People around the world are eating low-carbohydrate diets to treat their diabetes. But all plant foods, other than seeds, are carbs. So what can you eat? Is it all animal products, or are there other options?
We know the arguments against eating carbs. Other than fiber, carbs are either sugars or starches that break down into sugars. Since people with diabetes have little to no effective insulin, which is necessary for handling sugars (glucose), they probably shouldn’t eat them.
But is this argument totally true? Perhaps not. Vegans and vegetarians tend to eat a lot of carbs, and many of them seem to do quite well with diabetes. Many people in poor countries who cannot afford meat also have relatively low rates of diabetes. So what’s their secret? What are they eating?
It seems clear that the successful ones eat very low amounts of refined sugars and simple starches. They may have small amounts of truly whole grains (not stuff that is marketed as “whole grain” but is actually highly processed). They eat small amounts of fruits and starchy vegetables. (Diabetic low-carb guru Dr. Richard Bernstein says he hasn’t eaten a piece of fruit in decades.)
What’s left? Well, from a carb standpoint, you can eat as much animal food, like meat and eggs, as you want. They don’t have any carbs (although dairy products do). You can vary that with sea animals — they don’t contain carbs either.
There are probably a few health risks from eating so much meat. Your toxic load will be higher, unless you consistently eat organic free-range meat and wild-caught, small fish. You might get too much fat if you overdo it, but advocates like Bernstein have found no problems for themselves or their patients.
However, from the standpoint of your wallet, the animals, and the planet, eating so much meat is problematic. Organic, free-range meat is usually quite expensive. Low-cost, factory-farm-raised meat, fish, and eggs are full of chemicals. The animals are treated terribly at many of these “farms.” And it takes about fifteen pounds of animal feed (grains) to raise one pound of beef, which wastes energy and water.
To eat less meat and also less carbs seems quite a challenge. Everyone agrees on eating high amounts of green vegetables, especially leafy ones. Nuts are also terrific low-carb foods. Starchy vegetables have to be eaten in moderation.
What else besides green vegetables? Where do you get protein? In addition to nuts, I think most people’s easiest path will be soy products like tofu.
According to About.com, a half-cup serving of firm tofu contains 10 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat, and only 2 grams of carbohydrates. In addition to tofu, a number of soy products like tempeh and miso contain a lot of protein and few carbs.
As someone who eats a lot of tofu, I have to admit it doesn’t taste like much. The good thing is that it will absorb just about any flavor you put on it, so you can use a wide variety of seasonings and sauces. We have many tasty tofu recipes on our site.
What about beans?
A big question for people who want to eat few carbs and not much meat: How do beans fit in? As a mix of protein, fat, and carbs, they are sort of a perfect food, but they do have a lot of carb content, usually from 20 to 40 grams per cup, depending on the type.
Now here’s the complicated thing — everyone will react to beans differently, and the same person might react differently to different kinds of beans, and different ways of cooking them. The only way to know about beans or other plant foods like squash is to monitor yourself. After eating one such food, check one hour and two hours after eating, and if your glucose doesn’t spike, check again a bit later, in case slow digestion skews your numbers.
You can also vary the amounts you eat and see how that affects your blood glucose. You might have enough insulin for a small amount but not a larger one. It should only take a month or two of serious monitoring to learn what foods spike your glucose levels and how much, and which ones don’t.
I think the main reason some plant foods are healthier than others is their fiber. Often, a person with Type 2 can eat fair amounts of carbs, if they contain large amounts of fiber.
The fiber slows the entry of glucose into the system. It also stimulates the distal ileum (the last part of the small intestine), which stimulates insulin production. Finally, fiber gets into the large intestine, where it is fermented by bacteria into a number of healthy acids that help with diabetes and provide energy.
Here’s a short, incomplete list of good low-carb plant foods from a number of sources. Vegetables include lettuce, green beans, artichokes, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumbers, olives, zucchini, and small amounts of squash and bell peppers.
Fruits include strawberries, papaya, watermelon, blueberries, cantaloupes, and honeydew melons, and small amounts of peaches, apples, and nectarines. Basically melons are manageable because they’re mostly water, and berries tend to be OK because they’re mostly fiber, but you have to be careful of the amounts. Monitoring is the only way to know how they work for you.
Final note: Exercise makes a difference. The more you exercise, and the more muscle you have, the more carbs you can eat, because exercise lowers insulin resistance and muscles soak up glucose. Of course, if you’re Type 1, you still need to inject insulin to cover what you eat.
If you want more information on low-carb eating without much meat, see here, here, or here.