Frequently Asked Questions about Diabetes


1. Why do you recommend a vegan diet for diabetes?
Vegan diets, which contain no animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, or other animal products), are healthier than other diets, because they contain no cholesterol and less fat, saturated fat, and calories than meat-based diets or ovo-lacto vegetarian diets. Scientific research shows that health benefits increase as the amount of food from animal sources in the diet decreases, making vegan diets the most healthful overall.

2. I want to try a vegan diet. How should I start?
If a plant-based diet is new to you, you’ll be pleased to discover a wonderful additional benefit to vegan eating: It’s a fun way to explore delicious new foods. Start by checking out our Vegan Diet: How-to Guide for Diabetes and our Vegetarian Starter Kit, both of which explain the New Four Food Groups and offer useful tips, the “whys” and “hows” of a healthier diet, and easy-to-make recipes.

To order a Vegetarian Starter Kit, please visit PCRM’s literature store.

3. Are carbohydrates bad for you? 
Some people imagine that pasta, bread, potatoes, and rice are fattening, but the opposite is actually true. Carbohydrate-rich foods are helpful for permanent weight control because they contain less than half the calories of fat, which means that replacing fatty foods with complex carbohydrates automatically cuts calories.
It’s important to remember to eat healthful carbohydrates, such as whole grains, pasta, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. Processed carbohydrates, such as white bread and white rice, are not as healthful a choice because they have lost much of their fiber and other nutrients and tend to have a higher glycemic index.

4. Why low-fat?
High-fat foods increase insulin resistance. Following a low-fat diet not only helps improve insulin’s action but will also help reduce blood sugar, aid weight loss, and lower your cholesterol.

5. How much fat is allowed?
By avoiding animal products and added oils you will be able to keep your total fat intake around 20 grams per day. To help meet this, look for foods that have no more than 2 to 3 grams of fat per serving.

6. What is the glycemic index (GI) and why is it important?
The glycemic index is a number that indicates how rapidly a given food releases sugar into your bloodstream. A food with a high GI releases sugar into the blood quickly. Examples include sugar itself, white potatoes, many wheat flour products, and most cold cereals. Choosing low-glycemic-index foods will help prevent your blood sugar from rapidly rising and falling.

7. What about fruit? Is it okay to eat?
Yes, fruit is a healthful part of the diet. While fruit is sweet and contains sugar, it tends not to greatly increase blood glucose levels. Very few fruits have a high-glycemic index: watermelon and pineapple.

8. What about cholesterol—how it important is it to have low cholesterol?
Lowering your cholesterol is an important step to reducing your risk for heart disease. Consuming a diet completely free of cholesterol and full of high-fiber foods is one way to lower or maintain (if healthy) your cholesterol. Keeping your cholesterol in control is particularly important for people with diabetes since they are at increased risk for heart disease.

9. What about omega-3 fatty acids and where can I find them? 
All fats, good and bad, are equally fattening and calorie-dense and should be limited in the diet. Fortunately, the essential fatty acids which include omega-3s and omega-6s are only needed in small amounts (2 to 3 percent of total calories per day) and can be naturally obtained from a varied plant-based diet.

10. Aren’t fish the best source of omega-3 fatty acids? 
Fish and shellfish can contain unsafe levels of contaminants and are often high in mercury and other environmental toxins that have no place in a healthy diet. Fish also contain no fiber and are high in animal protein, and often, in saturated fat and cholesterol.

The most nutritious sources of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are plant-based foods, including green leafy vegetables, legumes, wheat germ, soybeans, and ground flaxseeds. By getting omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and protein from plant-based foods, you can avoid the health risks associated with fish consumption.

11. How do I get protein on a vegan diet? Do I need to combine proteins? 
Protein is an important nutrient required for the building, maintenance, and repair of tissues in the body. It was once thought that various plant foods had to be eaten together to get their full protein value; this practice was known as “protein combining” or “protein complementing.” We now know that intentional combining is not necessary. As long as the diet contains a variety of grains, legumes, and vegetables, protein needs are easily met.

