Americans love their meat. It is the center of our meal planning. The vegetables are our “side dishes.” When diabetes educators discuss a plant-based diet with patients, they encourage a shift on the emphasis of meals rather than the total exclusion of animal protein. Commit to eating two or three meatless meals a week and progress from there.
Beans, lentils, barley and other grains can be the basis for many filling, satisfying dinners. There are many variations on the plant-based diet, but all begin with an eating plan that builds meals around whole grains and unprocessed foods of plant origin without refined sugars.
The four basic food groups of the plant-based diet are fruits; vegetables, grains and beans; and lentils, nuts and seeds. Fish with heart-protective omega-3 fatty acids (such as salmon) can also be added, along with a moderate amount of olive oil and some red wine, if desired.
A diet high in whole foods of plant origin has been shown to decrease insulin resistance and improve control of blood sugar. Insulin resistance is directly correlated with an increased incidence of coronary artery disease, a risk factor for people with diabetes. Additionally, eating a large amount of animal protein has been shown to make the kidneys work harder, increasing the risk of diabetes-related kidney disease. Conversely, research suggests that substituting plant protein can slow the progression of kidney disease.
When you are getting most of your proteins through beans and lentils, it is usually not necessary to count the carbohydrate content of these foods. Plus, beans and lentils are rich in desirable soluble fibers. Not all plant-based foods are good for you, of course. People with diabetes still need to limit their intake of foods such as white rice, white bread, sugar and potato chips, even though these foods technically are derived from plants.
Everyone with diabetes is different; learn how your blood sugar reacts to certain foods. In some people, white rice will send blood sugar soaring, while potatoes might be a problem for someone else. Choose foods that are whole grain, unprocessed and free of refined sugar. Eating foods from the basic vegetarian food groups -- fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds -- will provide a well-balanced, healthy diet.