Diabetes & Diet: Should You Go Vegan?
Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus (T2DM) is on the rise worldwide. Fortunately, diet and lifestyle changes are effective strategies for both the prevention and management of T2DM. However, for many people with T2DM, it can be challenging to filter through all the conflicting advice online and know what to eat! Perhaps you have come across a vegan diet and are wondering whether it would be worth your while to give it a try.
While everyone is different, research suggests there are several benefits when it comes to adopting a plant-based diet. However, there’s also several key nutrients that can become harder to obtain! Keep on reading to learn what you should know before making the transition.
What is a Vegan Diet?
Vegan and vegetarian diets are becoming increasingly popular, with more and more people choosing to go plant-based for reasons ranging from ethical, environmental, religious, or for personal preference reasons. A vegan diet eliminates all animal-origin foods like meat, seafood, dairy and eggs. Meanwhile, it can lead to an increase in legumes, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and/or seeds. It tends to be lower in saturated fats, higher in unsaturated fats, and high in fibre, antioxidants, minerals and polyphenols.
Benefits for Diabetes Management
Vegan diets can have many health benefits, including helping to improve your gut health, lower cholesterol, help with weight management, lower blood pressure, improve heart health, reduce risk of metabolic syndrome, and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer [1,2,3].
Vegetarian and vegan diets have been researched for their positive effects on diabetes prevention as well as management . Research shows that healthy vegan diets may help to lower blood glucose levels and help to improve blood sugar control !
Whether you’re looking to the take the leap and go fully vegan or you’d like to increase your intake of plant foods, there are a few considerations worth noting! You may need additional planning to ensure you avoid any nutritional deficiencies. Planning your meals and eating a variety of foods is a great place to start. In some cases, supplementation may be useful. Below are key nutrients to be aware of.
Nutrients to Consider
Protein: While there are plenty of sources of protein on a vegan diet, it’s important to ensure that you are including them! This may require additional planning, and some people may need to pay particular attention to their protein intake such as athletes or those who are looking to manage their weight. Plant proteins include soy products like tofu and soy milk, beans, chickpeas, lentils, quinoa, buckwheat, nuts and seeds.
Tip: Try swapping animal products with plant alternatives to ensure that you have adequate protein sources. For example, rather than simply removing chicken from stir-fry, try adding tofu along with your vegetables and rice for a balanced meal.
Vitamin B12: Vitamin B12 is a very important nutrient needed for nervous system function and keeping your blood cells healthy. Vitamin B12 is primarily found in animal sources and so it’s a very important nutrient for vegans to plan! Some products are fortified with vitamin B12 like plant-based milks and cereals, and it can also be found in nutritional yeast and some fermented foods.
Tip: Fortified foods may not be the most reliable source of B12, and so vegans may benefit from including a vitamin B12 supplement.
Iron: Iron is needed to carry oxygen throughout our bodies, and deficiency can lead to breathlessness, fatigue, and irritability. There are two types of iron: haem iron which is found in animal sources and non-haem iron which is found in plants sources. Non-haem iron is less easily absorbed than haem iron, and plant foods can also be high in phytates which further reduce iron absorption. This is why it’s recommended for vegans to aim for 1.8 times the recommended intake of iron (32mg for women and 14mg for men). Sources of iron include lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans, tofu, tempeh and iron-fortified breads and cereals.
Tip: Pairing your iron-rich foods with sources of vitamin C (think citrus fruits and leafy greens) can help to boost absorption, while having sources of tannins like tea and coffee away from your meals, as these drinks can reduce iron absorption.
Zinc: Zinc is an important nutrient for wound healing, supporting the immune system, and maintaining healthy skin. Like iron, phytates found in some plant foods can reduce iron absorption. Try including plenty of zinc-rich sources including whole grains like buckwheat, brown rice and rolled oats as well as legumes, nuts and seeds.
Tip: Sprouting or soaking your grains and legumes can also help to lower phytate content and boost zinc and iron absorption.
Calcium: When cutting out dairy, it’s important to find calcium-rich alternatives! Calcium is important for keeping your bones and teeth strong, but it’s also important for blood clotting, muscle contractions, carrying out nervous system functions and regulating the heart. Plant sources of calcium include tahini, nuts and seeds, but choosing calcium-fortified products is recommended to ensure an adequate amount is had such as fortified plant milks, yoghurts, and calcium-set tofu.
Tip: Be sure to choose plant milks that are fortified with at least 120mg of calcium per 100g.
Healthy fats: Omega-3s are essential fatty acids, meaning we must get them from our diet. Omega-3s may help to reduce inflammation, protect against heart disease, and support gut and brain health. There are three main types: ALA, DHA, and EPA. Plant sources of omega-3 typically contain ALA, which has a very small conversion rate to EPA and DHA (around 5%)! Some plant sources include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, flaxseed oil, olive oil, seaweed, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Tip: DHA can be obtained from microalgae and is found in some vegan omega-3 supplements. Always speak to a health professional before starting supplements.
The Bottom Line
Plant-based diets have a number of health benefits, and research indicates it may be helpful for preventing or managing T2DM. However, there’s also several nutrients to consider and plan for to avoid any nutritional deficiencies, especially if you go vegan. If you’re looking for guidance in managing T2DM, don’t hesitate to get in touch for a personalised nutritional plan!
 Marrone G, Guerriero C, Palazzetti D, Lido P, Marolla A, Di Daniele F, Noce A. Vegan Diet Health Benefits in Metabolic Syndrome. Nutrients. 2021 Mar 2;13(3):817. doi: 10.3390/nu13030817. PMID: 33801269; PMCID: PMC7999488.
 Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Sofi F. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Nov 22;57(17):3640-3649. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2016.1138447. PMID: 26853923.
 DeClercq V, Nearing JT, Sweeney E. Plant-Based Diets and Cancer Risk: What is the Evidence? Curr Nutr Rep. 2022 Jun;11(2):354-369. doi: 10.1007/s13668-022-00409-0. Epub 2022 Mar 25. PMID: 35334103.
 Olfert MD, Wattick RA. Vegetarian Diets and the Risk of Diabetes. Curr Diab Rep. 2018 Sep 18;18(11):101. doi: 10.1007/s11892-018-1070-9. PMID: 30229314; PMCID: PMC6153574.
 Pollakova, D., Andreadi, A., Pacifici, F., Della-Morte, D., Lauro, D., & Tubili, C. (2021). The Impact of Vegan Diet in the Prevention and Treatment of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review. Nutrients, 13(6), 2123. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13062123
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