Plant-based diets are naturally high in carbohydrates, but studies suggest they could be the surprising answer to managing diabetes.
Many people with diabetes get advice to eat less sugar or “carbs.” If that’s what you’ve been taught, it might seem strange that carbohydrates could help you keep your diabetes in check. The food we eat has different types of carbohydrates and they aren’t all created equal. Starch, fiber, and sugar are the main forms of carbohydrates. The trick to managing your blood sugar is to find the right balance between them.
Plant foods like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and beans all contain carbohydrates but they come packed with vitamins, minerals, protein and fiber. These extra nutrients are important for a healthy diet. So even though plant-based diets are high in carbohydrates, research shows that they can be helpful for managing diabetes Here’s how:
Plant-based foods are high in fiber
Getting enough fiber is one of the best things you can do to prevent and manage diabetes. Most Americans don’t eat enough fiber to meet the daily recommendation. Legumes, also known as pulses and beans, are some of the best sources of fiber. There is also fiber and starch in whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat products and even sweet potatoes. Fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables are great sources of fiber and starches. Avoid juices and refined grains which have much less fiber. Look for ways to include whole versions of these foods in your meals and snacks.
Plant-based foods are low in saturated fat
Eating foods with a lot of saturated fat can make it harder to control your blood sugar. When you have diabetes, it means your body has trouble moving the sugar you eat into the cells of your body. If saturated fat builds up in your muscles, cells, and body tissues it is harder for the cells to take in the sugar, so it builds up in the blood. Saturated fat is mostly found in fried foods and baked goods like muffins, cookies and pies, as well as in animal products like red meat, cheese, and cream. By eating more plant-based meals you’ll also eat less saturated fat.
Plant-based diets can help with weight loss (if medically advised)
Depending on your starting weight, losing as little as 5% of your body weight through lifestyle changes like diet and physical activity can make it easier to manage diabetes. For a 200-pound person that would mean losing 10 pounds. Weight loss is challenging but if your doctor thinks it’s a good idea, a plant-based diet may make it a little easier. Plant-based foods are typically high in nutrients but low in calories. The fiber in vegetables and whole grains also keeps you feeling fuller for longer. Filling up on these healthy, delicious foods can help you meet your weight-loss goals. Your healthcare provider can help you determine if weight loss is a good idea for you at this time.
Plant-based diets prevent other chronic conditions
Diabetes can increase your risk of other health problems. Luckily, plant-based diets are anti-inflammatory and contain nutrients that can decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and many forms of cancer.
Moving towards a plant-based diet is a delicious and natural way to take control of your health. You don’t have to completely change your diet overnight to get some of the benefits. You can start by adding more whole grains and veggies to your plate or swapping out a sugar sweetened beverage or fried snack for a piece of fresh fruit and nuts.
If you want more information about plant-based diets and advice for making a healthy transition, you can make an appointment with team of nutrition providers at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health in Seattle or Bastyr University Clinic in San Diego.
Hannah Grant is a Dietetic Intern at Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She is passionate about the power of plant-based diets to improve both personal and planetary health. When she’s not hiking or doing yoga you can find her in the kitchen whipping up delicious plant-based treats.
American Diabetes Association. (2021). Get to know carbs. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.diabetes.org/healthy-living/recipes-nutrition/understanding-carbs/get-to-know-carbs
Kelly, J., Karlsen, M., & Steinke, G. (2020). Type 2 diabetes remission and lifestyle medicine: A position statement from the american college of lifestyle medicine. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 14(4), 406–419. https://doi.org/10.1177/1559827620930962
Luukkonen, P. K., Sädevirta, S., Zhou, Y., Kayser, B., Ali, A., Ahonen, L., Lallukka, S., Pelloux, V., Gaggini, M., Jian, C., Hakkarainen, A., Lundbom, N., Gylling, H., Salonen, A., Orešič, M., Hyötyläinen, T., Orho-Melander, M., Rissanen, A., Gastaldelli, A., . . . Yki-Järvinen, H. (2018). Saturated fat is more metabolically harmful for the human liver than unsaturated fat or simple sugars. Diabetes Care, 41(8), 1732–1739. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc18-0071
Moore, W. J., McGrievy, M. E., & Turner-McGrievy, G. M. (2015). Dietary adherence and acceptability of five different diets, including vegan and vegetarian diets, for weight loss: The new DIETs study. Eating Behaviors, 19, 33–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.eatbeh.2015.06.011
Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (2021). Weight loss: Reach a healthy weight with a Plant-Based diet. Retrieved January 3, 2022, from https://www.pcrm.org/health-topics/weight-loss
Weickert, M. O., & Pfeiffer, A. F. (2018). Impact of Dietary Fiber Consumption on Insulin Resistance and the Prevention of Type 2 Diabetes. The Journal of Nutrition, 148(1), 7–12. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxx008