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Vegetarian diets and diabetes

More and more people are choosing to follow a vegetarian diet for many different reasons.

It’s estimated that two per cent of the population now don’t eat meat or fish.

Reasons for switching to a vegetarian diet include:

  • the health benefits
  • ethical and moral reasons
  • religious or cultural reasons
  • concern for animal welfare
  • concern about the environment and sustainability
  • taste – some people just don’t like the taste of meat or fish.

A vegetarian diet, based on unprocessed foods, can provide many health benefits for us all, whether or not you have diabetes.

If you have diabetes, it’s important to be more aware of how what you eat affects your body and, in turn, you’ll hopefully become more health conscious.

So what is a vegetarian diet? Are there any ways it could help manage diabetes? Does it provide any health benefits for people with diabetes?

What is a vegetarian?

According to the Vegetarian Society, a vegetarian is:
"Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs. A vegetarian does not eat any meat, poultry, game, fish, shellfish or by-products of slaughter."

There are different types of vegetarians:

  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarians eat both dairy products and eggs (usually free range).
  • Lacto-vegetarians eat dairy products, but avoid eggs.
  • Vegans do not any products derived from animals – no meat, fish, dairy or eggs.

Why try a plant-based diet?

Plant-based foods, particularly fruit and vegetables, nuts, pulses and seeds have been shown to help in the treatment of many chronic diseases and are often associated with lower rates of Type 2 diabetes, less hypertension, lower cholesterol levels and reduced cancer rates.

These foods are also higher in fibre, antioxidants, folate and phytochemicals, which are all good for our general health.

Vegetarian diets have been shown to be beneficial for people with Type 2 diabetes where weight loss is often the most effective way to manage the condition. A wholefood vegetarian diet often contains fewer calories and can help you to maintain a healthy body weight.

It is important to keep an eye on portions sizes of high-fat foods such as cheese and nuts or you might find yourself putting on weight. With the increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) in people with diabetes, keeping your weight under control and reducing blood pressure and blood cholesterol are all essential and plant-based foods can help with these.

Veggie Q&A

Will I be getting enough protein?

Vegetarians who eat dairy products and eggs will have a good protein intake. If you are a vegan, there are also many plant-based protein sources that can help you to meet your protein requirements. These include:

  • nuts, seeds and their butters, eg cashew, peanut, almond, brazil, tahini
  • beans and pulses, eg butter beans, chickpeas, lentils
  • vegetable milks, eg soya, almond, hempseed
  • quinoa
  • soya products, eg tofu, soya cheese, soya milk.

Can I replace the animal protein (meat/fish) in my diet with more carbs?

It is better to replace animal protein with non-animal sources of protein. These include:

  • Quorn
  • tofu
  • nuts
  • pulses and beans

There is generally more carbohydrate in plant-based protein sources, so it is possible that your carbohydrate intake may increase when you switch to a vegetarian diet. However, you can still watch your portions, and always look for low glycaemic index (GI) options and pick foods that are high in fibre. Doing this could help in managing diabetes and with weight control. The GI is a measure of how quickly carbohydrate is absorbed and the quicker the carbohydrate is absorbed, the higher the GI.

How can I lose weight if I’m a vegetarian?

Following a vegetarian diet can be healthy, but if you simply replace meat and fish with processed foods, which can be high in calories and low in vitamins and minerals, eg ready meals, pastries, pies, takeaways, cheese, creamy sauces and dips, your diet may be unbalanced and you’re likely to put on weight. That is why it is important to replace such high-fat foods like these with cottage cheese, eggs, dishes based around beans, tomato-based sauces, and nuts and seeds in moderation, and fill up on vegetables served with wholegrain rice, pasta or bread. It is extremely important to watch your overall portions. Keeping active is also important for weight management.

How can I get enough calcium and iron?

There’s plenty of calcium in dairy products and it’s also found in cereals and cereal products, green leafy vegetables, nuts and pulses, such as baked beans and dried lentils. Meat is rich in iron, but there are also vegetarian sources of iron, which include:

  • eggs
  • bread
  • breakfast cereals
  • dark green vegetables
  • nuts
  • dried fruit
  • beans and pulses.

Consuming more fruit and vegetables can also help as they are high in vitamin C, which increases the amount of iron your body absorbs.

Will a vegetarian diet control my cholesterol levels?

Saturated fat has been linked with raised cholesterol levels and is mainly found in animal foods and processed foods. Therefore, replacing meat with cheese is unlikely to reduce your saturated fat intake or your cholesterol levels, so if you’re eating dairy foods choose reduced-fat versions, eg cottage cheese, quark, skimmed or semi-skimmed milk, and lower-fat/lower-sugar yogurts.

How can I eat more fibre?

Fibre is important for gut health but is also associated with reduced risk of some chronic diseases, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some cancers. There are two different types of fibre, soluble and insoluble, and most foods contain a mixture of both. Both are valuable to health. Insoluble fibre adds bulk to stools and helps them pass through the gut effectively whereas soluble fibre helps control blood glucose levels and reduces cholesterol. Foods such as wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, pulses, nuts and seeds have a good mix of soluble and insoluble fibre so include these options more often.

Do I need to take supplements?

A vegetarian diet can provide all the nutrients you need for good health. The only exception to this is vitamin B12, which vegetarians can obtain from eggs and dairy foods. The only reliable sources for vegans are fortified foods such as non-dairy milks, yeast extracts and breakfast cereals. Alternatively a suitable nutritional supplement is recommended.

Specific nutritional supplements may also be considered for people who are particularly at risk of deficiencies, for example elderly people, infants and children. Speak to your doctor if you think you may be at risk of any nutrient deficiency.

Shouldn’t I be eating fish for omega-3 fatty acids?

There is evidence to suggest that people with diabetes may benefit from omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish, which are useful in the prevention and treatment of heart disease. But vegetarians can make sure they get adequate sources of this fatty acid in their diet by including omega-3 enriched eggs, flaxseed and rapeseed oil, walnuts, soya-based foods such as soya milk, and tofu and walnuts. These sources are not as good as oily fish, so it is important to include them on a regular basis in order to get adequate amounts of omega-3 fatty acids.

Is it expensive to be a vegetarian?

A vegetarian diet doesn’t have to be more expensive and may even be cheaper! Dried foods such as beans, peas, quinoa, lentils and rice can be very inexpensive and go a long way. It’s often cheaper to buy in bulk and these foods can be stored a long time. Look out for special offers, try buying fresh fruit and veg from your local market and have a go at batch cooking and freezing, too.

Recipes for you to try

Our recipe finder has lots of veggie recipes to inspire you. Why not try our black eyed bean, feta and herb burger? And our Andean style quinoa is healthy and quick and easy to make.

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