Should I go Veggie? Vegetarian Diets For Balancing Blood Sugar
What do Alicia Silverstone, Woody Harrelson and Joaquin Phoenix have in common, and why is their blood sugar probably their biggest fan?
Celebrity diets. We’ve all heard of them, maybe we’ve even tried a few. But there’s one “celebrity” way of eating that seems to really tip the scales when it comes to balancing your blood sugar—a vegetarian diet.
A vegetarian, or plant-based, diet skips the animal and fish protein in favor of proteins that naturally occur in things like beans, seeds, nuts, and dairy products. And Alicia, Woody, and Joaquin even take it a step further. They eat a vegan diet which is basically vegetarian on steroids—eliminating all animal by-products altogether, including dairy, eggs and honey.
So what’s all the fuss about, and can it really help balance your blood sugar? Let’s dive in.
What does it mean to go Veggie?
A vegetarian diet is a way of eating that excludes meat, poultry, fish, and any foods containing these products. Vegetarian diets come in a variety of forms. A lacto-ovo vegetarian diet includes grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans), seeds, nuts, dairy products, and eggs. Whereas, a vegan diet excludes anything of animal origin such as honey, milk, and eggs.
So will eliminating meat and/or dairy really help me balance my blood sugar?
The short answer is, probably yes. Some studies show that vegetarian and vegan diets are healthier for blood sugar, citing a relationship between blood sugar imbalances and red meat consumption. Animal proteins, particularly red meat, tends to increase insulin resistance and poor glycemic control.
However, following a vegetarian diet can be a challenge since excluding animal products such as meat, fish, and poultry can really limit your protein sources. And high protein diets are really a great way to feel full and reduce carb cravings.
So why go vegetarian?
Well, a vegetarian diet can help you maintain a healthy weight, minimize your risk of blood sugar-related problems, and improve your body's insulin sensitivity. The trick, then, is finding the best sources of non-animal foods that will supplement the proteins and fats you normally get from animal products, and then making sure you’re eating plenty of them.
Here’s some guidelines for going Veggie
1. Make sure you get enough protein.
Protein is an essential ingredient for balanced blood sugar because it affects appetite and immunity and slows digestion. When we think of protein, we usually think of turkey, chicken, fish, and meat, but protein may also be found in plant-based foods. Aim to consume a minimum of 4-6 ounces of protein-rich foods per day.
Protein can be found in plant foods such as:
Black beans, mung beans, pinto beans, chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, and split peas are great, low-cost plant protein sources. They're also high in soluble fiber, which offers numerous health benefits. A diet high in legumes can help prevent heart attacks and strokes by improving blood sugar control and lowering blood lipids.
Soy milk, meat alternatives, soybeans and soybean burgers, soy-based yogurt and cheese, tofu, soy nut butter, and other soy products are heart-healthy. Polyunsaturated fat is concentrated in soy foods that can be used as meat substitutes. Polyunsaturated fats have many health benefits, including lowering cholesterol triglycerides and balancing your blood sugar.
2. Make sure you get high-fiber carbohydrates.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. French fries, chips, and mac and cheese are vegetarian foods, but they are not friendly to your blood sugar nor your waistline. Whole foods, rather than processed foods, give you the best source of healthy carbs.
When people with blood sugar issues begin a vegetarian diet, they often tend to substitute unhealthy carbohydrate foods for meat, resulting in overeating during meals. The result is increased blood sugar levels after meals and weight gain. You see, carbs are the macronutrient that has the most impact on blood sugars. So, it's critical to eat the right kind of carbs and to keep track of how much you’re eating.
A high-fiber diet can improve blood sugar control, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, reduce cholesterol, and help you feel full. Including high fiber carbohydrate options in your carbohydrate choices can help to lower the impact on blood sugar levels. Fiber not only helps to keep blood sugar levels consistent, but it can also help you feel fuller for longer. Legumes and whole grains are a great way to get extra fiber, and they’re slowly digested, which may help with weight control and cardiovascular disease.
Here’s a few more suggestions for high-fiber carbohydrate replacements:
- Instead of white bread, use bread with whole grains.
- Instead of white rice, use brown rice.
- Instead of refined pasta, use chickpea pasta.
- Instead of cornflakes, try bran cereal.
- Instead of grits, use oatmeal.
- Instead of pretzels, use low-fat popcorn.
3. Make sure you get enough healthy fats.
Vegetarian diets can be deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, especially if you avoid eggs and seafood. And Omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial to healthy heart and brain functions. Since imbalanced blood sugar increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, getting enough healthy fats to maintain a healthy heart is critical.
If you don't consume eggs or fish, you may need an omega-3 supplement (DHA/EPA). However, you can also get healthy fats from soy milk and foods high in alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based n-3 fatty acid. Plant-based foods like flaxseed, walnuts, canola oil, and soy, can also provide some essential healthy fats.
4. Keep an eye on your calcium and iron levels.
Non-vegetarians get a lot of iron and calcium from meat and dairy. For vegetarians and vegans, you’ll need to make sure to eat iron and calcium rich foods. The good news is iron and calcium are found in large concentrations in some vegetables.
Here’s a quick list of iron and calcium-rich foods:
- Green leafy vegetables
- Tomato paste
- Green vegetables like broccoli
- Palm hearts
Balancing it out
The bottom line is, it's essential to consume a well-balanced vegetarian diet. Keep an eye on your carbs, make sure you’re getting the essential nutrients you need, and you should be well on your way to balancing your blood sugar with a veggie diet.
And, with any major diet change, it's a good idea to consult a nutritionist, especially if you're thinking about becoming a vegetarian. They can assist you in developing an eating plan that will include all of the necessary nutrients and the appropriate number of calories to keep your blood sugars balanced and maintain a healthy body weight.