This is the second article in response to a reader’s question about a diabetic’s diet, you can check out the first article entitles “What is a no-carb diet plan?” at your leisure. Today we will learn what is the difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet and whether this would be a safe alternative for diabetics.
Because we have a 6-year-old grandson who has type 1 diabetes I am eagerly looking for answers that may make his struggle easier. If there is a certain diet that can make it easier to manage his blood sugars then as a family we are all for that.
Of course, as grandparents, we only have Alex some of the time, and now that he is in school those times are much less frequent than they used to be, but there are times when we are his caregivers.
Being the caregiver of any diabetic requires you to have a thorough understanding of what and when to feed him certain foods, what foods to avoid and what to do in an emergency.
So Hannie, together we will learn the rest of the story about what is the best diet for a type 1 diabetic to eat to optimize their blood sugar management.
Thanks for inspiring me to write these articles.
What is vegetarianism?
As explained by the Vegetarian Society, people who follow a vegetarian diet don’t eat any of the byproducts of animal slaughter.
They refrain from eating:
- meat (beef, pork or game)
- poultry (chicken, turkey or duck, or any wild bird)
- fish and shellfish
- rennet, gelatin and other forms of animal protein
- stocks or fats that are derived from animal slaughter
Vegetarians do eat some animal products that are obtained without the slaughter of the animal such as:
- dairy products (cheese, yogurt)
Another big part of the vegetarian diet is nuts, seeds, grains, and meat-substitutes derived from these non-meat sources.
I should also point out that there are various types of vegetarianism including:
These people avoid all types of meat and fish but also avoid consuming dairy products and eggs.
The people who follow this type also avoid all types of meat, fish or eggs but do consume dairy.
Here they avoid all meat, fish and dairy but do consume eggs.
These people don’t necessarily meet the criteria of vegetarianism because while they avoid all meat and poultry but will eat fish. This form is sometimes referred to as semi-vegetarian or flexitarian.
What is Veganism?
The vegan diet is much stricter. Vegans avoid consuming any animal product or byproduct. The Vegan Society believes that veganism is a way of life, which excludes(as much as possible and practicable) all forms of the exploitation of and cruelty to animals for food, clothing or any other purpose for the sole benefit of humans.
Vegans will refrain from eating:
- fish and shellfish
- dairy products
- rennet, gelatin and other forms of animal protein
- stocks or fats that are derived from animals
Strict vegans will also avoid whenever possible the use of any product that directly or indirectly involves the use of animals either for production or testing. As much as possible they will avoid the use of:
- soaps, candles and other products that may contain animal fats such as tallow
- latex products that are made from Casein which is derived from milk proteins
- cosmetics or other products usually tested on animals
- bone china (made from cattle bone ash)
Many vegetarians will also follow many of these principles in their own lives as well.
Both vegetarian and vegan diets are very healthy. However, people following these diets need to be mindful of possible nutrition deficiencies.
A major source of calcium and vitamin D is dairy products, this means that vegans and ovo-vegetarians need to eat lots of dark leafy greens (an alternative source of calcium) and choose foods that have been fortified with calcium. Vegans may also want to consider taking vitamin D supplements.
To prevent anemia, we humans need vitamin B12. Unfortunately, it is only naturally found in animal products. This means that you may want to also consider vitamin supplements containing vitamin B12, particularly vegans.
Lately, steadily increasing numbers of people are opting for a more plant-based diet.
A plant-based diet offers a reduced risk of developing:
- heart disease and stroke
- high blood pressure
- high cholesterol
- many types of cancer
- type 2 diabetes
There is also an increased number of researchers believing that plant-based eating may also help the earth by protecting our freshwater supplies and reducing carbon emissions and waste byproducts that pollute our oceans.
It is widely known that vegetarian or vegan diets are typically lower in calories which can help with weight management. People who follow vegetarian or vegan diets often have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than people who follow nonvegetarian diets. Doctors agree that healthy body weight can improve blood sugar control and reduce your risk of diabetes complications.
Following a vegetarian or vegan diet can significantly improve blood sugar control and may even make your body more responsive to insulin. This may mean taking less medication while simultaneously lowering your risk of diabetes-related complications.
Keep in mind that a vegetarian diet can also have harmful effects on blood sugar especially if it is rich in simple carbohydrates such as:
- white rice
- white bread
Reduces risk of cardiovascular disease
We know that a strict vegan diet is cholesterol-free, low in saturated fat and often quite high in soluble fibre. A low-fat vegetarian diet can reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. Cardiovascular disease is a well-known complication of diabetes.
Effect on diabetics
Evidence suggests that a vegetarian or vegan diet may aid in blood glucose management.
Type 1 diabetes
When it comes to type 1 diabetes, a healthy vegan or vegetarian diet won’t cure your diabetes but it may be a great tool in helping to stabilize those blood glucose levels.
It may change the amount of insulting you need to take, so you work closely with your diabetes care team.
Anytime you are considering dietary changes it is important to talk with your doctor before making those changes. This ensures they can more closely monitor you to ensure the proper doses of medications as well as proper nutrition.
Type 2 diabetes
Just as in type 1, those with type 2 diabetes are also at an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet can significantly lower that risk.
A healthy, plant-based diet significantly lowers these risks by reducing LDL (bad cholesterol), reducing inflammation, lowering blood pressure and even decreasing blockages in arteries.
Some research even suggests that plant-based diets not only prevent heart disease but may reverse it.
