Going Vegetarian

Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we’ve covered a variety of diet- and nutrition-related topics, from the ongoing low-carb controversy to vitamin pills, sweeteners, salt, and alcohol. But we’ve never before broached one particular subject that elicits curiosity — and strong feelings — from many people: vegetarian diets for people with diabetes. Studies show that vegetarian (meat-free) and vegan (meat-, egg-, and dairy-free) diets may have several benefits for people with diabetes, especially Type 2 diabetes. But are the diets tested in studies appealing to and sustainable for most people? And how does a vegetarian diet square with other dietary concerns that people with diabetes may have?


One often-cited study from 2006 compared a low-fat, low-sugar vegan diet with a standard diet based on the recommendations of the American Diabetes Association (ADA), which emphasizes fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meat, fish, and poultry. Published in the journal Diabetes Care, the study randomly assigned 99 people with Type 2 diabetes to one of the two diets. All participants saw an advisor weekly, who encouraged them to stay on track and helped them with recipes and meal choices. This continued for 22 weeks.

At the end of the study, the vegan diet was found to be more beneficial in several ways. According to an ABC News article, 43% of participants who followed the vegan diet were able to reduce or eliminate their dose of insulin or another drug for diabetes, compared with 26% of those on the ADA diet. The vegan group saw an average drop in HbA1c of 1.23%, compared with a 0.38% drop in the ADA group. For those on the vegan diet, levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad”) cholesterol fell by 21% on average, versus 10% for those on the ADA diet. Members of the vegan group also lost an average of 14 pounds, compared with 7 pounds for the ADA group. Perhaps most surprisingly, the vegan diet — which did not limit portion sizes or count calories — was apparently easier to follow, as three participants in the vegan group dropped out of the study, versus eight in the ADA group.

There are, of course, any number of factors that may account for the benefits seen from following a particular diet. For a low-fat, low-sugar vegan diet, some or most of the observed benefits could be due to the lack of refined sugars or starches in the diet, the lack of animal protein or fat, or the lower overall level of calories it provides — without separating these elements, it’s impossible to say what benefit, if any, each one provides. Since many people with diabetes restrict carbohydrates in their diet, it could be useful to study how a standard low-carb diet compares with a high-fiber, low-sugar vegan diet in people with diabetes — or with a low-carb vegetarian or vegan diet. Just how useful such studies would be toward real-world recommendations is a matter of debate, as well. If, for example, a low-carb vegan diet were found to be most beneficial, how many people with diabetes could or would actually follow it?

Have you tried following a vegetarian or vegan diet? Did it have any beneficial effect on your diabetes, and did you find it to be sustainable? If you haven’t tried a vegetarian diet, are you open to the idea? Have you not tried it simply out of habit, or because you don’t foresee any benefit from it? Would you be willing to drastically change your diet to reduce or eliminate your use of insulin or another diabetes drug? On a more general note, should organizations like the American Diabetes Association take the likelihood of recommendations being followed into account when making them? Leave a comment below!

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  • bruce taylor

    I know that when I eat a lot veggies I feel a lot more alive than when I eat a heavy meat diet. I bought a couple of books on vegan diets. They spent a lot of time talking about cruelty to animals, birds and the such. I’m all for being kind to critters but I really wanted to know how veganism would benefit me. And I had specific questions about protein, carbos and the such. What to eat to ensure that my body would be adequately nourished while I wasn’t eating poor little defenseless chickens and the other poor defenseless meat sources. I really wanted to know the specifics of how to transfer from being a meat eating criminal to being a saintly vegetable eater. Thanks

  • mama dunf

    Good questions!! I also went onto a vegan web-site to see about the diets. I couldn’t get any answers there. All they printed was mainly articles and pictures on animal cruelty. The web-site about.com has some helpful list on food groups and their values. Take alook there, They have articles on type 2 and type 1 diabetics that are very helpful. I’ve had gastic bypass surgery and am a Type 1. With the gastric surgery, we are told to eat protein. I’ve looked and there are vegies higher in protein that others.
    I’m still not sure which way to go. I’m still looking for vegetation diet info. Basically i just wanted to let you know that you are not alone in checking out the vegie diet. My doctor left the choice up to me. Hope this helps you.

  • VegLowCarbDiabetic

    I’ve been a vegetarian for 40 years and dx type 2, three years ago.

    I adjusted my vegan like veghead diet to a very low carb, high good fats *olive, coconut, avocado) with moderate protein mostly from eggs, nuts, and fermented homemade organic raw milk products, ie kefir and strained yogurt, fish oils. No grains or fruit. Little soy…

    a1c went from 11.5 – to 5.5 currently.

    It’s not common or popular, but it’d doable.

  • Bonnie Ryan

    I have Type2 diabetes and have been about 85% compliant with a vegan diet with no restrictions of calories or carbs for a little over a year. I find it is easy to do and I have energy aplenty to do my daily activities (I am a figure skating coach). My A1C hovers between 5.8 and 6.2; I have been able to decrease glimeperide by half (1mg) but have not been able to decrease metformin. The plan I follow is set out by Dr. Neal Barnard, Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. For more info see: http://www.pcrm.org. Also helps cancer survivors.

  • jim snell

    Interesting article with worthwhile points. Still real issue is – cover and manage carbs first then back in diet choice.

    I have bad nasty ie my Liver Fifo system of glucose does not work properly; so I tend to manage carbs closely to prevent liver dumps.. Simply picking a diet and dam the torpedoes is not best solution for me.

  • Glen

    FYI any glycemic changes in a vegan diet are usually the result of 1) eliminating refined/processed carbs/sugars and 2) losing weight.

    This doesn’t make the vegan diet healthier, it makes it healthier than an ADA-recommended diet which is HIGH-CARB and thus BAD for diabetics.

    Let’s be honest – when dealing with a disorder of carbohydrate metabolism, the idea of eating high-carb is not a brilliant one.

    All research – literally hundreds of studies, show low-carb VASTLY superior to high-carb for glycemic control, weight-loss, cholesterol ratios and triglyceride levels.

    The best diet for a diabetic is one that is low-carb (UNDER 10% calories), high in healthy fats/oils and eliminates all refined/processed carbs/sugars. All carbohydrate should come from non-starchy vegetables and moderate amounts of Low-GI fruit.

    This has been proven repeatedly by randomized controlled trials.

    The ADA-recommended diet is designed to balance out health with keeping you on medication so the ADA’s primary sponsors ($30 million a year from big-pharma) are happy. It’s NOT even remotely the best for diabetics.