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“What does a diabetic vegetarian eat” is a common question I get when I tell people I’m both diabetic and vegetarian. It’s actually one of the reasons I decided to start this site and call it the Diabetic Herbivore. Plant based diets are already not well understood by the mainstream and neither are the low carb needs of diabetics (which seems strange since there are over 29 million diabetics in our country. Everybody knows at least one). When you put the two together, it seems to really baffle people.
Restaurants Can Be Difficult
Often, when I go to a restaurant and tell the server I’m vegetarian, they suggest their meatless noodle, potato or rice dishes. If I ask for low-carb options, I’m often presented with their gluten-free offerings. When I explain that I’m both diabetic and vegetarian, I get a bewildered look in return.
I’ve taken to not even asking a lot of times. I figure I know what I can eat better than they do, so I just study the menu until I find something. I will ask the server what’s in a dish (or if it is cooked with meat) if I’m unsure if it will work, and sometimes I will ask for a substitution or to just hold the meat.
Sometimes, we’ve even gotten up and left the few places that had absolutely nothing I could eat that sounded tasty to me.
Does Bacon Count as a Meat?
I remember early on in my vegetarian days, I pulled up to an Arby’s because I was running late but needed food. I checked out their drive-through menu thoroughly and finally decided to try one of their salads, which of course has meat on it. I asked the order taker for the salad with no meat. When I got to the window, she said, “You did want bacon bits on your salad, right?”
I answered, “Um, no, I said no meat. Bacon is meat.” I was informed later by some laughing carnivorous friends that bacon is its own food group and so should be specified separately. I do appreciate that she asked me, even in the assumptive way that she did, before handing me a salad with bacon.
So what DOES a diabetic vegetarian eat?
Well, I can tell you some of what THIS diabetic vegetarian eats. I am a lacto-ovo vegetarian who sometimes eats seafood and can’t handle most spicy-hot food. Lacto-ovo refers to the fact that I do consume both dairy and eggs. We are all different, so it’s always important to ask. My dad recently asked me for a full list of what I can’t eat, so I wrote it up in an email and sent that to him. You can see my list in this post: How to Talk to Your Family About Your Food Choices.
Vegetables, Dairy, and Eggs, Oh My
I am not vegan. Vegans are vegetarians who do not consume any animal product, including dairy and eggs, and for some that even includes honey. I opted to re-introduce dairy and eggs after my short stint as a vegan so that I could expand my food options. So, yes, I do eat cheese, yogurt, and can handle milk in recipes, although I choose to use almond milk creamer in my morning chai, mostly for taste preferences.
More Vegetables, Please. Hold the Carbs
As a diabetic, I eat low carb foods, but I don’t follow one of the ultra-low-carb diets followed by some who do LCHF or similar diets. I do try to stay away from traditional bread, potatoes, rice, and noodles.
I limit my intake of oats and all grains, including quinoa. Although quinoa is often billed as a diabetic-friendly grain, it’s actually a seed, and will still raise my blood sugar levels. Some diabetics can eat quinoa without a problem, so this is an individual thing.
As a diabetic, I also limit my intake of fruits and never drink fruit juice, unless I’m blood sugar crashing. Whole fruit is better than juice because it still has all the fiber, which slows down the absorption of the sugar by the body and therefore doesn’t result in as high a blood sugar spike.
I also limit how much I eat of the higher starch vegetables, such as peas and corn. Carrots are considered starchy, as well, and so most diabetics try not to consume many of them. However, for me, strangely enough, carrots do not spike my sugars and can even help level them out if I include carrots in a meal that might be higher carb than normal.
Personal Preferences Limit My Options Further
For me, spicy hot foods are also mostly off the menu, but this is strictly a personal preference. Vegetarian recipes often call for spicy ingredients, but I intensely dislike foods that make my mouth burn and my nose water.
That’s been a frustrating aspect of my particular constellation of food issues. For some reason, too many vegetarian recipes and cookbooks are written by people who seem to think that the actual flavor of the vegetables needs to be obliterated by spiciness. But everyone perceives levels of spiciness differently, too.
How can a new diabetic vegetarian figure out what to eat?
If you’re newly diagnosed with diabetes, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed by how many new things you’ve got to learn, not the least of which being your new diet. You’ve got to figure out what to eat, how much to eat, when to eat, and how often to eat. Ugh!
If you already were or are considering a vegetarian or vegan diet, as well, your food choices may seem even more drastically reduced.
If you’re new to this lifestyle, I’ve got some suggestions for you:
STEP ONE: What Kind of Vegetarian Are You?
First, you need to decide what level of vegetarian you’re comfortable being. Some people are “mostly vegetarian,” meaning they primarily eat vegetables but occasionally still like a meat-based meal. Others call themselves “fish-eating vegetarians” or “pescatarians” to convey the fact that seafood is still on their menu.
