The Importance of Protein for Diabetics

Boiled eggs

Protein is one of the three macronutrients or “big nutrients” that make up the food we eat—the other two being carbohydrates and fat. Proteins, carbohydrates and fats are important nutrients, meaning they each play an important role in the human body. Protein’s job is to make and repair our body’s cells, which are essential for growth, muscle building, and skin healing.

Unfortunately, many people with diabetes have trouble getting enough protein or eating it in a healthy way. A recent study showed that half of the adults with diabetes surveyed did not consume the daily recommended amount of protein. Adults who do not meet protein recommendations have significantly poorer quality diets and a much higher number of physical limitations, including difficulty standing for long periods of time, kneeling, and pushing or pulling large objects.

Loss of muscle and difficulty standing

It has been shown through previous studies that people with diabetes are more prone to muscle loss compared to people without diabetes. Considering that protein is very important for building muscle, paying attention to protein intake is indeed important for managing diabetes. Another thing to consider is that diabetes makes it difficult for the skin to heal, making diabetics more susceptible to leg ulcers and thus amputations. Because protein helps skin heal, it’s important to get enough of it when managing diabetes.

How Much Protein Should Diabetics Consume?

Splenda Milk Chocolate Diabetes Care Shake - 16g Protein
Splenda Milk Chocolate Diabetes Care Shake with 16g Protein

Protein recommendations for diabetics are actually not much different from recommendations for the general public, namely adults get a minimum 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day (10-35% of total calories). For example, this means that a 150 pound (68 kilogram) person should aim for a minimum of 55 grams of protein per day.

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) reports that the average protein intake is 1-1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (15-20% of total calories), which is acceptable for people with diabetes. The ADA states that overall, protein intake goals should be individually adjusted based on a person’s diet, preferences, and current weight goals.

How Does Protein Affect Blood Glucose?

Checking blood sugar after eating

Many people believe that protein has no effect on blood glucose or “blood sugar” levels, but this is not true. A recent study in people with type 1 diabetes found that when high amounts of protein (75 grams or more) are eaten alone, it can have a significant impact on blood sugar levels 3-5 hours after eating. Because other studies have found similar results, the ADA now recommends that people who take mealtime insulin take supplemental insulin for a high-protein meal. So if you’re taking insulin with meals, talk to your doctor or diabetes educator about how you should dose it for high-protein foods. However, keep in mind that this is only for high protein food. A typical amount of protein (14-21 grams per meal) will not have a significant impact on blood sugar levels.

How Does Protein Contribute to Weight Loss?

Protein helps you lose weight

Research has shown that a meal plan with a higher protein level can contribute to weight loss because protein increases satiety or the feeling of fullness. This makes perfect sense if you really think about it. Have you ever had a carb-dense breakfast like cereal and felt hungry after just a few hours? Compare that to when you have a protein-dense breakfast, like an omelet. Does it make you feel full longer? Should.

People with diabetes can benefit greatly from losing weight because it is associated with reduced insulin resistance, improved blood sugar control, and improved blood pressure. Now this doesn’t mean you have to go on an all protein diet to lose weight and lower your A1c. (Remember: Everything in moderation!) In contrast, incorporating protein with carbohydrates at every meal and snack can help fill you up more quickly and stay full, so you don’t overeat.

Is Too Much Protein Bad for Diabetes?

For many years, it was believed that people with kidney disease should limit their intake of protein because their kidneys couldn’t handle so much of it. These guidelines are important for many people with diabetes because about 1 in 3 adults with diabetes has kidney disease. However, the latest ADA guidelines state that diabetics with kidney disease should not reduce their protein intake below the recommended standard of 0.8 grams/kilogram body weight/day. It has been found through more recent research that normal, high protein intake is not associated with worsening of the kidneys. This doesn’t mean diabetics can start eating a 16-ounce steak every day. But there’s no need to cut your protein intake below the recommended amount if you have kidney disease.

What are the Best Protein Foods for Diabetics?

There are a variety of protein foods that people with diabetes can enjoy, but some are certainly better for your health than others.

Lean meat and fish

Sheet Pan Teriyaki Salmon and Vegetables
Sheet Pan Teriyaki Salmon and Vegetables

For people with diabetes, lean meats and fish are preferred over red meat because of the strong link between diabetes and heart disease. Red meat is higher in saturated fat, which can increase blood cholesterol and further increase the risk of heart disease. This doesn’t mean you have to cut out all red meat—just limit it. Examples of lean meats and fish include:

Eggs and milk

Eggs on toast
Eggs on toast

For some time, eggs were considered evil because of their high cholesterol content, so many people threw away the yolks and only ate the whites. However, it was found that the cholesterol in eggs did not appear to have much effect on a person’s blood cholesterol, so there was no need to limit it. Eggs are not only an excellent source of protein, they are also packed with 13 important vitamins and minerals. So go ahead and eat the whole egg!

Dairy foods are not as easy as eggs. The protein content varies depending on the type of dairy food. To avoid extra calories, choose low-fat, fat-free dairy products — you’ll get the protein. Examples of high protein dairy foods include:

Mango Chia Parfait
Mango Chia and Yogurt Parfait
  • Cheese cottage
  • Cheese (choose low-sodium varieties, such as Swiss and mozzarella)
  • Ultra-filtered milk

Vegetable protein

Black bean chili
Black Bean Chili

What’s great about plant protein is that it contains healthy fats and fiber, unlike animal protein. However, they also contain carbohydrates, so be sure to consider them and read the Nutrition Facts Label if you’re counting carbs. Here are some examples of plant protein:

  • Beans and lentils – Try our Black Bean Chili (10g protein per serving)
  • hummus
  • a type of bean from Japan
  • soybeans
  • Peanut butter (choose no added sugar and low sodium varieties)
  • Know

Protein shakes and snacks

Splenda Diabetes Care Shakes - 16g Protein
Splenda Diabetes Care Shakes with 16g Protein

If you’re having trouble getting enough protein in your diet, consider incorporating it through a protein shake. Shakes are ideal for getting essential protein in your diet in a delicious and convenient way. There are many factors to consider when choosing a protein shake. For people with diabetes, blood sugar management should be a top concern. Splenda Diabetes Care Shakes contain a specific diabetes nutritional formula designed to help people with diabetes manage their blood sugar. Included in that formula are 16 grams of high-quality protein. You can pair the shake with a meal or as a meal replacement or snack when you’re on the move.

Other ideas for protein-packed snacks include:

Sweet Red Pepper Hummus
Sweet Red Pepper Hummus
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Cheese and crackers
  • Cottage cheese and fruit

Tips for Balancing Protein in Your Diet

So how do you know you’re getting a balanced amount of protein in your diet? A good place to start is by looking at your plate. You must have a source of protein at each meal to balance the carbohydrate meal. Remember, this protein can be anything from chicken to tofu. Use the Diabetic Plate Method for guidance, which recommends filling a quarter of your plate with protein foods. A standard serving of protein is 3 ounces which is equivalent to about 21 grams of protein. In short, this means that your piece of meat or fish will be the size of a deck of cards.

Remember: While protein is important for managing diabetes, people with diabetes don’t need a “special” amount of protein in their diet—they can follow standard guidelines like anyone else. Also remember that everyone’s protein needs are unique because we are all unique individuals.

Written by Holly Moran, MS, RDN, LD, CDCES and a member of the Splenda Healthcare Team.