When you have been diagnosed with diabetes, you can get extremely focused on how many carbohydrates you are eating. This is not a bad thing, especially when you are first learning about which foods are high in carbohydrates or sugar. Foods high in carbohydrates can rapidly raise your blood sugar, therefore it is important to note how many carbs you are eating with each meal and throughout the day.

Being mindful of the big picture and monitoring your intake of the other macronutrients such as protein and fat is important to consider as they also have an impact on your health. 

Protein is an essential building block and the only micronutrient that can’t be fully composed within the body. Fat and carbs (or the glucose from carbs) can be pulled from storage or made from scratch, but protein is made up of essential amino acids that can’t all be synthesized in the body. This makes protein extremely important and is why you must be sure you are getting the protein you need from your diet. For people with diabetes, protein can play a strategic role in the management blood sugar.

Protein and Diabetes 

The body uses protein for a wide range of processes ranging from a microscopic level such as stimulating immune response to larger uses like making up the structure of cells, skin, muscles, and organs. It’s ability to take on many shapes and bind to different structures makes it perfect for facilitating enzymatic/hormonal reactions and it transports nutrients throughout the body.

One of the best things about protein and diabetes is that it plays a significant role In the management of blood sugar. It’s benefit is that it has minimal impact in elevating blood sugar because of the sheer fact that It does not bring additional sugar (glucose) to your meal. Although replacing all carbohydrates with protein is not a viable or recommended approach, it can help you feel less restricted when preparing your meals. Having additional protein with meals can help reduce the amount of carbohydrate containing foods you consume which can have a major impact on your post meal blood sugar and overall glycemic control. Protein can make it easier to manage your diet, so you don’t feel the need to restrict or deprive yourself of the foods you love.

Incorporating high-protein foods can also help to slow down the absorption of glucose and further control your blood sugar. This means protein can help with reducing spikes in blood sugar which will ultimately help with weight management and long-term blood sugar control. Although eating more protein won’t miraculously make you drop 10 pounds, it can make following a weight loss plan easier and more effective. Losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of controlling blood sugar and a great benefit for diabetics.

Protein for Diabetics

People with diabetes do not need any more protein than a person without it. The recommended amount is that between 10-35% of your calories should come from protein. This would mean if you eat 2000 calories per day, you need to eat between 50-175 grams of protein. You may need more or less depending on your weight, activity level, and age.

If your goal is to lose weight, aim for the higher end of that range. If your weight is normal, eat a serving of protein at each meal until you feel satisfied. Eating a high protein food three times a day will likely be enough to meet your daily needs.

In certain cases people with diabetes need to restrict protein intake. A high protein diet can be difficult on the kidneys. If you have been diagnosed with diabetic kidney disease or your doctor has told you to restrict protein, it is best to follow their advice and limit your protein intake. Speak to your doctor or dietitian for individualized recommendations on how much you need to protect the health of your kidneys.

Good Sources of Protein for Diabetics

When choosing foods high in protein for diabetics, it is important to consider other macronutrients, such as fat and carbohydrates, that also may be in the food. If a food is high in protein but also high in carbohydrates, it might elevate blood sugar. People with diabetes need to watch their fat intake as well, especially saturated fat. Many high protein foods are high in saturated fat. Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and high cholesterol, which can be managed by a lower fat diet.

The best protein choices for diabetics that do not have a significant amount of carbohydrates or fat include:

  • Whey protein
  • Poultry, especially white meat
  • Fish
  • Lean beef
  • Tofu

Protein sources that contain carbohydrates, but little fat include:

  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Cow’s milk
  • Yogurt

Protein sources that are high in fat, include:

  • Eggs
  • Fatty cuts of beef
  • Dark-meat poultry
  • Sausage, bacon
  • Cheese

A well-balanced diabetic diet could include all of the protein sources mentioned above. It is simply necessary to be aware that some protein sources may contain carbohydrates or fat and should be balanced with other foods.

If you choose a high carb protein for one meal, you want to decrease the amount of other carb sources you are consuming. Same goes for fat, if you are choosing a fatty source of protein, your other choices should be low in fat. Keeping the macronutrients in balance at each meal is the ideal way to maintain normal blood sugar.

Best Protein Shakes for Diabetics

What about protein shakes for diabetics? Protein shakes can be a great option to get in your daily protein. However, many are loaded with sugar and other undesirable additives. When shopping for a protein shake for diabetes, look for one lower in carbohydrates that will help you keep control of your blood sugars.

Protein shakes are also made from a variety of different types of protein. Which protein shake is best for diabetics? Studies have shown that whey protein for diabetics can help control food intake and regulate blood sugar. It does so by generating the release of certain types of hormones in the stomach that stimulate the release of insulin. This can in turn help the body manage sugar from food more effectively.

A plant-based protein may also provide some benefits to people with diabetes. Plant-based proteins, made from peas or brown rice, can be high in fiber. Although fiber is technically a type of carbohydrate, it is considered to have a lower glycemic index which means it will not raise blood sugar as high or as quickly as a high glycemic index food. Fiber also helps lower cholesterol levels which is a common concern for many with diabetes. If you decide to choose a plant-based protein, always check the sugar or carbohydrate content to be sure it fits within your carb goals.

Managing Diabetes with Protein

Increasing your protein intake without tracking or modifying carbs won’t immediately cause you to lose weight, or change your insulin production. However, a higher protein diet can help people with diabetes eat less, improve their blood sugar control, and make weight management a bit easier. Protein is an important part of following a diabetic diet.

When deciding how much protein you should eat, it is important to individualize your own plan. It is best to get personalized suggestions from a healthcare provider who understands your medical history and nutrition needs, which may be different from general recommendations.




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Jaime Rangel, RD
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