Puerarin is the major bioactive ingredient isolated from the dry root of Pueraria lobata, a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine. Puerarin has been used to treat diabetes and cataracts in China; however, its underlying mechanism of action remains unclear. The aim of the present study was to investigate the effectiveness and mechanism of puerarin in preventing cataracts in diabetic rats. Diabetes was induced by streptozocin (STZ) administration and rats were intraperitoneally injected with puerarin (25, 50 and 100 mg/kg). Blood glucose levels and cataract development were examined in the different experimental groups. In addition, the expression levels of markers associated with oxidative stress, including nuclear factor erythroid 2 like 2 (Nrf2) and heme oxygenase‑1 (HO‑1), were analyzed. The present results suggested that treatment with puerarin at 25, 50 and 100 mg/kg significantly reduced blood glucose levels and the incidence of cataract in STZ‑induced diabetic rats. Additionally, puerarin treatment reduced oxidative stress, restoring the levels of malondialdehyde and glutathione, and the activity of glutathione peroxidase. Furthermore, puerarin administration decreased the expression levels of retinal vascular endothelial growth factor and interleukin‑1β and increased the mRNA expression levels of Nrf2 and HO‑1, thus inhibiting oxidative stress. The present findings suggested that puerarin had hypoglycemic effects and that it prevented cataract development and progression in diabetic rats by reducing oxidative stress through the Nrf2/HO‑1 signaling pathway.