In discussions about managing diabetes and meal planning, the spotlight often falls on carbohydrates. But what about protein? Should this macronutrient be considered in the context of diabetes management?
The answer is a resounding “yes.” For individuals with diabetes, understanding the role of protein goes beyond basic nutrition—it’s a critical component in managing the condition.
We’ll dive into the intersection of protein intake and diabetes shortly, but first, let’s cover some basics.
What Is Protein?
Protein is one of the three macronutrients that make up the foods we eat—the other two are carbohydrates (carbs) and fats. Protein, carbs, and fat are essential nutrients, meaning they are required for the human body to function properly.
But protein is more than just a component of what we eat—it’s a fundamental building block of life. In fact, the word “protein” comes from the Greek word proteos, meaning “primary” or “first place.”
Protein is involved in nearly every process within the body. More specifically, proteins play an important role in the following functions:
- Creation of key enzymes and hormones[*]
- Muscle growth and repair[*]
- Supporting healthy bones and joints[*]
- Promoting healthy hair, skin, and nails[*][*][*]
- Maintaining the pH of blood and bodily fluids[*]
- Supporting immune function[*]
- Supporting satiety and fat loss[*][*]
Proteins are made up of smaller units called amino acids, which are connected in long chains. The 20 available amino acids combine in various ways to create the many distinct proteins found in the human body.
What Is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a chronic health condition that affects how the body converts food into energy. Normally, when you consume food, it’s broken down into glucose (a form of sugar), which enters the bloodstream. In response, the pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that allows cells to absorb glucose and use it for energy.
In individuals with diabetes, this process is disrupted in one of two primary ways:
- Type 1 Diabetes: This type of diabetes is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. As a result, the body produces little to no insulin. People with this type of diabetes require insulin therapy to regulate their blood sugar levels.
- Type 2 Diabetes: This is the more common form of diabetes. With this type, the body either doesn’t produce enough insulin or becomes resistant to its effects. Lifestyle and genetic factors contribute to this condition.
Both types of diabetes lead to high levels of sugar in the blood, which can cause a range of health issues over time, including heart disease, vision loss, kidney disease, and nerve damage.[*] Managing blood sugar levels is vital for people with diabetes, and diet plays a key role in this process. Understanding the impact of different nutrients, including protein, is essential for effective diabetes management.
Protein and Blood Glucose: What’s the Connection?
Unlike carbohydrates, which are broken down into glucose and cause a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, protein has a minimal effect on blood sugar.
When consumed, protein is digested and broken down into amino acids, which are then used by the body for various functions. This process does not translate into a significant spike in blood sugar levels.
However, in some cases, especially when a large amount of protein (75 grams or more) is consumed alone, protein can have a modest impact on blood sugar due to a process called gluconeogenesis. This entails the liver converting non-carbohydrate sources, like amino acids, into glucose.[*] But generally, this impact is slower and far more mild than that of carbohydrates.
Typical amounts of protein (around 20 grams per meal) have little to no effect on blood sugar levels.
Other Benefits of Protein for People with Diabetes
Blood glucose control aside, how else can protein support those with diabetes? Let’s take a look:
Preservation of Muscle Mass
Studies indicate that people with diabetes have an increased risk of muscle loss compared to those without diabetes.[*] Considering that protein plays a fundamental role in building muscle, getting adequate protein is vital for managing your health with diabetes.
One of the lesser-known yet critical complications of diabetes is its impact on skin healing. Due to impaired blood flow and nerve damage, individuals with diabetes are often more prone to skin injuries, particularly foot ulcers.[*] These ulcers, if not properly managed, can lead to severe infections and, in extreme cases, necessitate amputations. This is where the role of protein becomes crucial in diabetes management.
Protein is essential for skin repair and wound healing.[*] It plays an important role in the formation of new skin tissue, the repair of damaged cells, and the production of collagen, which is the main structural protein in skin. Adequate protein intake ensures the body has the necessary building blocks to effectively heal and regenerate skin tissues.
Protein is known to increase feelings of fullness, more so than carbohydrates or fats.[*] This is partly because protein reduces levels of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone,” and boosts levels of peptide YY, a hormone that makes you feel full.[*][*][*]
As a result, you’re less likely to feel hungry between meals, leading to reduced instances of overeating on carbohydrates, which can spike blood glucose levels.
By helping control appetite and increase satiety, protein can be an effective tool in weight loss or maintenance. Because obesity can cause type 2 diabetes to worsen faster, managing weight can be crucial in controlling the condition.
How Much Protein Should People with Diabetes Eat?
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) to prevent protein deficiency in a sedentary adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day.[*] For example, this would mean that a 150-pound person should consume at least 55 grams of protein per day.
However, some research suggests that eating significantly more protein than the RDA may help people with diabetes achieve better blood sugar control. Across several studies looking at protein intake in relation to diabetes management, the majority found that a protein content of around 30% of total caloric intake was beneficial.[*][*]
Unfortunately, a 2021 study found that half of adults with diabetes don’t even consume the minimum recommended amount of daily protein.[*] You can get an idea of what percentage of your diet is made up of protein by plugging your daily food intake into a food tracking app like Cronometer.
Ultimately, determining the optimal amount of protein for someone with diabetes involves several factors, including age, sex, physical activity level, overall health, and the specific goals of diabetes management. It’s always best to check in with your doctor or registered dietitian to determine the ideal amount of protein to include in your diet.
What Are the Best Protein Sources for People with Diabetes?
There are a variety of high-protein foods available, but some are certainly better for your health than others. Good options include:
- Poultry: Choose baked, roasted, or grilled chicken or turkey. Skip the fried varieties!
- Fish: All fish are fair game, but options rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, are particularly good options.
- Eggs: Eggs are a great protein choice—they are filling, easy to prepare, and don’t raise your blood sugar. And don’t be afraid to eat the yolk. It’s packed with nutrients and research shows it doesn't raise your cholesterol.[*]
- Beans and Legumes: While black beans, lentils, edamame, garbanzo beans, and other options contain a substantial amount of carbs, they’re also brimming with protein and fiber, which means they'll help keep your blood sugar levels stable.
- Soy: Unprocessed or minimally processed soy like tofu, edamame, and tempeh are healthy plant-based protein options.
- Nuts and Seeds: High in healthy fats and protein, nuts and seeds are a convenient snack. Choose from options like pumpkin seeds, walnuts, pistachios, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
- Dairy Products: If you include dairy in your diet, prioritize sources like Greek yogurt and cottage cheese. Cheese is also a good source of protein, but it's high in saturated fat, so it's best eaten in moderation.
For those with a busy lifestyle or needing a quick protein boost, convenience foods like IQBAR can be an excellent choice. IQBARs are vegan and keto protein bars that cater to brain and body health. Each bar contains 12 grams of plant-based protein, 1-2g of sugar, and only 3g of net carbs, making them suitable for individuals managing their carbohydrate intake.
By incorporating a variety of protein-rich foods, including convenient options like IQBARs, individuals with diabetes can enjoy a balanced, nutritious diet that supports their health goals. Remember, every step taken toward mindful eating is a step towards better diabetes control and a healthier life.
Written by Katie Koschalk, a health and wellness writer, certified holistic nutritionist, and certified personal trainer based in California.