I always wanted to be a vegetarian. It always sounded like such a noble cause: saving the animals, the environment, and my health all in one fell swoop. But my actual experience with vegetarianism is somewhat mixed.
In high school, I quit eating meat altogether for about six months, much to the chagrin of my meat-loving family. Eventually the weight of fixing my own vegetarian dinners was too burdensome, so I decided to incorporate chicken into my meals. A few months after that, pork found its way back into my diet. I managed to avoid beef entirely for 10 years, before I finally broke down and had a hamburger.
A lot people are probably similar to me. Vegetarianism sounds like the right thing to do, but you're not quite sure you can actually go all the way.
October is also National Vegetarian Awareness Month, so for the past three weeks, my husband and I have taken on a new challenge: eating a vegetarian diet. Neither of us are interested in becoming full-time vegetarians, but we also realized that we were perhaps relying on meat a little too much. This would be our experiment to get us used to mixing more fruits and vegetables into our meal planning.
Like many people with diabetes, I was a bit concerned that eating vegetarian might be a gateway to a diet full of pasta, cereal and bread — which in moderation isn't a bad thing, but it's hard to build a healthy diet based solely on carbs. Luckily it turns out that being vegetarian doesn't necessarily mean giving up all your favorite protein options.
I discovered there are actually several different kinds of vegetarianism, with varying degrees of severity in diet restrictions:
- Ovo vegetarianism excludes all meat and dairy, but includes eggs
- Lacto vegetarianism excludes all meat and eggs, but includes dairy
- Ovo-lacto vegetarianism excludes all meat, but includes both dairy, milk and honey — this type of vegetarian is what most people commonly call plain old "vegetarian"
- Veganism excludes all meat (and animal products like leather) plus dairy, eggs and honey
- Raw veganism includes only fresh and uncooked fruit, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Vegetables can only be cooked up to a certain temperature
- Pescetarianism excludes all meat, but includes fish
- Flexitarianism is not really a form of vegetarianism, but those who call themselves "flexitarians" eat a mostly vegetarian diet, with occasional inclusion of meat, dairy or eggs
Whew! So many options... For our little experiment, my husband and I chose to go with "Ovo-lacto vegetarian." It gave us the motivation to eat meatless and experiment with more veggie options, but it didn't limit us so much that we couldn't have a vegetarian omelet (eggs) for brunch or cheese (dairy) on our Gardenburgers.
I also reached out to some other PWDs to learn about their experiences with vegetarianism. Chrystal, a 30-something type 2 in California, said she has recently ventured into this world as well, and is still exploring the choices.
"It's about discipline and figuring out what is the right thing to do with yourself and your body," Chrystal says. "I have really decided to take ownership of my body and become healthy. I am not sure what type of vegetarian path I should follow. I have not decided yet if I want to be a strict veggie or a person that will still eat fish. I am leaning toward still eating fish only."
Some people have found the most success as flexitarians or, like Chrystal, as pescetarians, because it's also flexible enough to allow some indulgences at restaurants or family gatherings, but encourages folks to fill up on fruits, veggies, beans and whole grains. This means you'll likely consume fewer calories, less saturated fat and cholesterol, and more of the good stuff, like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Although a vegetarian or vegan diet won't magically "cure" your diabetes — despite some erroneous claims — scientists have found that a meatless diet can do quite a bit of good for people with diabetes. A study in Diabetes Care showed that people with type 2 diabetes on a vegan diet lowered their cholesterol and improved their kidney function, as compared to people who were on the standard American Diabetes Association diet (hmmm). Ironically, the vegan diet was actually easier to follow for the participants, and fewer people dropped out of the vegan group compared to the folks in the ADA diet group.
Naturally, eating more vegetables and carbs that are low on the glycemic index can help make it easier to manage your blood sugars. But the risk of consuming too many carbs is always a challenge, and it can be a slippery slope once you cut down on protein. For my month-long experiment, I have definitely noticed an increase my carb intake, because I'm relying more on pastas and sandwich-based entrees. However, I can also tell I'm eating a lot more vegetables because I'm ordering pasta with eggplant, or grilled vegetable paninis.