A very common in people who have type 2 diabetes is insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when the cells in the body are unable to use insulin effectively.
While rare it has been known to also occur in some people with type 1 diabetes. When this occurs, health experts call this “double diabetes”.
In many cases, people with insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. A vegetarian or vegan diet can be a great aid in weight reduction s long as you are careful about the carbs you consume.
Are There Risks?
Plant-based foods are lower in certain nutrients than animal products but it is possible to get most of what you need on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Work with your experienced dietician to ensure you:
- Plan your meals
- Get enough calories
- Eat a variety of foods
- Take any recommended supplements
It is also important that you are diligent about monitoring your blood glucose levels and understand what foods you can use to quickly treat any lows that may occur.
For our grandson, apple juice works very well and he only needs about 1/4 cup to bring his sugars back within range. Keep in mind he is only 6-years-old. An adult or teen would certainly require more to be effective.
Is vegetarianism or veganism safe for kids?
Research has shown that people eating vegetarian or vegan are healthier. However, it is possible to gain many of those same benefits just by incorporating more vegetables and fruits into your everyday diet.
This is because by cutting out meat you are getting less unhealthy saturated fat and cholesterol and are eating more fibre.
The downside of eliminating all animal-based foods is that it is trickier for your child to get some essential nutrients.
Be sure to watch:
To grow and maintain muscles, organs and immune systems, kids need adequate protein. Ovo-Lacto vegetarians can get protein from eggs and dairy. You can also get some protein from plant sources like peas, beans, lentils, vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole grains.
Vitamin B12 is essential for developing healthy nerve and blood cells. Vitamin B12 can be obtained from fortified cereals, meat substitutes like tofu or tempeh and nutritional yeast.
A child’s growth and immune system can be impaired if they are not getting enough zinc. Leavened grain products like bread are an easy, kid-friendly source.
Of course with a type 1 like our grandson, this bread will raise his blood sugars significantly so should be reserved for mealtimes when he can counter the effects with insulin.
Iron is required for your red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout your body. A good source of iron would be iron-fortified breakfast cereals, spinach, kidney beans and lentils.
Calcium is important for strong bones and teeth. Foods with extra calcium would be cereals, orange juice and soymilk. Bones grow very quickly during the teen years and most kids tend to get little calcium so a supplement may be recommended by your health care team.
Growing kids need calories
Many vegetarian and vegan foods are very low in fat and high in fibre. That is certainly a great help for adults who are watching their weight, it may not be ideal for kids who are still trying to develop their bodies. You must ask your doctor or dietician to help you find the best foods for your child to eat.
A vegetarian or vegan diet can be trickier for a diabetic child because it is the proteins that help balance the carbs and stabilize the blood sugars.
While it may be possible for a child to follow an ovo-Lacto vegetarian diet so they can still get some proteins from eggs and dairy it could be much trickier on stricter plans.
Never change a diabetic child’s diet without first consulting with their diabetes care team.
Switching to plant-based
Before you switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet it is important to discuss your plans with your healthcare team. You may need to make adjustments to your insulin. If you are taking blood pressure and/or cholesterol medication these may need adjustments as well.
Meet with your dietician, ideally someone familiar with both diabetes and plant-based nutrition to ensure you are getting enough of the essential nutrients your body needs. They will help you achieve a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat and may recommend using supplements for B12 or omega-3fatty acids if needed.
Remember just because you are eating plant-based does necessarily mean healthy.
Foods like french fries, white bread and soda are technically vegetarian yet they are far from healthy.
You are much better off going for whole grain, legumes, fresh veggies and fruit as your carb sources.
They have a much lower glycemic impact on your blood sugars compared to refined carbs.
You must be vigilant about monitoring your glucose levels.
Any change in diet is bound to affect your diabetes. Be patient and give your body time to adjust.
You may find that you need to adjust your meal-time insulin doses. For those using insulin to carbohydrate ratio (ICR), this adjustment will occur naturally. Those on fixed doses please follow your doctor’s advice.
Make the changes gradually, it takes time to get used to a new way of eating. You could start with “Meatless Mondays” and try out some great new vegetarian or vegan recipes.
Then build from there adding a second meat-free day and so on.
Understanding what is the difference between a vegan and vegetarian diet was an important first step in determining whether or not it would be safe for a type 1 diabetic.
We have learned that any plant-based diet is very healthy whether one is diabetic or not.
Type 2 diabetics may be able to become more insulin sensitive and may even be able to reduce or in some cases go off their medications.
We know that type 1 diabetes will never be cured.
A plant-based diet can help manage blood sugar levels and they may even be able to reduce insulin requirements but they will never be able to stop taking insulin.
Children have special nutritional requirements and if they also have type 1 diabetes that is even more complicated.
Always work with a dietician that understands the nutritional requirements of children and diabetes.
Never make dietary or medicinal changes without consulting the healthcare team.
I am not in any way a medical practitioner, please do not rely on the information on our website as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or another healthcare provider. We only share our experiences. We are affiliates, this means that if you purchase something from a link or ad on this site we may receive a small commission. This in no way affects the price you pay.
Our daughter and her family are neither vegetarian or vegan but all of has have enjoyed some recipes that fall into either category. Fruits and vegetables have always been a big part of our menu and will continue to be.
Are you vegetarian or vegan?
What has your experience been?
Do you know of any type 1 diabetics who have successfully followed either a vegetarian or vegan diet?
Share your experiences in the comment section below and remember to check the first article in the series if you haven’t already.