Can a Vegetarian Diet Improve Blood Sugar Management?

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Nowadays, diets and eating patterns are a popular topic of discussion amongst many people. There are many different diets to explore—each with its own benefits and successes. In particular, the vegetarian diet has become very popular in the past few years. Many individuals ranging from celebrities to fitness fanatics as well as just ordinary people, seem to enjoy this diet. That said, many also follow it due to religious beliefs, health benefits, environmental care, or ethical reasons.

Whether or not you fall into either of those categories, read along to learn more about vegetarian diets, their benefits, and disadvantages.

What Is a Vegetarian Diet?

The term “vegetarian diet” includes a range of various diets with different dietary guidelines. They include the following types:

  • The lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet restricts the consumption of meat, poultry, and fish, but allows dairy products and eggs.
  • The pescatarian diet restricts meat and poultry but allows the consumption of fish, dairy products, and eggs.
  • The flexitarian, or semi-vegetarian, diet is composed of mostly vegetarian meals, but allows for limited consumption of poultry, meat, and fish.
  • The vegan diet is the most restrictive. It does not allow the consumption of any products derived from animals, including meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and honey.

Overall, most vegetarian diets restrict or reduce the consumption of meat, poultry, and fish.

Certainly, the word vegetarian is used to describe someone who follows any of the previously mentioned vegetarian diets.

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Benefits of A Vegetarian Diet

Vegetarianism is associated with many health benefits due to their high levels of fiber, potassium, vitamins C and E, unsaturated fats, and phytochemicals. That said, vegan diets are lower in saturated fat and cholesterol (Craig, 2009).

Similarly. some benefits that can accompany a vegan diet include:

Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease:

Evidently, studies have found that vegetarian diets, especially vegan diets, reduce many factors that increase the risk of heart disease. One study has found that people following vegetarian diets had lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol (Link, 2018). In another study, vegans specifically were found to have 44% less LDL cholesterol than omnivores (Craig, 2009). In particular, large amounts of LDL cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease by increasing fatty acid build-up and blocking blood vessels in the body.

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Effect on Obesity:

Vegetarian diets (especially vegan) are very good for weight management. Similarly, plant-based diets are high in fibre, heavy on nutrients, and have low caloric content, which aids in weight control. Likewise, one study even found that those who ate vegan diets burned more calories after a meal in comparison to their omnivores, who stored calories instead (Tuso et.al, 2013).  

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Improve Insulin Sensitivity and Stabilize Blood Sugar:

Insulin is an important hormone that helps the body control glucose levels in the blood. Many studies have found that individuals who consumed vegetarian diets had higher insulin sensitivity (Olfert and Wattick, 2018). Clearly, bodies that react to insulin well can maintain blood sugar levels. Additionally, consuming more fruits and vegetables helps to regulate blood sugar better because they contain more fibre and unsaturated fats. However, it is important to focus on portion and quality of the foods consumed. With this in mind, you should aim to have ¼ of your plate as grains/carbs, ½ plate full of vegetables and ¼ of your plate as protein.

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Disadvantages of a Vegetarian Diet

Unfortunately, if managed poorly, a vegetarian diet can result in some negative effects—especially for someone living with diabetes.

Here are some things to look out for when following a vegetarian diet:

Nutrient Deficiencies:

Since many vegetarian diets cut out meat, poultry, and other animal products, some essential nutrients that are ample in those foods may not be readily available. For example, these nutrients include iron, calcium, omega-3-fats and vitamins D and B12.

Iron is found in vegetables but is absorbed at a lower rate than iron found in meats. Although high levels of calcium are found in dairy and eggs, they are also found in some vegan-friendly foods. In addition, omega-3-fatty acids are essential for eye and brain functions and are found in very few foods, including fish and eggs, which are not included in some vegetarian diets. Therefore, many vegans can have low levels of vitamin B12, which is essential for nerve function.

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Some vegan sources of these nutrient include:

  • Vitamin B12: Fortified cereal and fortified non-dairy milk (Sameco, 2020)
  • Iron: Lentils, spinach and tofu (Shoemaker, 2021)
  • Omega-3 Fats: Canola oil, edamame and chia seeds (Shoemaker, 2021)
  • Calcium: Kale, tofu, almonds, and fortified cereals (Cormick and Belizan, 2019)

For vegetarians, it is important to diversify your diet to make up for the nutrients that are insufficient in plant-based foods. Nevertheless, consider speaking to your doctor regarding the need for supplements to meet your body’s nutritional requirements.

Not Enough Protein:

Proteins play an essential role in daily body functions, including building and repairing cells and growth. Proteins are made up of amino acids—some are made in the body, while others, called essential amino acids, are ingested through food. For example, essential amino acids are found in meat, dairy eggs, and plants. Thus, careful planning is required to ensure that all the essential amino acids are included in the diet. 

Similarly, some vegan-friendly foods that contain all the essential amino acids include tofu, tempeh, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and quinoa. Finally, you can also combine foods to get all the essential amino acids, like eating pita bread with hummus or rice with beans (McGrane, 2020). 

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What’s the Verdict?

In conclusion, a vegetarian diet may be beneficial and help you manage your glucose levels. Evidence shows greater insulin sensitivity in those who follow these diets. Additionally, vegetarian diets have also been associated with improved weight management and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. However, there are also some factors that you need to be cautious about. For example, nutrient deficiencies and reduced protein can have damaging effects on your body, so careful planning is a must.

It is important to speak to a dietician or primary healthcare provider to talk about your specific dietary needs and how to achieve them. In reality, careful planning for this type of diet should be done with a healthcare expert to make sure you get the necessary nutrients. Since everyone’s body works and reacts differently, you should make sure to listen to your body. Most importantly, always speak to your doctor before making any changes to your diet!

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Reference:

Cormick, Gabriela, and Jose M Belizán. “Calcium Intake and Health.” Nutrients, vol. 11, no. 7, 2019, p. 1606., https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11071606.

Craig, Winston J. “Health Effects of Vegan Diets.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, vol. 89, no. 5, 11 May 2009, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736n.

Link, Rachael. “The Vegetarian Diet: A Beginner’s Guide and Meal Plan.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 17 Oct. 2018, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vegetarian-diet-plan – drawbacks.

McGrane, Kelli. “13 Nearly Complete Protein Sources for Vegetarians and Vegans.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 21 Apr. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/complete-protein-for-vegans.

Olfert, Melissa D., and Rachel A. Wattick. “Vegetarian Diets and the Risk of Diabetes.” Current Diabetes Reports, vol. 18, no. 11, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11892-018-1070-9.

Semeco, Arlene. “Top 12 Foods That Are High in Vitamin B12.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 25 Feb. 2020, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vitamin-b12-foods – What-is-vitamin-B12.

Shoemaker, SaVanna. “A Vegan Diet for Diabetes: Benefits, Downsides, Tips, and Meal Plan.” Healthline, Healthline Media, 8 June 2021, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/vegan-diabetes#benefits.

Key, Timothy J., et al. “Health Benefits of a Vegetarian Diet.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, vol. 58, no. 2, 1999, pp. 271–275., doi:10.1017/S0029665199000373.

Tuso, Phillip, et al. “Nutritional Update for Physicians: Plant-Based Diets.” The Permanente Journal, vol. 17, no. 2, 2013, https://doi.org/10.7812/tpp/12-085.

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