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Diabetic Food Pyramid: Your Ultimate Plant Based Guide for Success

The USDA food pyramid has been around for a long time and has recently transitioned to myplate. Different professionals have written about the guidelines that a diabetic should follow regarding their food choices.  

This post will include a review of the old food pyramid and then review a new way of eating including a new diabetic food pyramid for vegans.  It will emphasize the best foods that a vegan plant based person with diabetes should eat with suggested serving.

If you are excited to gain control of your blood sugar levels then let’s dive into this topic right away.       

Comparing a Traditional Low Carb Diet to a Low Fat Diet 

    Benefits of a Low Carbohydrate Diet 

Research shows that following a low carbohydrate diet is effective at managing diabetes.  A study done shows how effective a moderate carbohydrate diet was compared to a very low carbohydrate and high fat diet.  

The results showed a greater improvement in A1C and weight loss, due to a calorie deficit, in 3 months in the very low carbohydrate diet group. No negative effects were seen on triglyceride levels. Vegans were excluded from this study (1). 

Consequences of a Low Carbohydrate Diet 

A very low carbohydrate diet may be effective at managing diabetes in the short term, but there is not enough research to support this type of eating pattern for the long term.  

A diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates may increase the risk for heart disease, which is dangerous as people with diabetes are already at an increased risk for heart disease.  

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean animal proteins and plant based proteins (2).  The AHA does not advocate for a diet high in fat and very low in carbohydrates.     

Benefits of a Low Fat Diet for Revised Diabetic Food Pyramid   

A major study compared a low fat vegan diet to a conventional diabetic diet. Both improved blood sugar control but the low fat vegan diet improved blood sugar control and lower lipid levels better than the conventional diabetic diet. It even led to weight loss due to a calorie deficit. A reduction in weight has a beneficial effect in blood glucose control (3). Great news to vegan diabetics and experts wanting to revise a diabetic food pyramid for vegans.

Consequences of a Low Fat Diet 

However, there is not enough long term research to determine any detrimental effects a low fat vegan diet could possibly cause.  There is also a compliance issue as a low fat vegan diet is very restrictive, which may make it harder for some people with diabetes to follow.   

Examining the Old Non Diabetic Food Pyramid

https://www.fns.usda.gov/food-guide-pyramid-print-materials\

Bread, Cereal, Rice and Pasta Group 

The main focus in this food pyramid are foods high in carbohydrates. While carbohydrates are important for our body to function we shouldn’t be eating just any food that contains carbohydrates, such as white bread, white pasta, and baked sweets.

Our body needs around 50-75% of energy from carbohydrates.  Imagine how effective our body would work if we filled it with whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and beans instead of fast food, fries, and a soda.  

Instead, there are no clear guidelines to help us choose the right foods to fuel the body efficiently, just a generic recommendation.    

Bread, cereal, rice and pasta should all contain 100% whole grains to fuel our bodies with fiber, B vitamins, minerals and more though our body doesn’t need too much in this group to run efficiently. 

Is it really beneficial for us to consume half, 3-6 servings, of breads, cereals, rice or pasta from whole grain sources and the other half from processed sources?  Would it not be better to cut the recommendation in half to focus on the beneficial whole grains that our bodies need. 

Fruit and Vegetable Group 

These two groups are separated out in the original food pyramid but when you add both recommendations then the total comes to 5-9 servings recommended,  which isn’t too bad.

 Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals and need to be emphasized more. Especially since only 12.3% of adults met the fruit intake and only 10% of adults met the vegetable intake in 2019 according to the CDC (4).  

 Fruits and vegetables are so beneficial to our health and yet our current food system definitely does not support this way of eating. 

Meat, Poultry, Fish, Dry Beans, Eggs and Nuts Group 

The recommendation for 2-3 servings is sufficient for our bodies to function properly.  The only contention with this group is that animal meats have been pushed heavily as a source of protein for Americans to eat.  

It has only been recently that a push for more plant based sources has been seen.  In fact, on the new dietary guidelines for 2020-2025 it has a section for soy products though it is included with the nuts and seeds category as well (5). 

Despite this, there is still a big focus on animal based protein.  In the future, it would be nice to see plant based protein have their own category separate from the nuts and seeds category and include more than just soy products.  

The old food pyramid, includes dry beans in this category, which is great to see. 

Milk, Yogurt and Cheese Group 

This group is made up entirely of foods made using cow milk.  Dairy is pushed heavily due to its high concentration of calcium. Most non-dairy milks are fortified with calcium to mimic cow milk.  Calcium is in fruits and vegetables.     

Fats, Oils, and Sweets Group  

Fats are restricted as sparingly as most Americans consume too much fat in the first place.  Fat needs to be used in smaller quantities. There is no distinction between healthier fats such as avocados, nuts and olives and unhealthy fats including oils, butter, and fatty portions of meats.

