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Healthy Plant-Based Meal Planning for Diabetes

Sharon Palmer

Learn how to plan healthy plant-based meals to help prevent and manage diabetes with these expert tips in Sharon’s live chat with dietitian and author Toby Amidor.

You have the power to significantly lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by simply eating heart-healthy, nutritious meals filled with whole plant foods. If you do have diabetes, this same diet strategy can help you manage it so that you can avoid complications, such as heart disease. It’s important to eat balanced meals that include whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, and vegetables. One great way to meet your nutrition goals is to portion out your foods onto a plate using the Plate Method. Rather than having to count calories, it’s much easier to simply eat foods in moderation and incorporate these healthful foods into your everyday meals. This allows you to get all of those health-protective nutrients you need to live a more vibrant lifestyle and essentially reduce your risks associated with heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Diabetes is a disease that comes about from high blood sugar levels; thus, you should aim to reduce the amounts of added sugars in your diet, too. This diet strategy will not only help you lower your blood sugar levels, it will also improve your overall health.

That’s why I am so excited to sit down with Toby Amidor, MS, RDN, CDN, a registered dietitian who focuses on diabetes and nutrition in her work and writing, in our live chat today. I am so grateful that she shared her best tips on how to plan healthy, delicious meals to maintain a healthy diet while also preventing and reducing the risks associated with diabetes. Toby wrote this great book, Create-Your-Plate Diabetes Cookbook: A Plate Method Approach to Simple, Complete Meals, that was published by the American Diabetes Association in order to help people plan nutrient-dense meals in a simple way. This book is a great guide for those looking to live a healthier lifestyle without having to worry about counting calories and eliminating foods from your diet.

Check out our live chat, as well as our written interview below, where Toby shares some insight about diabetes and nutritious meals. She provides a ton of great advice that can help you manage diabetes and prevent it from even happening!

Things you will learn in this episode:

  • How you can manage and prevent diabetes with your diet.
  • Tips on how to make delicious and nutritious meals.
  • Steps that you can take to prevent/reduce the risks associated with diabetes.
  • Benefits of eating plant-based for diabetes.

Toby’s Resources:

Toby Amidor

Interview with Toby Amidor on Planning Meals for Diabetes

Sharon: How did you get started in the field of nutrition and what inspired you to write your book?

Toby: When I was going to be a dietitian, my parents sat me down and asked me what I was going to do, because my mom went to nutrition school. I took a couple nutrition classes in college and that’s what I enjoyed doing so I ended up majoring in clinical nutrition and dietetics, so I’m actually a clinical dietitian. I taught at a culinary school and really liked media, so now I teach at Teachers College Columbia and I write a lot, I write cookbooks, I speak a lot, and do a variety of things. One of the things in my family is diabetes; so my mom was pre-diabetic and through eating and weight loss, she’s helped to manage it and prevented it. A lot of my family that live in Israel have diabetes as well. So when I was approached by the American Diabetes Association to write this cookbook, I remember the times in the hospital when I was counseling clients and it was just so confusing to explain to them the food groups and counting your grams of carbs and this plate method is just so much easier. I was glad to be able to write this cookbook.

Nourish Lentil Bowl

Sharon: Can you explain the plate method?

Toby: Basically all you need is a plate, and usually you start with a 9-inch plate, but if somebody needs more calories, maybe if they’re a teenager or exercise a lot or both, they might go a little bit larger, and someone with fewer calories might go on a smaller plate. You’re going to cut the plate in half and that half will be low carb vegetables, so it can be spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, whichever vegetables you like that are low in carbs as opposed to something like a potato, which is a starchy vegetable. The other half, a quarter of it, you’re going to put starches and that can be a potato or you can do whole grains, which is recommended too, you can do farro or brown rice. The other portion will be a lean protein or protein, you can do a plant-based protein like beans or tofu or you can do an animal lean protein like fish or chicken. If you have dairy or soy to make sure you get that calcium and vitamin D, so you can put dairy and fruit to be counted as for your starches. You can switch that out because in reality they have the same amount of carbs in there so that’ll be your carbs for the meal.

