How can eating a plant-based diet help people with diabetes?

Layne Lieberman, MS, RD
Nutrition & Dietetics
Eating a plant-based diet that is balanced and high in fiber is helpful for diabetes, because it helps lower and control blood sugars. Watch as culinary nutritionist Layne Lieberman, RD, explains this concept and shares some healthy food options.
A plant-based diet can improve blood sugar control and the overall health of most people with diabetes. Unfortunately, it’s often not easy for people to give up their meat.

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.

Continue Learning about Diabetes


Diabetes mellitus (MEL-ih-tus), often referred to as diabetes, is characterized by high blood glucose (sugar) levels that result from the body’s inability to produce enough insulin and/or effectively utilize the insulin. Diabetes ...

is a serious, life-long condition and the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Diabetes is a disorder of metabolism (the body's way of digesting food and converting it into energy). There are three forms of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that accounts for five- to 10-percent of all diagnosed cases of diabetes. Type 2 diabetes may account for 90- to 95-percent of all diagnosed cases. The third type of diabetes occurs in pregnancy and is referred to as gestational diabetes. Left untreated, gestational diabetes can cause health issues for pregnant women and their babies. People with diabetes can take preventive steps to control this disease and decrease the risk of further complications.

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.