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

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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Amy Campbell: Amy Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition and Meal Planning and a frequent contributor to Diabetes Self-Management and Diabetes & You. She has co-authored several books, including the The Joslin Guide to Diabetes and the American Diabetes Association’s 16 Myths of a “Diabetic Diet,” for which she received a Will Solimene Award of Excellence in Medical Communication and a National Health Information Award in 2000. Amy also developed menus for Fit Not Fat at Forty Plus and co-authored Eat Carbs, Lose Weight with fitness expert Denise Austin. Amy earned a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nutrition education from Boston University. In addition to being a Registered Dietitian, she is a Certified Diabetes Educator and a member of the American Dietetic Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Association of Diabetes Educators. Amy was formerly a Diabetes and Nutrition Educator at Joslin Diabetes Center, where she was responsible for the development, implementation, and evaluation of disease management programs, including clinical guideline and educational material development, and the development, testing, and implementation of disease management applications. She is currently the Director of Clinical Education Content Development and Training at Good Measures. Amy has developed and conducted training sessions for various disease and case management programs and is a frequent presenter at disease management events.

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