NutriSense Blog

Eating a Low Glycemic Vegan Diet: From Food Options to Best Practices

October 7, 2021
Reviewed By
Kara Collier, RDN, LDN, CNSC

There is a rising interest in plant-based foods, and one of the most popular plant-based diets is the vegan diet. There are many plant-based options with good glycemic index values, which you can compare with the help of our companion article here. In our opinion, the rising trend of plant-based foods can only give the discerning eater more options rather than fewer. Since every individual metabolism is different, some people will handle certain ingredients better than others. Knowing which foods to eat and when or how to eat them is half of the battle for optimized nutrition and overall wellness.

However, if you’re watching your blood glucose, you have the extra constraint of wanting to keep the glycemic index of the foods you eat on the lower side of the spectrum. People can be blood glucose conscious for many reasons, and here is our list of foods that can help control blood sugar levels.

For this kind of priority, it’s best to choose the foods based on a wide net of plant-based foods, then zero in on the specific foods within that category that also match your blood glucose needs. Fortunately, the vegan diet is naturally full of choices with low glycemic index values, much like the gluten-free diet. You can find our article for low glycemic index choices in a gluten-free diet here. In this sense, juggling both priorities in the air, the plant-based one and the low glycemic index one, is particularly easy for those following the vegan diet.

General Guidelines for Eating a Low Glycemic Index Diet

The basic principle of the low glycemic index diet is to eat foods that will be metabolized slowly and with a moderate effect on blood glucose levels. There are many strategies to do this, and we have an article on the practice of food combining for low glycemic index diets here. The glycemic index is measured against the first two hours of blood glucose level rises, so the idea here is to avoid sharp increases in blood sugar, not to avoid starches in food entirely. Our team thinks there are a few good options for managing blood sugar levels in hypoglycemia not related to diabetes, which you can find here. However, for most people, the low glycemic index diet is a good option for blood glucose control and monitoring.

Pair Vegan Proteins with Complex Carbohydrates

Plant-based proteins are on the rise, as direct substitutions like nonspecific “plant burgers” and more specialized products like oat milk, almond butter, or mushroom steaks. In any case, we can look to the tried-and-true strategies for glucose control and adapt them as best we can for the vegan diet. When we look to the roots of this strategy, we can find that proteins derived from plants should be paired with complex carbohydrates. The reasons for this are simple – a complex carbohydrate is more difficult for the body to digest, so it will take longer for the sugars inside of it to become reflected as glucose in the blood. If we take this line of thought to its logical conclusion, we can see that animal fats can also be substituted for plant-based fats. Avocado can often be substituted for butter, for example.

Proteins and Non-Starchy, Leafy Vegetables Have Extremely Low Glycemic Index Values 

As mentioned earlier, the vegan diet is naturally rich in foods that have very low glycemic index values. Fortunately, that is the nature of the type of food the diet consists of, like cauliflower or spinach. Of course, the vegan diet can also include starchy vegetables like pumpkin or potatoes, and this is an important point we’re trying to make in this article. Within the vegan diet, someone trying to prioritize low glycemic index foods has a lot of room to make improvements even within this framework.

Try Prioritizing Medium to Low Glycemic Index Carbohydrates

Fortunately, even some high glycemic index foods, like starchy bread and other vegan products, can be paired with low glycemic index proteins and leafy greens. The result of a dish made with starchy vegan options and less starchy vegan options will be a lower glycemic index. For example, if you make a simple avocado toast, the low glycemic index of the avocado will lower the overall glycemic index of the meal compared to a simple piece of toast by itself. We think this is a bit of sleight of hand, however, since at the end of the day, you are eating a healthy option, the avocado, next to a less healthy choice, the toast.

Include a Balance of Fats, Proteins, and Fibers in Your Vegan Meals

This is the heart of our argument here – you can substitute the toast within the vegan framework for another food that can pair well with the avocado, like a leafy green salad with mushrooms, which would also have plenty of fiber. These are important, as fibers can provide a filling option with very low glycemic index values while remaining within the vegan diet. Another good option is a simple plant-based burger rich in fat and fiber with a lettuce wrap instead of a burger bun.

Vegan Protein Options to Consider for Your Low Glycemic Index Diet

One important thing to consider when starting a vegan diet is the importance of protein and nutrient completeness. The first question is easier to solve within the diet, as many plant-based proteins are available within the modern vegan diet. And again, within the constraints of a low glycemic index diet, these protein options are doubly important to consider. A comprehensive list of vegan protein options can be found here.

Here you can find our abbreviated list of vegan-friendly proteins to consider:

  • Beans - Including Navy Beans, Pinto Beans, Black Beans, and Chickpeas
  • Lentils
  • Soybeans - Including edamame, tofu, and tempeh
  • Nuts & seeds - Try soaking and sprouting the nuts and seeds for a higher protein content
  • Seitan

Vegan Fats to Include in Your Low Glycemic Index Diet

Fats are also an essential part of the balancing act inherent to the vegan low glycemic index diet. Here the issue would be to consume enough fats to counterbalance the potentially starchy vegan options when animal products are removed. Fortunately, there are many low glycemic index options in the vegan diet to simplify this process. A comprehensive list of healthy vegan fats can be found here.

 Here you can find our abbreviated list of vegan-friendly fats to consider:

  • Avocado
  • Nuts
  • Flax seeds
  • Chia seeds
  • Extra Virgin Olive oil
  • Coconut oil
  • Avocado oil

Fiber Options for Low Glycemic Index Plant-Based Diets 

Fibers are also relatively easy to find in the vegan diet since plant products tend to be richer in fiber than their animal counterparts. In general, fibers that support the other goals of the vegan low glycemic index diet are preferable to less supportive ones. For example, a serving of asparagus would be a good choice since it also has a low glycemic index and is a plant-based fiber. You can find a comprehensive list of vegan fibers here.

Here you can find our abbreviated list of vegan-friendly fibers to consider:

  • Brussel sprouts
  • Asparagus
  • Collard greens
  • Broccoli
  • Squash
  • Turnips

 

Let NutriSense’s Team of Dietitians Help You Achieve Your Personal Health Goals

The glycemic index is a valuable tool, but different people have different responses to the same foods. This complexity is compounded by adhering to a strict vegan diet. The glycemic index is calculated by a defined serving of a single food, but many of the foods eaten within the vegan diet are new and may not have the most up-to-date data behind their glycemic index values. Continuous glucose monitors (CGM) let you see exactly how your body responds to foods with different glycemic index values. These have been used in diabetic populations for many years and from the first marketing have been considered very safe and effective by the FDA. NutriSense is proud to offer the same CGM technology for the first time for the public to use alongside their team of world-class Registered Dietitians. NutriSense CGMs come with an innovative app that lets you track your blood glucose levels, and every meal is different. For example, a specific food’s effect on a person’s blood glucose levels will be changed by how it is prepared and what other foods are eaten.


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