Figuring out exactly what you should be eating as a person with diabetes can be incredibly overwhelming these days.
We face a constant barrage of content telling us what and how much and when to eat, and there are many conflicting opinions, strict “rules” that aren’t a great fit for everyone, and a variety of restrictive nutrition philosophies.
Should you go keto? Low-carb? Vegan? Should you just count calories?
In this article, we’ll discuss what a Flexitarian Diet is and why it could be the ideal diet for a person with diabetes who has not found other diet plans to be a great fit. We will also look at how to adjust it for diabetes management, and give tips for long-term success.
What is the Flexitarian Diet?
A Flexitarian Diet is about choosing mostly plants and other whole-foods that are minimally processed while still incorporating meat and other animal products in moderation, along with more realistic flexibility around less-healthy items like bread, pizza, and dessert.
Named “The Flexitarian Diet” by Dawn Jackson Blatner, she describes this flexible approach to eat as follows:
“The Flexitarian Diet is a semi-vegetarian style of eating that encourages less meat and more plant-based foods. There are no specific rules or suggestions, making it an appealing option for people who are looking to cut back on animal products.”
The guidelines for following a Flexitarian Diet are:
- Start every meal with vegetables and fruit.
- Next, choose legumes and grains.
- Incorporate meat and animal products in moderation.
- Limit heavily processed products, greasy foods, and sweets.
- Focus on whole foods as the primary source of your nutrition.
In other words: Eat mostly vegetables (and some fruit) as many times per day as possible.
And then continue to choose mostly whole-food items including whole grains, dairy, legumes, nuts, lean proteins (poultry, salmon, eggs, etc.) with room for the occasional indulgence several times per week, too.
While the “official” Flexitarian Diet has suggestions in their “food pyramid” for the number of servings of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy, meat, sweets, etc. that you should consume, there is no rigid restriction like you’ll find in a ketogenic or vegan diet.
Moderation is a key component of the Flexitarian Diet. While you have the freedom to eat a few slices of pizza on Friday night and still be following the guidelines of your nutrition program, the goal would still be that the rest of that day’s food was very wholesome and plant-based.
Note: As with any diet, knowing how much to eat is important no matter how healthy your diet is, if you eat more calories than you burn, you will gain weight (which can be the goal sometimes). You can use the guide to calculating your daily calorie need here on Diabetes Strong to find out how much to eat to reach your weight goals.
Why a Flexitarian Diet is ideal for some people with diabetes
The most important part of any approach to nutrition is that it is something you can sustain for a long-term, stable, positive relationship with food.
If you have found that through eating a ketogenic, low-carb, vegan, etc. type of diet, that is wonderful! But the reason there are so many approaches to nutrition out there is that we (society) have yet to find one approach to works well for everyone.
Every individual’s genetics, religious and moral beliefs, additional health conditions, body type, personality type, history with food, and budget vary tremendously. All of these factors play heavily when a person is trying to create a healthy and sustainable relationship with food.
For some people, following a strict ketogenic diet or low-carb diet or vegan diet or LFHC (low-fat, high-carb) diet is great. They see the benefits in their blood sugar levels, they feel good eating that way, and they enjoy the firm rules and limits.
For others (myself included), following an extremely rigid diet actually creates more problems than it solves for people with diabetes (PWDs):
- Many PWDs actually see their insulin needs rise on a ketogenic diet because of dietary fat’s impact on insulin resistance — despite the severe reduction in carbohydrates.
- Many PWDs find that putting intense limitations on what they’re “allowed” to eat leads to binge-eating those items after several days of avoiding them. This is common in the non-diabetic population, too.
- Many PWDs have other health conditions that further dictate their nutritional needs. (Personally, eating a lot of carbohydrates triggers other symptoms in my fibromyalgia.)
- Many PWDs do not feel healthy eating a large number of carbohydrates — no matter how healthy and wholesome those carbohydrates may be. (For instance, I feel downright awful after eating gluten-free oats and other gluten-free grains.)
- Many PWDs don’t feel it’s necessary to follow an extremely rigid diet in order to achieve healthy blood sugar levels.
- Many PWDs don’t feel it’s necessary to achieve HbA1c’s in the low 5s (like a ketogenic has proven to achieve for some) in order to live a long, healthy life with diabetes.
It’s easy to want others to find the same success and satisfaction you’ve found through a specific approach to eating, but it’s crucial to remember that it’s about so much more than eating.
The Flexitarian Diet offers guidance to your nutrition while still giving you plenty of flexibility to make adjustments based on your personal needs and wants. (Because it’s okay to want ice cream every now and then, too!)
Adjusting the “Flexitarian Diet” for a person with diabetes
The biggest dilemma of the Flexitarian Diet for a person with diabetes is that after “fruits and vegetables” comes the “grains.” Inevitably, our version of this approach to food is going to include more animal protein and fewer grains.
Personally, even when my blood sugars are within my goal range, consuming gluten-free grains make me feel like I desperately need a nap.
