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nutrient dense diabetic friendly vegan foods

  • Eating plant-based foods can be a great way to improve nutrient density and reduce the amount of highly insulinogenic processed carbohydrates in your diet.
  • This article looks at how we can optimize a plant-based diet for nutrient density as well as diabetic friendly by reducing insulin load.
  • Finally, we will look at whether adding additional food groups such as seafood, dairy or eggs would diminish or improve the nutrient density of a plant based approach.

nutrient density

A nutrient dense diet is key to maximizing health and satiety with a minimum of calories.  Maximising nutrient density enables our mitochondria to do more with less.

If our world is full of beneficial nutrients our body realises that there is no longer an energy crisis and is more likely to stop searching for more nutrients and lets go of our stored body fat and decrease appetite.

As detailed in the ‘Building a Better Nutrient Density Index’ article, quantifying nutrient density enables us to prioritise foods that contain the highest amount of essential nutrients that are harder to obtain.[1]

The chart below (click to enlarge) shows the percentage of the recommended daily intake of various essential nutrients provided by:

  • all 7000+ foods in the USDA foods database,
  • plant based foods, and
  • the most nutrient dense plant based foods.

2016-10-22

Restricting ourselves to ‘plant based’ foods will improve the vitamin and mineral content of the foods we eat.  However, focusing on the most nutrient dense plant based foods allows us to improve nutrient density even further

most nutrient dense plant based foods

Listed below is a summary of the most nutrient dense plant based foods sorted by their nutrient density score.  The nutrient density score (ND) is shown for each of the foods.

As you can see from the plot below from Nutrition Data, celery, which has a very high nutrient density score (ND), will provide you with a range of vitamins and minerals equivalent to 92% of your recommended daily intake with 1000 calories and 83% of your protein intake with 1000 calories.  Keep in mind though that you would need to eat five bunches of celery to get that 1000 calories though.

2016-10-22-1

The fact that broccoli has a low energy density may be a benefit if you are trying to lose weight, but perhaps would not be so helpful if you are fueling for an Ironman Triathlon.

Also shown in the tables below is the net carbohydrates and calories per 100g for each of the foods listed.

The great thing about most of these foods is that they will provide you with heaps of nutrients while having a low energy density which will make it hard to over consume them to a point that they will spike your blood glucose levels.

Listed below are the most nutrient dense plant based foods.  In the second half of this article we will look at how we can choose foods that will be more gentle on blood glucose levels for those of us that are more insulin resistant.

vegetables and spices 

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
watercress 13 2 11 2.2
white mushroom 10 5 22 1.8
spinach 10 4 23 1.7
portabella mushrooms 10 5 29 1.7
asparagus 10 3 22 1.7
spirulina 9 6 26 1.5
alfalfa 9 1 23 1.5
brown mushrooms 8 5 22 1.3
basil 8 3 23 1.3
chard 8 3 19 1.3
endive 7 1 17 1.2
shiitake mushroom 7 7 39 1.2
seaweed (wakame) 7 11 45 1.1
zucchini 6 2 17 1.0
cauliflower 6 4 25 1.0
Chinese cabbage 6 2 12 1.0
turnip greens 5 4 29 0.9
chicory greens 5 2 23 0.9
escarole 5 1 19 0.9
mung beans 5 4 19 0.9
lettuce 5 2 15 0.9
parsley 5 5 36 0.8
radicchio 4 4 23 0.7
edamame 4 13 121 0.7
bamboo shoots 4 5 27 0.7
peas 4 7 42 0.7
soybeans (sprouted) 4 12 81 0.7
seaweed (kelp) 4 10 43 0.6
shiitake mushrooms 3 72 296 0.6
chives 3 4 30 0.6
paprika 3 26 282 0.6
coriander 3 2 23 0.6
collards 3 4 33 0.5
summer squash 3 2 19 0.5
beet greens 3 2 22 0.5
okra 3 3 22 0.5
mustard seed 3 37 508 0.5
celery 2 3 18 0.5
curry powder 2 14 325 0.4
arugula 2 3 25 0.4
Brussel sprouts 2 6 42 0.4
pumpkin 2 4 20 0.3
snap beans 1 3 15 0.3
carrots 1 4 23 0.2
chayote 1 3 24 0.2
cabbage 1 4 23 0.2
cloves 1 35 274 0.2
kale 1 5 28 0.2
radishes 0 2 16 0.1
jalapeno peppers 0 3 27 0.1
dandelion greens 0 7 45 0.1
pickles 0 1 12 0.1
cucumber 0 1 12 0.1
turnips 0 3 21 0.1
eggplant -0 3 25 0.1
red peppers -0 3 31 0.0
lima beans -0 20 113 0.0
yeast extract spread -0 27 185 0.0
sauerkraut -0 2 19 0.0