If you prefer to eat no meat at all, then would you prefer not to eat any animal product, such as eggs or milk? If so, then you might consider yourself a “vegan.” If you’re okay with dairy but not eggs, then “lacto vegetarian” would fit, but if you’re willing to eat both dairy products and eggs, then you could use the label, “lacto-ovo vegetarian.”
Notice I’m using terminology that suggests that you have the option of using whatever term most suits you, but I’m not saying “you ARE” anything. I believe in the right of an individual to define and label themselves. Just because you look like the next vegetarian, if you don’t want to use that label at all, that’s fine. Many today are eschewing the label “vegetarian” altogether and are instead describing their dietary choices as “plant based.”
The labels are less important than the actual foods you’re willing to eat. Labels become somewhat helpful when we’re trying to convey to others what we eat and don’t eat, but even then we often have to specify how we’ve customized any given type of labeled diet.
A lot of people struggling to understand vegetarianism get hung up on a couple of key questions, such as how to balance each meal nutritionally and how to get enough protein. There are a lot of sources online that can answer these questions, but I will be tackling them in a future post or two soon, so watch for that.
As a diabetic, unfortunately, choice is not as much of a qualifier for what you get to eat. The choice you get to make here is how willing are you to adhere to what your body needs versus what your mouth wants?
This is totally your choice, of course, but be aware of the consequences of giving in to your mouth’s desires too often. As a diabetic, you’ve likely already been informed of all the possible consequences and complications of this disease that affects all your bodily systems, so I won’t go into detail here.
STEP THREE: Experiment to Discover How You’re Unique
Rather, we need to figure out how our particular body handles different specific foods. The way we do that is by testing our blood sugar frequently. Every time you introduce a new food, wait for two hours and then test your blood sugars.
Do this experiment with the same food in different combinations with other foods that you already know the effects of. This way, you’ll get a clear understanding regarding how this particular food interacts with your body.
It doesn’t matter a bit if that’s out of sync with the American Diabetes Association, other diabetics you know, or any other source of diabetic dietary information. What matters is how a particular food affects you and your body and blood sugars.
Once you know what you should and shouldn’t eat, based on how it affects your blood sugars, then you can decide how much to eat of the foods that you know aren’t good for you. Because the truth is, you can still pretty much eat anything you want, provided you don’t have an actual allergy to it.
The trick is to do so sparingly. You can reduce your portion sizes of the not-good-for-you stuff, and I would recommend not eating it at all for the majority of the time. Once in awhile, for a special occasion, you can indulge in a small portion of something that might ordinarily be on the no-no list. Even if your blood sugar spikes from it, as long as you’re not doing this regularly, the very occasional spike won’t hurt you.
STEP FIVE: Explore & Discover!
At this point, you get to choose to have fun with your new diet. There’s a whole world of foods out there that you’ve never heard of and never tasted. You may discover all sorts of new things about your taste buds and what delights them.
I would recommend, too, that when you’ve encountered a new plant, and you’re not sure you like it, try it in a couple different kinds of recipes before you give up on it.
Eggplant is something that I just don’t like most ways that I’ve had it so far. It’s not completely offensive to me, like some things are (such as olives, blech!), so I’m willing to keep trying to find ways to like eggplant. So far, the only recipe I like it in is Martha Stewart’s roasted eggplant and chickpea soup that I’ve made a couple of times.
If you like to cook or bake, there are a bazillion recipes out there on the Internet and on a few diabetic vegetarian recipe books on the market. I would recommend checking out the Resource Lists I’ve posted, in order to find some of the most popular low carb and vegetarian food bloggers out there. (NOTE: There aren’t many yet specializing in recipes that are BOTH low carb and vegetarian.)
STEP SIX: Have a Support Network in Place
It’s great if you live with someone who will join you on your new dietary journey, whether or not they’re also diabetic or vegetarian. Choosing to eat a low carb, plant based diet is good for most people (though not all).
If your live-in companions are NOT willing to adjust their diets to align with yours, it’s even more important to find people in your life that you can talk to about your diet and who are willing to support you when the going gets rough.
Because it most likely will. We all have to struggle through the phase of accepting our new condition and the restrictions it places on us and our food choices. This is not an easy road. But with time and support, you will get through it and have a much richer appreciation for food as a result.
On the outside looking in, someone might think that as diabetic vegetarians, we wouldn’t have much to eat. After all, we’ve cut out meat, possibly all animal products, and we’ve drastically cut down or cut out starchy, carb-based foods. What else is there?
Well, the vegetable world is vast and my diet today is much more varied than it was when I was a non-diabetic meat-eater. Sure, I still miss and sometimes crave things that are not on my regular menu, but overall, I’m mostly very happy with my food choices today. Especially since I’m also much healthier this way.
Good luck to you on your journey and don’t forget to check in here regularly for more recipes and tips on how to survive and thrive as a diabetic vegetarian!
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