Pamela, a 36-year-old type 1 PWD from Missouri, says that when she first started out on a vegetarian diet in high school, she ate tons of pasta and carbs to replace meat, which of course made it harder to manage her blood sugar.
"As I became more aware of good nutrition my diet became much more balanced," she explains. "Just because it's 'diabetic-friendly' or 'vegetarian' doesn't mean it's good for you. I learned more about cooking and the principles of clean eating. I learned I needed quality lean protein, healthy fats and nutrient-rich carbs."
Elizabeth Edelman, a 30-year-old type 1 in Ohio and co-founder of Diabetes Daily, found her vegan diet to be a benefit to her diabetes, but not to her waistline when she started consuming more carbs instead of protein. "I did increase my carb intake by a lot. I'm not a fan of tofu or the other vegan meat substitutes, so my main source of protein was beans and nuts. I ate mostly beans and rice with loads of fresh veggies and fruit. Lots of oatmeal with almond milk and fresh fruit for breakfast and hummus and tortilla chips or vegetables for snacks."
Caroline Bohl, an RD and CDE who works as a registered dietician and educator at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, says, "With diabetes, we rely on protein foods to help keep people feeling full, replace carbs, and help stabilize blood sugars. So, being vegan or vegetarian limits the proteins available."
She says that if you're a vegetarian, but are still eating dairy, eggs, and even fish (if you're a pescatarian), then you're probably good on protein intake. If not, make sure your diet meets your nutritional needs and investigate other sources of protein (some of which may include carbohydrate):
- nuts and nut butters, which include peanut butter, almond butter, and sunflower butter
- soy products, like tofu and tempeh, and soy substitutes like soy milk and soy cheeses
Caroline says it's important to choose your carbs wisely: "The vegetarian or vegan diet is typically higher carbs so patients will want make sure to choose high-fiber carbs (whole grains, whole wheat products, beans). If not, they may notice they are seeing higher blood sugars and using more insulin."
"Cookbooks are your best friend, vegetarian or not," Pamela says. "I recommend the Eat Clean series of books by Tosca Reno, as well as a book called La Dolce Vegan. I make my own seitan ("wheat meat") and bread from recipes in that book."
Caroline recommends The South Beach Diet book, not to follow implicitly, but because "they tend towards high-quality carbs, good fat sources, and alternate proteins."
From the folks we talked to, some veggie faves include:
* Karen, mom of a son with type 1: "He is a very adventurous eater and loves to try new things! If I had to pick one or two things, I'd say roasted red peppers with fresh mozzarella, and egg drop soup with tofu and coconut rice."
* Elizabeth: "One of my favorite things to eat when I was vegan (and still do) is Mujadarah — which is essentially rice, lentils and caramelized onions. I would add a cucumber and tomato salad on top. It's very easy to prepare and really good left over!"
* Pamela: "Eggs. I love hard-boiled eggs and omelets."
* Chrystal: "There is a wonderful chick pea curry recipe that made me decide that being vegetarian wasn't so bad."
Ronnie Gregory, who guest blogged here at the 'Mine last week, is also a vegetarian who tries to eat low-carb. If you're concerned about your carb intake, check out his sample menu as a reference guide. You can also find more support on diabetes social networks, and there's even a Facebook group for low-carb diabetic vegetarians!
My personal favorite thing to eat has to be Gardenburgers on a whole wheat bun. Gardenburgers are very tasty, and you can put anything on top — from traditional lettuce and tomato, to avocado and cheese, to chipotle hummus. Yum! We're also big fans of ethnic foods, like Thai, Indian and Mexican, which all come with really great vegetarian options.
But tell us, Dear Readers, what are your thoughts on vegetarianism? If you have any recipes to share, I'm all ears — I still have 10 days to go!