legumes

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
tofu 5 8 83 0.9
soybeans 2 49 446 0.3
lentils 1 19 116 0.2
natto 1 22 211 0.2
navy beans 1 22 140 0.2
cowpeas 0 68 336 0.1
broad beans -0 54 341 0.0
peas -0 57 352 0.0

nuts and seeds

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
sunflower seeds 3 22 546 0.6
pumpkin seeds -0 29 559 0.0
brazil nuts -0 16 659 0.0
walnuts -1 22 619 -0.1
almond butter -2 26 614 -0.2
almonds -2 25 607 -0.2
flax seed -2 16 534 -0.3
pistachio nuts -2 34 569 -0.3
sesame seeds -3 17 631 -0.4
coconut water -3 3 19 -0.4
hazelnuts -3 17 629 -0.4
cashews -3 40 580 -0.4
sesame butter -3 33 586 -0.4
pine nuts -3 21 673 -0.4
butternuts -3 28 612 -0.5

fruit

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
carambola -1 5 31 -0.1
blackberries -2 3 43 -0.3
cranberries -2 8 46 -0.3
avocado -2 3 160 -0.3
kiwifruit -2 9 61 -0.3
apricots -3 10 48 -0.4
raspberries -3 4 52 -0.4
peaches -3 8 39 -0.4
grapefruit -3 8 33 -0.4
mulberries -3 9 43 -0.5
boysenberries -3 8 50 -0.5
strawberries -3 4 32 -0.5
nectarines -3 9 44 -0.5

diabetic friendly nutrient dense vegan foods

While the foods listed above would represent a significant dietary improvement for most people, those who are insulin resistant may struggle to keep their blood glucose levels stable if they eat too much non-fibre carbohydrate that can be found in plant based foods (e.g. bread, sweet potato, quinoa, rice, beans or spaghetti).

It is hard to get too many calories and / or spike your glucose levels if you restrict yourself to vegetables like celery, broccoli and spinach.

The problem comes if you are still hungry after you have eaten your fill of non-starchy veggies and are not wanting to lose more weight.  People using a plant based approach may end up filling up on energy dense higher carbohydrate foods which are more likely to raise their blood glucose and insulin levels.

As shown in the chart below, our insulin response to food is only partially explained by the quantity of carbohydrates in our food.

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The analysis of the food insulin index data indicates that our insulin response is also influenced by the fibre and the protein in the foods we eat.

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We can use the formula below to estimate the amount of insulin that our food will require as shown by the formula below.  Foods with a lower insulin load will enable your pancreas to keep up with demand and maintain normal blood glucose levels without the ‘blood glucose roller coaster’.

insulin load (g)=carbohydrates (g)-fiber (g) + 0.56*protein (g)

The higher fat foods actually have a lower nutrient density than the most nutrient dense vegetarian foods listed above.  Ideally in time someone with insulin resistance would be able to restore their insulin sensitivity through eating nutrient dense, low insulin load foods along with perhaps intermittent fasting and exercise.  However, in the meantime the lower insulin load foods will enable you to maintain normal blood glucose levels.

The list of foods below is prioritised by both nutrient density and the proportion of insulinogenic calories.  These foods will provide high levels of nutrition while also being gentle on your blood glucose levels with lower levels of insulin required.