The recommendation for fats to be used sparingly is a great recommendation.  Unfortunately, most Americans consume more fat than they should in a day.  More than 70% of Americans consume more saturated fat than recommended (5).  

Examining a Revised Vegan Diabetic Food Pyramid

Fruit and Vegetable Group 

Vegan Diabetic Food Pyramid. Fat: No more than 3 servings (Limit to 30gm in a day), Non-dairy Milk: 0-2 Servings, Plant Based Protein: At least 3 servings, whole grains: at least 3 servings, fruits and vegetables: AT least 6-11 servings

This should be the real bottom of the diabetic food pyramid.  Fruits and vegetables have been shown to reduce risk of heart issues by 20-30% when there is a high intake of fruits and vegetables  (6). 

We could all benefit from 6-11 servings of fruits and vegetables instead of breads, cereals, rice and pasta. A serving being ½ cup cup of cooked vegetables, 1 cup fresh vegetables, 1 piece of fruit or ½ cup.  

e are benefits when 5 servings are consumed but the benefits increase when we consume more fruits and vegetables (6). 

That is likely due to the fact that they contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, water, and phytochemicals, a substance that protects the body from harmful substances in the body (7). They literally help our body to function properly and to protect it from damage. 

The best way to reap these benefits is to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables and not restricting it to just 2-3 types. Different fruits and vegetables have different health benefits.  

Therefore, it is best to try to slowly increase your intake by making 1 small change at a time or trying 1 new fruit or vegetable at a time and trying them in different ways. 

Whole grains

Whole grains quite literally is the grain without stripping it of its nutritional value.  It contains the bran (outer layer), endosperm (main part of the grain) and germ (the smallest part). Most grains, breads, and rice just contain the endosperm, which is full of carbohydrates (8).  

They are very beneficial to our bodies as they contain fiber, B vitamins, and minerals that support a host of health benefits such as a reduction for heart disease and a decrease in type 2 diabetes (9).

In order to maximize the health benefits of whole grains aim for at least 3 servings per day for a minimum of ~75gm whole grains (9). A ½ serving of brown rice or oatmeal is considered a serving and contains 28gm of whole grains (10). A slice of bread ~1oz has 16gm of whole grains.  

A good rule of thumb is to look for whole grains that are intact such as brown rice, quinoa, millet, and oats.  Other more processed forms of whole grains such as bread and wheat tortillas should contain at least 3 gm of fiber per 100kcal serving (8). Make sure the label says 100% whole grain or whole wheat. 

Milk/Yogurt/Cheese

Most people need 0-2 servings of fortified plant based milk or yogurt to meet their daily calcium requirement.  However, a well planned diet high in fruits and vegetables with a high content of calcium will satisfy this requirement. 

The calcium requirement is 1000-1300mg for adults and the elderly respectively (11). 

If anyone is concerned that the calcium content in vegetables is less absorbable then they need not worry.  Despite the fact that there is a nutrient called oxalate that blocks calcium absorption in fruits and vegetables,  there are some vegetables and fruits that are high in calcium and low in oxalate like bok choy (11) (12).      

Protein 

Protein helps the body to maintain muscle mass and aids in many other functions in our body.   

Aim for 3 serving of high quality plant based proteins. A serving should be ~3 ounces and include beans, legumes, tofu and soybeans. Try not to exceed more than 40gm of protein in a meal as it can increase insulin requirements (13).  

Try to limit protein intake to no more than 15-20% of calories per day. 

Fats 

Fat, especially saturated fat, has been linked to insulin resistance (14) (15). Limit fat to no more than ~3 servings/day.  A serving being 9gm of fat, with no more than ~30gm of fat/day or no more than 15% of calories from fat.  

 Fat is in oils, olives, avocados, and nuts. Avoid oils; it is concentrated fat with no nutrients. Though these foods have healthier fats, mono and polyunsaturated fats, they can still cause insulin resistance if consumed in excess (14) (15). 

 When food is eaten in excess the body stores the excess as fat which, if not used right away contributes to insulin resistance (14) (15).  

Avoid saturated fats from coconut oil, butter, lard, cheese, fatty meats, and eggs. They can cause insulin resistance faster than their healthier counterparts (avocados, nuts, olives).   

Conclusion 

A balanced plate with whole foods is the best plate to strive for everyday. Enjoy a modest 60-75% of calories from whole food plant based carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes. 15-20% from plant based proteins such as beans, legumes and tofu. Limit fat to 10-15% from whole food plant based sources such as nuts, olives and avocados.

A good tracking app such as MyFirness Pal or Chronometer, my favorite, can be a great way to track the amount and percentage of carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Being in a community of like minded individuals can help maintain the mindset needed to continue to be successful. 

Remember this new diabetic food pyramid and start putting this into action!

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