A bowl of oatmeal with fresh blueberries and a sprinkle of cinnamon sounds delicious — and I would enjoy every bite — but I always regret eating it. My blood sugar could be 100 mg/dL and all I want to do is close my eyes and curl up in bed. I could say the same thing for high-quality whole-grain bread, rice, pasta, and potatoes!
So, you have to make it work for you.
If you eat meat, make healthier choices in large batches
Every Sunday (or whenever), cook a large batch of your preferred meat choice, like seasoned chicken breasts, hard-boiled eggs, or ground turkey (with easy, frozen veggies mixed in), so it’s ready to quickly serve on a plate loaded with vegetables.
Use different seasoning blends to mix things up and keep it interesting.
Healthy protein often takes time which means it can be the trickiest part of completing a healthy meal. If it’s ready-to-go and you already have plenty of raw vegetables in the fridge, creating a plant-based meal that will provide enough calories with the carbohydrates of grain will be far easier.
Swap grains (like rice) for lighter vegetables (like spinach, kale, and cabbage)
I like to saute a large quantity of ground turkey, add in an entire bag of frozen vegetables (a medley of corn, peas, carrots, and lima beans), and then put it on top of a giant bowl of fresh spinach and kale.
Instead of putting this meat and veggie dish on rice, I’m putting it on top of more vegetables! Along with a small dollop of salad dressing to make it all go down easily. This is one of my easy grab-n-go meals for lunch that gives me tons of fiber, some protein, and tons of greens!
Start breakfast with a giant salad and a protein (then ditch the bread).
Who said breakfast has to include a bowl of oatmeal or a bagel anyhow?
For some reason, we (society) have deemed breakfast as unworthy of vegetables. And sadly, we’ve made it normal to consume 60 grams of sugar in what should be called a milkshake — not a coffee beverage — from Starbucks. But breakfast does not have to be all about starch and sugar.
Oh, but first, you’ll have to ditch the excuse that you “don’t have time” in the morning to make a real breakfast. If you have time to stop at Starbucks, you have time to cook two eggs and put greens into a bowl.
Ditch the bread and start your day off with more vegetables.
- Create a simple (ie: easy and fast) salad (kale, spinach, pre-shredded carrots) with quickly sauteed eggs and an apple on the side! This takes less than 5 minutes, and less than 5 minutes to eat, too.
- Pair your “veggie coleslaw” describe up above with 1 cup of your favorite beans in a large mason jar — and out the door you go! This can be done the night beforehand, too.\
- Make veggie-loaded “egg cupcakes.” Whisk a big batch of eggs and put a ¼ cup into a lined or greased muffin tin. Add a ¼ cup of diced veggies (of your choosing) to each cup and bake for 12 minutes at 350 degrees.
Make room for the carbs (bread, dessert, pizza) that you love most.
Nobody expects you to eat salads all day long. For many of us, what makes a really healthy diet sustainable is the freedom to enjoy a batch of homemade cookies sometimes, too!
If 80 to 90 percent of your day is made-up entirely of vegetables, fruit, healthy protein sources, and beans…there is no reason why you can’t enjoy something more indulgent a few nights a week, too.
For people with type 1 diabetes, this means carefully calculating carbohydrate content (and fat, for things like pizza, Chinese food, lasagna, etc.), taking adequate insulin, and checking your blood sugar often.
For people with type 2 diabetes who do not take insulin, there’s like still a window of flexibility in your diet for a more indulgent food item. That will vary tremendously from person-to-person but figuring what that flexibility looks like for you is going to be the key to sustaining that 90 percent of healthy choices endeavor.
More tips to make your Flexitarian Diet easier
- Make your own “veggie coleslaw” to pair with any protein: Shred (in your food processor) ½ a red cabbage, 4 cups of Brussel’s sprouts, ¼ onion, and 6 large carrots. (Careful not to over-process. You want “coleslaw” like texture, not sawdust!) Use this veggie-loaded mixture as an easy bed for any protein all week long!
- Eat taco meat on a giant bowl of greens and veggies instead of a greasy and cheesy tortilla.
- Grill a large batch of chicken thighs with a flavorful seasoning. Cut them into bite-sized chunks. Scoop a serving onto a big bowl of chopped (raw or cooked) cabbage, carrots, onions, and beans. Add a little salad dressing if needed for additional flavor.
- Make turkey-veggie meatballs! Ground turkey, veggies (a bag of frozen veggie medley, onion, beans, diced carrots, diced Brussel’s sprouts, mushroom, etc.), parmesan, and breadcrumbs (optional). Make a huge batch so they can serve you all week long paired with a giant bowl of greens!
- Make veggie-loaded bean-cakes! Using beans as your base instead of meat, use your food processor to mix beans, diced and sauteed onion, carrots, and mushrooms — along with a few herbs and spices! Put them on a baking sheet in large meatball sized portions. Bake them in the oven for 30 minutes at 350 and grab two to pair with a big bowl of greens every day for lunch! (Or breakfast! Or dinner!)
Remember, the goal is not to be perfect! It’s to make mostly really awesome choices with lots of vegetables!
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