vegetables

The vegetables in this list have a lower percentage of insulinogenic calories, lower amounts of net carbohydrates and a low energy density and therefore will have a minimal impact on blood glucose levels.   While the percentage of insulinogenic calories is often high, the net carbohydrates is low so the effect on blood glucose will be minimal.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
curry powder 2 14 325 1.5
alfalfa 9 1 23 1.5
endive 8 1 17 1.3
poppy seeds -2 23 525 1.3
chicory greens 5 2 23 1.3
escarole 6 1 19 1.2
paprika 3 26 282 1.1
mustard seed 3 37 508 1.1
caraway seed -0 28 333 1.0
coriander 2 2 23 1.0
nutmeg -8 32 525 0.9
sage -5 26 315 0.9
mace -8 34 475 0.8
beet greens 3 2 22 0.8
marjoram -6 27 271 0.7
collards 3 4 33 0.7
eggplant -0 3 25 0.7
cloves -0 35 274 0.7
zucchini 6 2 17 0.7
thyme -2 31 276 0.7
banana pepper -2 3 27 0.6
edamame 5 13 121 0.6
jalapeno peppers -1 3 27 0.6
mustard greens -2 3 27 0.6
cinnamon -5 30 247 0.6
turnip greens 8 4 29 0.6
spinach 13 4 23 0.6
sauerkraut -1 2 19 0.6
pickles -1 1 12 0.6
cucumber -1 1 12 0.6
chayote 0 3 24 0.5
basil 9 3 23 0.5
red peppers -1 3 31 0.5
asparagus 11 3 22 0.5
radishes -1 2 16 0.4
cumin -6 44 375 0.4
summer squash 3 2 19 0.4
dill seed -3 43 305 0.4
parsley 5 5 36 0.4
chard 9 3 19 0.4
chives 5 4 30 0.4
arugula 0 3 25 0.4
lettuce 6 2 15 0.4
soybeans (sprouted) 5 12 81 0.4
cauliflower 6 4 25 0.3
portabella mushrooms 11 5 29 0.3
okra 4 3 22 0.3
Chinese cabbage 8 2 12 0.3
Brussel sprouts 1 6 42 0.2
carrots -1 5 37 0.2
celery 2 3 18 0.2
turnips -0 3 21 0.2
artichokes -2 7 47 0.2
shiitake mushroom 7 7 39 0.1
watercress 17 2 11 0.1
dandelion greens -1 7 45 0.0
cabbage 0 4 23 0.0
celery flakes -4 42 319 -0.0
red cabbage -3 5 29 -0.0
white mushroom 11 5 22 -0.1
snap beans 1 3 15 -0.1
bay leaf -7 53 313 -0.1
bamboo shoots 4 5 27 -0.1
rhubarb -4 3 21 -0.1
pepper -2 47 251 -0.1
kale 1 5 28 -0.1
yeast extract spread -2 27 185 -0.2
carrots 1 4 23 -0.2
spirulina 13 6 26 -0.2
peas 5 7 42 -0.2
turnips -3 4 22 -0.3
turmeric -2 52 312 -0.3
radicchio 4 4 23 -0.3
onions -0 6 32 -0.3
carrots -1 7 41 -0.3
potatoes -4 26 158 -0.4

nuts and seeds seeds

Nuts and seeds have a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories as well as being lower in net carbs which makes them diabetic friendly.  They do have a considerably higher energy density and hence, unlike the veggies, it is possible to overeat nuts and seeds if you’re keeping an eye on your weight.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
brazil nuts -1 16 659 1.6
pecans -6 12 691 1.6
macadamia nuts -7 12 718 1.6
sesame seeds -3 17 631 1.5
sunflower seeds 3 22 546 1.5
hazelnuts -4 17 629 1.5
coconut milk -6 5 230 1.5
coconut cream -7 7 330 1.5
flax seed -3 16 534 1.5
coconut meat -7 9 354 1.5
walnuts -1 22 619 1.5
pine nuts -4 21 673 1.5
almonds -3 25 607 1.4
almond butter -2 26 614 1.3
butternuts -3 28 612 1.3
pumpkin seeds -0 29 559 1.3
sesame butter -4 33 586 1.1
pistachio nuts -3 34 569 1.1
cashews -4 40 580 0.9
coconut -7 39 443 0.6
gingko nuts -6 15 111 -0.0
coconut water -3 3 19 -0.4

fruits

The list of diabetic friendly fruits with a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories ends up being quite short.  Some of these fruits will raise your blood glucose levels if you eat enough of them.  So if you are particularly insulin resistant then you will want to limit your quantity of fruit or stick to the lower insulin load fruits (e.g. olives and avocados rather than mango).

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
olives -6 1 145 1.7
avocado -4 3 160 1.6
blackberries -4 3 43 0.9
raspberries -4 4 52 0.8
strawberries -4 4 32 0.1
apples -7 7 52 0.0
gooseberries -6 6 44 -0.0
carambola -1 5 31 -0.0
kiwifruit -3 9 61 -0.1
boysenberries -5 8 50 -0.1
passionfruit -7 14 97 -0.1
apples -7 7 48 -0.1
pears -7 7 50 -0.1
blueberries -6 9 57 -0.2
blueberries -7 14 88 -0.3
watermelon -5 5 30 -0.3
cherries -7 9 50 -0.4
mango -5 11 60 -0.4
cranberries -3 8 46 -0.4

legumes

These legumes have a lower proportion of insulinogenic calories and lower carbohydrates, however there may still be some impact on blood glucose with the moderate levels of carbohydrates, so you may want to keep an eye on your blood glucose levels when you try these foods to see how you react to them.

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
tofu 9 8 83 1.1
peanuts -3 29 599 0.5
natto 2 22 211 0.5
soybeans 3 49 446 0.5
peanut butter -4 27 593 0.4
lupin seeds 1 50 371 0.2
miso -1 25 198 0.1
lentils 1 19 116 -0.0
navy beans 0 22 140 -0.0
broad beans 0 54 341 -0.1
hummus -4 20 177 -0.1
peas -0 57 352 -0.1
chick peas -2 27 164 -0.2
kidney beans -0 63 337 -0.3
black beans -1 63 341 -0.3
cowpeas 1 68 336 -0.4
garbanzo beans -2 67 378 -0.4
pinto beans -1 64 347 -0.4

what about pescetarian, lacto, ovo options?

