A healthy diet plays a key role in the management of diabetes. If you have this condition, you may wonder whether a vegan diet can help you better manage it. Alternatively, perhaps you follow a vegan diet and have recently been diagnosed with diabetes. If you’re interested in pursuing or continuing a vegan diet and you have diabetes, it’s essential to understand how to meal plan, shop, and self-monitor to be successful. Although a vegan diet isn’t the only diet that can help manage diabetes, it is possible to manage the condition while following a vegan diet. This article provides a guide to the vegan diet for diabetes, its benefits and downsides, and how to succeed on the diet, along with a 3-day sample meal plan.
How the vegan diet for diabetes works The vegan diet is completely free of meat, dairy, and animal-based products. Although it can be a nutritious way of eating, it requires careful planning to make sure you’re meeting all of your nutritional needs (). For people with diabetes, following a vegan diet will require an extra layer of planning. In general, people with diabetes need to keep their carb intake consistent throughout the day, as carbs affect blood sugar levels more significantly than protein and fat. Meals and snacks should also be balanced with carbs, protein, and healthy fat since including noncarb foods in your meal can help reduce the carbs’ effects on your blood sugar (). All of this can be done using exclusively plant-based foods, although it may be a bit challenging if you’re new to the vegan diet. Here are some examples of carbs, proteins, and fats that you can use to build meals and snacks if you’re following a vegan diet for diabetes: Fortunately, many plant-based foods, such as beans and grains, contain a mixture of carbs, protein, and fat, so they can pull double or triple duty in your meal planning. Additionally, fiber — a type of indigestible carb — is found in most plant-based foods. Fiber helps make these foods more filling and may also help reduce their blood sugar impact (). Based on the type of diabetes you have, your physical activity level, age, sex, and several other factors, your healthcare team — including a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) — can help you pinpoint the optimal amount of carbs you need with each meal. Summary The vegan diet contains no meat or animal-derived products. The best way to follow a vegan diet if you have diabetes is to make sure that each meal and snack contains a healthy balance of plant-based protein, carbs, and fat.
Some of the potential, research-backed benefits of a vegan diet for diabetes include improved blood sugar management, insulin sensitivity, and weight management. One 12-week study in 93 Korean people with diabetes compared the effects of a low glycemic vegan diet and a conventional diet for diabetes. Researchers found that following a vegan diet resulted in slightly improved blood sugar management than following a conventional diet (). Another review noted that diets that emphasized plant-based food intake, including vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean, and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, tended to reduce hemoglobin A1C by 0.8% (). Your hemoglobin A1C level is a measure of blood sugar management across the previous 3 months, and it’s a good indicator of long-term blood sugar management. However, these findings aren’t unique to vegan diets. Several other dietary patterns may help improve blood sugar management. Some diets, including low carb or Mediterranean-style diets, have more compelling evidence to support their use for diabetes management (, ). Insulin is the key hormone that helps maintain normal glucose levels. Because type 2 diabetes is characterized by insulin resistance (when cells stop responding to the hormone insulin), increasing insulin sensitivity can help reduce blood sugar and insulin levels, as well as the need for insulin injections among some people with diabetes (). One way researchers measure insulin resistance is called the homeostasis model assessment index for insulin resistance (HOMA-IR). In one 16-week study among 244 overweight adults, researchers noted that those who switched to a low fat vegan diet had greater decreases in their HOMA-IR than those eating their normal diet, meaning they became more sensitive to insulin (). A similar study in 75 overweight adults noted that a vegan diet significantly reduced HOMA-IR, along with body weight and fat mass, compared with a control diet (). Researchers theorize that animal proteins may contribute more strongly to the development of insulin resistance than plant proteins. However, overall diet quality is likely a greater contributor than animal protein consumption or avoidance (, ). Finally, a vegan diet may be beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes by helping them manage their weight. Losing weight can help improve insulin sensitivity, and vegan diets tend to be lower in fat and calories than omnivorous diets, which may make it easier to lose weight (). Alongside the improvements in insulin resistance observed in the studies above, researchers also noted that the vegan diet resulted in more body fat and weight loss (, ). In another 6-month study in 63 overweight adults, researchers noted that those who followed a vegan diet experienced more than double the weight loss of those following less strict plant-based eating patterns like vegetarian, pescatarian, and semi-vegetarian diets (). Summary There’s some evidence that a vegan diet can help improve blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, as well as aid weight loss among people with overweight or obesity.
There are some potential downsides to the vegan diet in general — and particularly for people with diabetes. Fortunately, these downsides are avoidable with careful planning. People who eat vegan diets are at a greater risk of developing certain nutrient deficiencies than other people, particularly deficiencies in vitamin B12, vitamin B6, niacin, iron, calcium, omega-3 fats, iodine, and zinc, which are all more prevalent in animal foods (, , ). However, you can get all of these nutrients by either supplementing or purposefully including plant-based foods that are good sources of these nutrients in your diet. Here are some examples of vegan sources of these nutrients: It can also be difficult for people on vegan diets to get enough protein and the right variety of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) to maintain optimal health. Protein is necessary for creating new bodily tissues, and amino acids play a variety of roles in your health (, ). Although again, this problem can be solved with a little bit of planning. Great vegan sources of protein include: In addition, most vegan protein sources are considered incomplete — meaning that, unlike animal protein sources, they don’t contain all of the essential amino acids in the right amounts. To make sure you’re getting all of the amino acids you need, mix up your protein sources and get your protein from various plant-based sources each day (). One final pitfall of the vegan diet that can affect people with diabetes, in particular, is that it’s easy to overdo it on the carbs, which can affect your blood sugar levels. Plant foods tend to be higher in carbs than animal foods, so a vegan diet will naturally be higher in carbs than an omnivorous diet. If you eat many highly processed vegan foods, it can be easy to eat carbs in excess of what your healthcare team recommends. While carbs as a whole aren’t unhealthy and can certainly be part of a healthy diet for diabetes, it’s important to moderate your intake to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. Talk to your healthcare team about the optimal amount of carbs for you. Summary Some of the downsides of a vegan diet include an increased risk of certain nutrient deficiencies, the challenge of getting adequate protein, and the potential to eat too many carbs. With planning, all of these downsides are avoidable.
Likewise, here are some pitfalls to avoid when following a vegan diet for diabetes. Highly processed foods — including vegan ones — are often loaded with sugar and additives and poor in fiber and protein. The same goes for drinks like sodas and fruit juices. Although you don’t have to avoid these foods totally, you should limit them, especially if you have trouble managing your blood sugar levels. Excessive ultra-processed food intake has been linked to weight gain and an increased risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer (, , ). On the same note, you should try to avoid meals or snacks that primarily comprise carbs and contain little protein or fat. Protein can help reduce carbs’ effect on your blood sugar levels and may help enhance sensations of fullness. In addition, fat sources like olive oil may provide some additional health benefits like improving heart health and helping boost the absorption of certain nutrients (, , , ). Summary Avoid large amounts of highly processed food, and make sure that your meals and snacks contain a balance of fat, protein, and carbs to promote optimal health on a vegan diet.