, fish, and seafood.

Some people choose to be a little more flexible and follow a semi-vegetarian eating pattern, which generally means that their eating pattern is primarily plant-based and they may include dairy, eggs, or even seafood on occasion, but they avoid poultry and red meat. You don’t need to follow a strict vegetarian eating pattern to include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in your meal plan. Eating vegetarian or vegan dishes for even just a few meals or days per week will help you increase your intake of nutritious plant foods.

Keep in mind that a vegan or vegetarian eating pattern isn’t automatically healthy. As with any meal plan or eating pattern, people following a plant-based eating pattern must make nutritious food choices and control their portion sizes. Aim to eat mostly fresh produce, whole grains (rather than refined grain products), beans, nuts, and seeds. Avoid eating a lot of highly processed products and foods that are high in sugar and/or sodium.

Meat substitutes, such as tofu, seitan, veggie burgers, and soy-based “meat” or “chicken” products, look like and may taste similar to meat and poultry. You can include these products in your plant-based diet if you choose, but pay attention to the information on the Nutrition Facts label. These products can be high in calories, carbohydrate, or sodium.

If you’re trying to remove animal products from your diet, or if you’re already living a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle and you’re wondering if it’s compatible with managing diabetes, rest assured. Plant-based diets are an option for people with diabetes as long as they choose nutritious plant foods and control their portions. Ask your dietitian or healthcare provider if a vegan or vegetarian diet is right for you.