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Vegetarianism and Diabetes: Do the Two Mix? (Part 1)

Amy Campbell

October 23, 2006

Does the word “vegetarian” conjure up images of people with long hair, wearing robes, feasting on bean sprouts and tofu? While that may have been the picture of vegetarianism back in the 1960’s and 70’s, today’s vegetarian is just like you and me, except for some of the food choices he makes. Let’s define “vegetarian.”

According to the American Dietetic Association, “A vegetarian is a person who does not eat meat, fish, or fowl or products containing these foods.” However, vegetarianism takes different forms. For example, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian eats grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, seeds, and nuts but also includes dairy foods and eggs in his eating plan. A lacto-vegetarian eats the same foods as the lacto-ovo-vegetarian but doesn’t eat eggs. A vegan, or total vegetarian, doesn’t eat any animal products at all. Some vegans go so far as not eating honey, for example, since it comes from bees, and may even refuse to wear clothing or shoes made of leather. To add to the complexity even further, some people call themselves “semivegetarians,” meaning that they occasionally eat fish, poultry, or meat. Then there are “fruitarians,” who eat only raw fruit, nuts, and seeds (not recommended, by the way).

People choose to become vegetarians for various reasons, including concern for the environment, animal welfare, religious beliefs, economic reasons, and, of course, health reasons. According to a Harris poll done in 2003, about 3% of the U.S. population is vegetarian, when vegetarian is defined as people who don’t eat meat, poultry, or seafood. Vegetarianism has caught on thanks in part to the many celebrities who have shunned eating meat, including Pamela Anderson, Paul McCartney, Joaquin Phoenix, Cameron Diaz, and Prince.

Vegetarian diets, if properly planned, can provide certain health benefits and even help prevent some diseases. In general, vegetarian diets are lower in calories, saturated fat, cholesterol, and animal protein, and higher in dietary fiber, magnesium, potassium, and antioxidants than more traditional, animal-based diets. Vegetarians tend to have a lower body-mass index (BMI), as well as lower rates of heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer than nonvegetarians.

Vegetarian diets can also be beneficial for people who already have diabetes. In fact, just this past summer, an article was published in the journal Diabetes Care that compared a vegan diet with a more common “diabetes” diet that used meal-planning guidelines supported by the American Diabetes Association (ADA). Ninety-nine people with Type 2 diabetes followed either a low-fat vegan diet or an “ADA diabetes diet” for 22 weeks. Of the participants who ate the vegan diet, 43% were able to lower their doses of diabetes medicine, compared to 26% of those following the more traditional diet. What’s more, participants who followed the vegan diet had lower HbA1c levels (a measure of blood glucose control over time), lower LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels, and lost more weight compared to those on the more traditional diet.

Next week, we’ll delve further into the nuts and bolts of vegetarian diets.

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