Sharon: If people do keep their diabetes under control and eat healthfully, that can have huge ramifications on their life right?

Toby: One of the things that we know is heart health, so a person who has diabetes has an increased chance of also having heart disease issues and that just comes with the territory unfortunately of having diabetes and so being able to eat by that plate method enables those risk factors to go down. There are other issues with the feelings at the end of your fingers and toes, and also with vision. It helps minimize those symptoms or prevent them from happening a little bit longer.

Cauliflower Steaks

Sharon: What kinds of foods should people be piling on their plate while managing diabetes?

Toby: The beautiful thing is that half the plate is vegetables, especially the low carb vegetables and so really you do want to focus on getting that and you do want different colors because that gives you different nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. I think focusing on that part, whether it’s fresh, canned, or frozen vegetables, you can choose whatever you have available, whatever is on sale, whatever you can afford at the time or have access to, and so that’s really important so I definitely focus on those vegetables. When it comes to the other side of the plate, you have to see what you enjoy. One day you can have sweet potatoes or whole wheat pasta, it’s all about taste. But again, it’s only the quarter of the plate so you’re managing the portion sizes with that.

Sharon: What are some of your tips for packing on the flavor?

Toby: I’m writing another cookbook for the American Diabetes Association and I found myself falling into those citrus flavors like lemon and lime specifically because they’re very low on calories and I love them. I love lime and cilantro, so meshing those flavors with some herbs, like mint and lemon are so delicious. You have to go with these flavors that are low in calories and for heart health. I just tested a recipe that I wanted to put butter on, even on vegetables if you want, but I minimized how much I put, I just did a little bit of a tablespoon and that’s okay once in a while when you want to do that. So you have to see what you enjoy and then make some tweaks to how you’re flavoring them to your liking. It adds that flavor, but you’re not missing out on the sodium and the added sugar. Every American has that kind of issue, they take in too much sodium and added sugar so you want to find some flavor components that everybody in your household can enjoy and all the recipes in my cookbook, my kids all eat everything that I have in there and they never complain that it doesn’t have flavor because I make sure to flavor it in a way that is tasty. Another trick that I do, especially with the whole grains, I’ll start it with aromatic vegetables so you take a shallot or a leek or onion, and you chop it and then you sauté it in the pan with a touch of olive oil, then I’ll start to cook those grains in there, and it gives it another layer of flavor.

Sheet Pan Roasted Vegetables and Beans with Za’atar

Sharon: How does fat fit on the healthy plate?

Toby: You can absolutely have fat, but you don’t want a whole avocado, you want a sliver of avocado, or nuts and nut butters and those can count towards your protein too. So you can put that in your protein section of the plate. You can sprinkle things with seeds, I love sunflower seeds on salads, but I’m only doing a tablespoon for the crunch and that added flavor. And it’s the same thing with oil, you think you need so much oil in a stir fry, but you only need a tablespoon or 2 teaspoons, you don’t need much more. You have to remember that you don’t need a dressing with a cup of oil, oil is certainly healthy, but you just want a couple tablespoons in there.

Sharon: What are the benefits of eating plant-based for diabetes? How do these foods help to manage diabetes and avoid these complications?

Toby: One of the big things is that they have fiber, especially those whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Once you have that fiber, it can help slow down the absorption of that blood sugar, which is what you want. So that minimizes the risk factors which happen when your blood has too much sugar at one time for a long period of time. That fiber certainly helps, plus you also have a lot of phytonutrients, which are natural plant chemicals that are found in fruits and vegetables, and we know some of them. They can actually help with managing and preventing diabetes. It’ll help, but that doesn’t mean it’ll do the trick on its own. So that’s why you want a wide variety in all the vitamins and minerals that they provide, they help keep your body healthy in general. All the fruits and vegetables have potassium, which is also important for heart health. Also, the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension when you look at the studies, it actually helps with the blood pressure when people have potassium in the diet as well, so you definitely want fruits and vegetables for that purpose too.

