Pros and cons of going vegetarian with diabetes
Have you noticed more veggie-meat options at your grocery store or favourite restaurants lately? Dairy-free cheese, meatless sausages and plant-based burgers are just a few tasty vegetarian selections that even meat eaters can enjoy. Even fast-food restaurant has a selection of meat-free burgers that's too good to pass up.
Nearly 10% of Canadians have cut meat out of their diets1—people choose to adopt a vegetarian lifestyle for a variety of reasons. Some want to lose weight, some care about animals, and others do it to support their health or the environment. For people with diabetes, a vegetarian lifestyle can take some getting used to, but it may leave you feeling more energized, lighter and happier.
A vegetarian diet simply means going without meat. Some people prefer a vegan approach, which eliminates all animal products, including dairy and eggs. Whatever you decide, choosing vegetable-rich meals over meat, even a few days a week, can have health benefits.
Pros of going vegetarian with diabetes
1. You may lose weight
Vegetarians typically eat fewer calories and less fat than meat eaters do.2 Eating vegetarian foods in their whole forms, without processing or frying, can help you take in fewer calories and still feel satisfied. Seeking foods with a good balance of protein and heart-healthy fats can keep you full. Even better, when calorie intake remains the same, research suggests that people who choose to be vegetarian might lose more weight, reduce fat and boost their metabolisms higher.3
2. You can increase your intake of heart-healthy nutrients
Health isn't just about weight. Nutrients like phytochemicals, folic acid, vitamins C and E, dietary fiber, potassium and magnesium keep our hearts healthy. Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians tend to get more of these, while consuming less cholesterol and saturated fat,4 so there may be a positive effect on your blood pressure and risk of heart disease.
3. You might improve blood sugar control
Through increased fiber, potential weight loss and the healthy nutrients associated with a plant-based diet, eating vegetarian can have a positive impact on your blood sugar management.5 Going vegetarian may also help if you're trying to become more mobile and increase muscle strength, and if you've ever felt like you have a slow metabolism, swapping meat for plant-based foods may give your metabolism a boost.3
Addressing the cons—misconceptions about vegetarian diets
Many people think they won't get enough protein if they stop eating meat, or that it will be expensive, or they'll be hungry all the time. If that sounds like you, think again. Lots of plant-based foods are excellent sources of protein, such as:6
- Legumes and pulses, including beans, lentils and chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds
- Soy products
- Milk, yogurt and cheeses
Some people find that a plant-based diet may actually be cheaper than eating meat—especially when dining in restaurants. One recent Canadian study showed that cooking meatless meals can actually save a family nearly 7% on their grocery bills—about $475 for a family of four.7
If you do decide to switch to a vegetarian diet, watch out for these common misconceptions.
Misconception 1: All vegetarian foods are healthy
If you live on fatty fried foods, sugary treats and drinks, or high-carb options, you may be worse off than someone who includes lean meats in a well-rounded diet. The same suggestions apply to vegetarians and meat-eaters—opt for unprocessed foods without a lot of extra fat and sugar, no matter what lifestyle you choose.
Misconception 2: Vegetarians automatically get the vitamins and nutrients they need
There are some vitamins that may need a little extra attention if you eat a plant-based diet, including vitamin B12 (especially if you have type 2 diabetes), which is important for red blood cell production and nervous system functioning.8,9 Look for ways to supplement B12 through fortified breads and other products, and talk to your doctor if you're concerned about getting enough.
Misconception 3: You'll miss meat
Food cravings are real. But they're as psychological as physiological. Here are some things you can try to manage cravings:
- Remember your "why." Write down why you are eating vegetarian. Maybe it's to lose weight, gain energy or improve your diabetes management. You might want to set a healthier example for your kids or make environmentally friendly nutrition choices. Whatever your reason, post your why where you can see it when you need a reminder.
- Plan your meals. It's easier to eat well when you have a list and stick to it. Start by testing new veggie-friendly recipes based on your favourite meat-filled ones, like a mushroom stroganoff instead of beef or a shepherd's pie filled with lentils. Get your family involved in choosing recipes so they support you on your journey.
- Ask for recommendations. Most restaurants are happy to accommodate vegetarians and vegans. Seek out restaurants with vegetarian items and ask your server for recommendations when you go out to eat.
If you love a certain type of meat, there is likely a swap for it. Try buffalo cauliflower instead of chicken wings. Use tofu instead of chicken in a curry. Grill up a veggie burger at a barbecue. Focus on the experiences and fun times you have at meals instead of just the food, and your craving may quiet down.
You don't have to choose all or nothing
Switching from a meat-eating lifestyle to vegetarian or vegan one doesn't have to be instant. If becoming vegetarian is something that interests you, you can make the switch gradually. Adopt a Meatless Monday habit or try to cook vegetarian two times for every one time you eat meat. Talk to your doctor, dietitian or diabetes educator for tips on making it work for you.
There are amazing vegetarian ingredients you can try—and delicious produce that can take a starring role in your menus. As you open up your palate to new flavours, you might find that the transition is easier than you envisioned.
1CTV News. More than 3 million Canadians vegetarian or vegan: study. Available at: https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/more-than-3-million-canadians-vegetarian-o.... Accessed June 21, 2019.
2Mayo Clinic. Meatless meals: The benefits of eating less meat. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eatin.... Accessed June 21, 2019.
3Huang RY, Huang CC, Hu FB, Chavarro JE. Vegetarian diets and weight reduction: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Gen Intern Med. 2016;31(1): 109-116. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4699995/. Accessed June 21, 2019.
4Harvard Health Publishing. Becoming a vegetarian. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/becoming-a-vegetarian. Accessed June 21, 2019.
5Pawlak R. Vegetarian diets in the prevention and management of diabetes and its complications. Diabetes Spectrum. 2017;30(2): 82-88. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5439360/. Accessed June 21, 2019.
6Government of Canada. Eat protein foods. Available at: https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/healthy-eating-recommendations/make-it-a.... Accessed June 21, 2019.
7University of Guelph. New food guide will save Canadians money but few are following it, study finds. Available at: https://news.uoguelph.ca/2019/03/new-food-guide-will-save-canadians-mone.... Accessed June 21, 2019.
8Watanabe F, Yabuta Y, Tanioka Y, Bito T. Biologically active vitamin B12 compounds in foods for preventing deficiency among vegetarians and elderly subjects. J Agric Food Chem. 2013;61(28): 6769-6775. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23782218/. Accessed June 21, 2019.
9Pflipsen MC, Oh RC, Saguil A, et al. The prevalence of vitamin B12 deficiency in patients with type 2 diabetes: a cross-sectional study. J Am Board Fam Med. 2009;22(5): 528-534. Available at: https://www.jabfm.org/content/22/5/528. Accessed June 21, 2019.