In the development of this article I spoke with Barry Erdman who runs the Vegetarian Low Carb Diabetic Healthy Diet Society Facebook group.

Barry has been a strict vegetarian since 1970 and was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes nine years ago.  Barry maintained a nutrient dense plant based diet after his diagnosis, however found that he needed to incorporate dairy, eggs and some oils (e.g. MCT, coconut) into his vegetarian diet in order to achieve acceptable blood glucose control.  Barry told me that when he lost 30 lbs when he switched from a vegetarian diet to a LCHF keto lacto ovo vegetarian diet eliminating all grains, bad oils and fruit (except berries).

Barry also came to the conclusion that he would need to incorporate some fish oil into his diet in order to provide adequate levels of essential fatty acids which are not available in significant quantities in plant based products.

Barry asked me to have a look at how a lacto, ovo, pescitarian diet would stack up against the straight vegan approach.  So listed below are the most nutrient dense lacto (dairy), ovo (eggs), and pescetarian (seafood) diabetic friendly foods.

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For those who are interested in adding eggs or seafood I have listed them based on their nutrient density and proportion of insulinogenic calories.

eggs and dairy

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
butter -6 3 718 1.7
cream -5 5 340 1.6
egg yolk 5 12 275 1.5
cream cheese -4 10 350 1.4
sour cream -4 6 198 1.4
limburger cheese -2 15 327 1.2
cheddar cheese -2 20 410 1.2
camembert -2 16 300 1.2
whole egg 5 10 143 1.2
blue cheese -2 19 353 1.1
Monterey cheese -2 19 373 1.1
muenster cheese -2 19 368 1.1
brie -3 16 334 1.1
Swiss cheese -1 22 393 1.1
gruyere cheese -1 23 413 1.1
feta cheese -1 15 264 1.1
Colby -3 20 394 1.1
edam cheese -2 21 357 1.1
goat cheese -3 14 264 1.1
gouda cheese -2 21 356 1.1
ricotta -3 12 174 0.9
sour cream (light) -4 9 136 0.9
mozzarella -0 26 304 0.8
parmesan cheese -2 35 420 0.7
Greek yogurt -2 9 97 0.6
milk (full fat) -1 7 64 0.4

seafood

food ND insulin load (g/100g) calories/100g MCA
mackerel 2 10 305 1.6
caviar 8 23 264 1.1
cisco 4 13 177 1.1
sardine 6 19 208 0.9
herring 5 19 217 0.9
fish roe 12 18 143 0.8
trout 10 18 168 0.8
anchovy 8 22 210 0.8
sturgeon 10 16 135 0.7
salmon 11 20 156 0.6
tuna 5 23 184 0.4
oyster 10 14 102 0.3
flounder 9 12 86 0.3
halibut 11 17 111 0.1
crayfish 12 13 82 0.1
perch 8 14 96 0.1
crab 14 14 83 0.1
rockfish 9 17 109 0.0

macronutrient comparison

The image below shows a comparison of the macronutrients of these different approaches compared to the average of all of the foods in the USDA foods database.

The nutrient dense vegan approach will provide a lot of of fibre which will make these foods very filling and hard to overeat, however perhaps not particularly diabetes friendly.

The diabetes friendly approach has more protein and only 30% net carbohydrates so it will have are more gentle effect on blood glucose levels.

With higher levels of fat from fish, dairy and eggs, the pescetarian approach is 40% fat which will be more gentle on the blood glucose levels of someone with diabetes.

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comparison of essential micronutrients

This chart shows the nutrients provided by the vegan approach compared to the average of all the foods in the USDA database.  We get a lot of vitamin K, vitamin C and vitamin A but no omega 3 fatty acids and lower quantities of vitamin B-12.

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This chart shows the nutrients contained in the diabetes friendly vegan approach.  While this approach has more fat and less carbohydrates the nutrient density is lower overall.

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This chart shows the nutrient density of the pescetarian approach which is higher overall.

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summary

So in summary, there are some great nutrient dense options for people with diabetes who choose to follow a plant based dietary approach.  Supplementing a plant based diet with some seafood will provide essential fatty acids and boost protein levels.

more information

If you’re interested in learning more about the nutrient density ranking system check out:

other approaches

The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs detailing optimal foods for a range of dietary approaches (sorted from most to least nutrient dense) that may be of interest depending on your situation and goals.   You can print them out to stick to your fridge or take on your next shopping expedition for some inspiration.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
autoimmune (nutrient dense) download
alkaline foods download
nutrient dense bulking download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
autoimmune (diabetes friendly) download
zero carb download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
vegan (nutrient dense) download
vegan (diabetic friendly) download
therapeutic ketosis download
avoid download

If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and whether you are insulin resistant, this survey may help identify the optimal dietary approach for you.

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