Sharon: Is it possible to reverse diabetes once you have it with your eating style?

Toby: Well there’s two types of diabetes. If you’re born with it, which is type 1 diabetes, there’s no reversing it so it’s just something that you were born with in your body and you have to manage it for your entire life. If you have type 2 diabetes and it’s just in the beginning stages of it and you’re not really on medication, the doctor and registered dietitian usually recommend diet and exercise among other things to be the main way to help you in the beginning and sometimes that’s with a higher A1C, which shows how much your blood sugar is. But, if you’re in the beginning stages, by managing the diet and with exercise you might be able to reverse it, but there’s no promises because nobody knows. But you can certainly help manage those risk factors and lower your risk. I never really like to promise anything because you never know what someone’s body or genetics is saying. With type 2, it usually comes about because of gaining weight and so just losing even a minimum 5-10 pounds can help regulate that blood sugar. You never know, you do the best you can.

Sharon: If somebody was newly diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes and they want to take control of their health, what would be three important steps they can do in terms of their eating style?

Toby: I would certainly ask for the assistance because it’s covered by insurance of a registered dietitian and they have registered dietitians who are certified diabetes educators so having a partner with you certainly helps because they’re educated and fit your eating style, and on top of that the book that I wrote is really nice especially if you just found out or know that you have diabetes because it really helps minimize all the confusion about your eating style. I also have several weeks of meal plans, I show you various breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks, and beverages. So you get the idea of how you should be eating without counting numbers and being stressed about that. I really do like this plate method because it reduces the anxiety of being newly diagnosed. I’ve counseled those individuals, kids, teenagers, and adults who just found out they had it and it’s very stressful so at least find a simple way. Going to the American Diabetes Association website also has really great information there and this is the American Diabetes Association create your plate method that I interpreted into recipes so together those two are really nice in conjunction with one another.

Mediterranean Persimmon White Bean Kale Salad

Sharon: What are some ideas for healthy meals?

Toby: For breakfast I have avocado toast with turkey bacon, but you can put soy bacon if you want or some yogurt with some fruit, and you can make this plant-based if you want to. If you look at the plates, there’s a lot of greens, a small amount of fish and whole grains and you can see that most of it is plants. I have some recipes from the cookbook on the website, but one of my go to recipes that I was telling you about, so my family is from Israel so I’ve always grown up eating Mediterranean style so for me I always have chopped salads, very simple, that I eat with everything even like hummus and eggs in the morning. I’ll have my chopped salad there with me because I eat vegetables for breakfast too because I need vegetables at breakfast. So I’ll share my really simple chopped salad, and sometimes I’ll even put chickpeas in there or lentils or pickles if I want a little bit of salt. It’s peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, lemon juice, a touch of olive oil, salt, pepper, and fresh chopped parsley. It’s so easy! You can eat it with anything you want.

Create-Your-Plate Diabetes Cookbook: A Plate Method Approach to Simple, Complete Meals

Sharon: Do you have any other tips on managing diabetes for the first time?

Toby: To tell you honestly the reason I picked up this book as a project was I’ve counseled a lot of people with diabetes and I can see the frustration in their faces when I would talk about the other methods when I was 24, when I became a dietitian, and so when I saw how simple this method was I couldn’t even say no because I knew how much it would change peoples’ lives to make it easier, especially when you are so frustrated with counting this and that and so I really hope it can help some people manage diabetes in a more comfortable and delicious way.

Check out Toby’s favorite, diabetes-friendly, plant-based recipe here.

Learn more about my tips on managing diabetes here.

Main image: Sesame Tempeh Buddha Bowl, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN

2 thoughts on “Healthy Plant-Based Meal Planning for Diabetes

    • A plant-based diet is excellent for this condition. I would suggest a plant-based diet that is also low in saturated fat (i.e., coconut oil, palm oil) and focuses on fiber, and healthy fats, like avocado, nuts, and olive.

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