Especially protein-rich vegetarian foods include soy-based products like tofu, texturized vegetable protein, tempeh (a fermented soybean product), veggie burgers, seitan (a meat substitute made from a wheat protein called gluten), black beans, lentils, chickpeas, and grains such as quinoa, amaranth, and bulgur.

12. How much fiber do you recommend?
Aim for 40 grams of fiber per day. Including a variety of whole foods in your diet such as beans, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains will help you to meet your fiber needs. Other foods such as meat and dairy products contain zero fiber.

13. Beans give me gas– what should I do?
Your body will adapt to eating more beans and high-fiber foods, so start out slow, with smaller portions and smaller beans. Over time, you will be able to better digest larger portions.

Try these quick tips to help reduce gas:

  • Rinse beans thoroughly (at least twice) with water before cooking or eating.
  • Cook beans with Kombu (a type of seaweed).
  • Try using smaller beans such as lentils.

14. How do I get enough calcium on a vegan diet? What about osteoporosis? 
By eating calcium-rich vegetarian foods, including leafy green vegetables such as broccoli and kale, white beans, fortified soymilks and juices, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, you can obtain all the calcium your body needs. But keeping your bones strong and avoiding osteoporosis depends on more than calcium intake—you also need to keep calcium in your bones. Exercise and vitamin D help keep the calcium in your bones, while animal protein, excess salt and caffeine, and tobacco can cause calcium loss.

15. What’s wrong with drinking milk? I thought milk was a good source of carbohydrate for when your blood sugar was a little low (hypoglycemia)?  Is organic milk better? Is soymilk a safer alternative? What about other dairy products? 
Milk contains fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, and diets high in fat and saturated fat can increase the risk of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. Other dairy products, such as cheese, yogurt, butter, and ice cream, also contribute significant amounts of cholesterol and fat to the diet. Even low-fat and fat-free milk and dairy products carry health risks because of cholesterol. In addition, natural and artificial hormones are present in all types of milk and dairy products, regardless of fat.

Organic milk may not contain the pesticides and antibiotics that non-organic milk contains, but still can be loaded with fat and cholesterol. Even organic cow’s milk, which does not contain artificial hormones, does contain naturally occurring hormones. The combination of nutrients found in both organic and non-organic cow’s milk increases our own production of some types of hormones. These hormones have been shown to increase the risk of some forms of cancer.

Soymilk and other non-dairy beverages, such as rice and nut milks, are healthy alternatives to cow’s milk. These beverages come in different flavors, and many of them are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. They are a great low-glycemic carbohydrate to be used on cereal, in coffee and tea, and in baking and cooking. Grocery stores now regularly carry soymilk, and most coffee shops offer a variety of soy coffee drinks.

16. Is it safe to eat soybeans and other soy foods?
Recently, questions have been raised about the possible health risks of soy consumption, but the overwhelming majority of studies on soy have shown positive health effects or, at worst, neutral ones.

Some soy products are high in sodium and contain a higher-than-healthy level of fat, so be sure to check the labels and choose the low-fat versions. Nonetheless, these foods are much healthier than the animal-derived foods they are intended to replace.

Soy is not an essential part of a vegan diet. Lentils, beans, and other legumes are a hearty and delicious source of plant-based protein and other nutrients. They are also the richest source of dietary fiber.

17. What is the best way to get vitamin B12?
Individuals following a vegan diet can easily meet their vitamin B12 needs by taking a daily multivitamin. B12 is also found in fortified breakfast cereals, soymilk, and meat analogues. Some brands of nutritional yeast, such as Red Star Vegetarian Support Formula, are a reliable source for this vitamin.

18. What’s the best diet for weight loss?
Both short term and long term, the most effective weight loss comes from avoiding animal products and keeping fats and vegetable oils to a minimum. In addition, it helps to keep the natural fiber in the foods you eat. This means eating whole-grain breads instead of white bread, brown rice instead of white rice, and plenty of fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils). And don’t forget the importance of physical activity for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

19. How can I get around food cravings?
It takes about three weeks to get over a food craving. If you follow a very-low-fat menu, your tastes will gradually drift to prefer lower-fat foods. It helps to stock up on healthful foods at home and at work to prevent hunger-induced indiscretions, and avoid keeping unhealthful foods in the house.

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