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Considering a Vegan Diet? Ideas for Breakfast, Lunch and More

Vegan eating can be tricky with diabetes so be sure to test your blood sugars regularly to assess the impact of the healthy carbs in these recipes I created for OnTrack Diabetes.

The Norwood Family The Norwood family at the beach in Virginia where they live...for now.

Maybe I should confess, I'm not a vegan. I'm not even a vegetarian. But as a dietician and certified diabetes educator, I sure do love my plant foods.

Believe it or not, this wasn't always the case. I was a very picky eater growing up. I distinctly remember a time (at 7 years old) when I cried because mushrooms were on my plate even though I wasn't being forced to eat them! But somewhere along the way (probably in part due to no-pressure, regular family meals), I branched out and learned to embrace all types of foods.

In fact, I've swung so far in the other direction, I now eat foods—like tofu—that my parents never chose to embrace! And so do my three girls (Sydney, 12, Miranda, 10 and Sophia, 6). So, yes, these recipes are all kid-approve.

Of course, I should thank the Navy—traveling the world while my kids were young surely broadened their taste buds. But in general, here’s my secret: my kids have always eaten what my husband and I eat for dinner and it’s always been their choice how much.

Forcing anything is stressful for parents and kids (not to mention harmful). Plus, I have faith in the natural ability of the body to regulate hunger and intake if we don’t interfere with it too much!  So, since they could sit at the table we would simply ask at the end of the meal, “Did you eat enough to make it to breakfast?” Of course, they like some dinners more than others and their intake fluctuates one day to the next. That’s all okay and to be expected…and still they grow!

So, there are some things my kids have learned to like (they all declared they love roasted Brussels sprouts just last week!) And I know first-hand that you can change your taste buds (I LOVE mushrooms now). However, I realize there are still other anti-tofu Americans out there. If you don’t eat tofu (or other healthy foods), I am hoping to change that one delicious, easy vegan recipe at a time. The tempeh was new to my family, but it was virtually undetectable in the chili, it appears like ground meat--you might start there if your family is hard to please.

You see, I believe you’re capable of harnessing your mindset to use your food for good (health). I also believe this is an understated, underappreciated superpower considering most Americans eat far too many processed foods and refined carbohydrates (think sugar and white flour, for example).

In short, you can do a lot to manage and prevent the progression of diabetes by cutting out refined carbohydrates (including sugar) and adding in more plant foods—even if you also choose to still eat some meat and dairy products.

Why Try the Vegan Way of Eating?

A vegan eating plan contains no animal products (including meat, eggs, dairy, and honey) More Americans are adopting a vegan lifestyle than ever. The percentage of Americans who identified themselves as vegan rose from 1% in 2014 to 6% in 2017. Although that remains a small percentage of Americans, that’s a huge increase in a short amount of time.

Often, people choose to follow a vegan lifestyle due to ethical reasons, such as the inhumane treatment of animals. Other times, people follow a vegan lifestyle due to environmental reasons because plant-based agriculture is more sustainable than animal-based agriculture. However, some people choose to follow a vegan lifestyle to improve their health.

So, I’ve created these four easy vegan recipes for people with diabetes. Here’s why:

  • Vegan recipes are the ultimate (100%) plant-based foods.
  • It is usually easier to add in dairy, eggs, or meats to recipes than to take them out. 
  • “Tofu” and “tempeh” are foreign concepts to many Americans, but in fact, they are easy to use, versatile, and full of nutrients important in diabetes-friendly, plant-based cooking.
  • You don’t have to be vegan to enjoy vegan food!

I want to emphasize that you don’t need to be vegan, or any type of vegetarian for that matter (unless you want to). Simply incorporating more plant foods into your life can be an easy way to build healthy habits in order to improve your health.

Determining the Best Eating Plan for Your Diabetes

When you have diabetes, it can be hard figuring out what and how much to eat day after day. Your doctor tells you one thing, the news (and your friends) may tell you another. It’s tedious to keep track of carbohydrates (including sugar) and dietary fat while also keeping sodium in check. And it’s even more complicated when you have to dose insulin based on carbohydrate intake. It can be overwhelming and frustrating.

That’s why an eating plan that works for one person with diabetes may not work for another. And that’s okay.

A vegan lifestyle can work well for someone with diabetes if it is carefully planned. However, sometimes a vegan lifestyle can feel like an addition of “food rules” to an already complicated list of rules for people with diabetes. In addition, because vegan diets are typically very high in carbohydrate, it can be very difficult- although not impossible- to eat a vegan diet and manage blood sugar levels.

So, when considering the health benefits of a vegan lifestyle (or any other eating plan), there’s only one way to gauge if it is right for you: test your blood regularly. You can’t know whether an eating plan is helpful or hurting your blood sugar readings unless you test.

The most useful blood sugar measurements are just before meals and 1 hour after meals, for a comparison of how your blood sugar responds to a meal. This information is invaluable to a certified diabetes educator, who can work with you to help you understand how to adjust your eating plan and when to ask your doctor for help (including the adjustment of medications).

Easy Vegan Recipe Collection: A Few Notes for the Cook

Easy Vegan Pumpkin Spice Overnight Oats

I’m not a huge fan of nut-based milks because they generally lack protein, calcium and other nutrients that dairy provides. However, when you need a non-dairy alternative, unsweetened almond milk works well. The chia seeds thicken the oat mixture and provide protein, fiber and a vegetarian source of omega-3 fatty acids. These oats only take 5 minutes to make the night before you want an easy, seasonal breakfast. I like to use a tiny bit of stevia powder to add a touch of sweetness.

Easy Vegan Tempeh Chili

Truthfully, this was the first time I’ve ever cooked with tempeh- it’s that easy! It crumbles and browns or can be cut into blocks and marinated. It is very versatile and doesn’t have a strong flavor. It is fermented soybeans, and fermented foods may have benefits for the gut microbiome. Soy also provides a great source of complete protein (containing all the essential amino acids you need to eat) and fiber. It provides a meat-like texture while balancing out the high-carbohydrate beans in this chili.

Easy Vegan Teriyaki Tofu Bowl

The trickiest part of this recipe was creating the teriyaki sauce. Authentic teriyaki sauce contains mirin, a sweet Japanese wine. But I couldn’t bring myself to buy it when the first ingredient was “glucose syrup.” So, I used low-sodium soy sauce, a little sherry (to provide a depth of flavor) along with water, some liquid stevia drops and just a teaspoon of sugar. The result is an authentic tasting, salty-sweet teriyaki flavor that is diabetes-friendly. And you know how I love soy products like tofu for its high protein, low carbohydrate profile.

Easy Vegan Apple Crisp

Apple crisp is an American classic. Usually a buttery one, at that. The trickiest part of making a vegan, diabetes-friendly apple crisp is to keep the carbohydrates lower (for a dessert) and finding a fat that will crisp the topping like butter does. Coconut oil often gets a bad rap, but I consider it one of the best, most unrefined plant-based fats, despite its high saturated-fat content. This example of a day’s worth of vegan recipes showcases exactly how a tablespoon of coconut oil in a recipe or two can be part of a balanced diabetes-friendly eating plan.

So there you have it… all four recipes together represent “a day in the life of a vegan” or rather “a day in the life of an omnivore.” Both are equally good- you can decide which works best for you!

Updated on: January 3, 2019
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Vegan Diet for Diabetes: Could Going Vegan Improve Your Health and Your Blood Sugar?
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