Diabetes and protein: What You Should Know

Supriya Lal

2022 May 10

13 min read

When people talk about diabetes diets, they tend to speak more about carbohydrates than any other class of the food. And that’s for good reason; carbohydrates have a lot of sugar, and eating too many carbohydrates can have terrible consequences for the blood glucose levels of people with diabetes.

The only problem with that is that people tend to leave out the importance of protein foods on things like your body weight, blood sugar levels and blood pressure.

In this article, we’ll be going through the relationship between diabetes and protein, and how people who live with diabetes can use this knowledge to live fuller lives.

What Is Protein

what is protein

Protein is one of the most important nutrients to living beings, and it’s found in every cell in our bodies and our bloodstream.

Protein is vital to the formation of our muscles and is an important building block in the formation of our bones. Protein is also a vital part of our immune system, and it is also important in the production of hormones like insulin and glucagon.

All protein is made up of 20 classes of amino acids, and each protein is classified based on the number of amino acids it has. Out of the twenty different amino acids, nine of them are considered essential because the body cannot make them on its own.

The protein for human consumption is classified based on whether it contains all nine amino acids or not. Proteins that contain all amino acids are called complete proteins and the ones that don’t are called incomplete amino acids.

For example, sources of protein like eggs, meat, fish, poultry, cheese, and milk are complete protein sources.

However, sources of protein like nuts, seeds, beans, and grains are incomplete. Most plant proteins are incomplete. The only exception to that rule is soy protein.

While high protein intake can also provide the body with a lot of energy, protein isn’t the body’s preferred energy source —instead the body prefers using energy from carbohydrates.

Instead of using protein for energy, the body mainly uses it to repair broken tissues in the body.

Since the body doesn’t use protein for energy, it doesn’t contribute to blood sugar levels the same way carbohydrates do.

This means that your dietary protein as a person with diabetes doesn’t have to differ too much from that of people without diabetes.

However, it’s also important to remember that too many calories can lead to weight gain, and thus can increase the risk of diabetic complications.

It’s also important to note that diabetics who have kidney problems may have to manage their protein intake. But more on that later.

Your Daily Protein Intake

daily protein intake

As long as you still have healthy kidneys, about thirty per cent of all your calories should be protein. About 45% to 65% of your calorie intake should come from carbohydrate sources too.

According to some healthcare professionals, it is a bit more accurate to use the standard formula of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day.

To do the kilogram conversion, all you need to do is divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. For instance, if you weigh 120 pounds, that is equal to 54 kilograms. Multiply that by 0.8 and you get a protein goal of 44 grams.

Of course, it’s important to confirm this with a healthcare professional before you get settled on a standard diabetic diet.

Is There Anything As Too Much Protein?

Yes, there is. If you pass the recommended limit for protein intake per body weight, you may start to experience symptoms such as problems with kidney function, high levels of calcium in your urine, a higher risk of cancer, problems with your liver, and even weight gain which could lead to obesity.

How To Choose Protein Rich Food Sources For People With Diabetes

protein rich food sources

When choosing protein-rich foods for a diabetic meal plan, the focus should be more on the additional fat and carbohydrate that the foods carry than the actual protein.

Some protein sources, for example, also have carbohydrates that can be easily converted to glucose, which may lead to a spike in blood sugar levels.

Additionally, people setting up a diabetes meal plan need to know that high-fat and high-carb diets can lead to obesity, which generally makes it more difficult for diabetics to control their blood sugar levels.

According to the American Diabetes Association, a balanced diabetes diet should include protein from fish sources at least twice a week.

The association also argues that diabetics should avoid getting their dietary protein from red meat and processed meats like ham, bacon, and hot dogs since these food groups contain lots of saturated fat.

Instead, they argue, that people with diabetes should base their dietary protein intake on lean meats.

According to the association, people with diabetes should also space their meals and try, as much as they can, not to eat too much protein in one sitting.

This is because when the body gets protein, it extracts the one that it presently needs and makes waste with the leftover. Eating too much or not spacing one’s meal can lead to a huge chunk of one’s protein intake getting turned into waste.

So instead of having 60 g of protein with one meal, it is a lot better to spread that across 3 or 4 meals and space them properly. That way, you’ll have the complete benefits of the protein. It’s also important, the association says, to vary your sources of protein.

If you’re a fan of protein shakes, then great. But it’s also vital to get protein from other sources such as meat, fish, dairy produce, nuts, and beans.

Can Protein Help Diabetics

protein and diabetics

Many suffer under the delusion that switching to a high protein diet may help them overcome the symptoms of diabetes.

But if that works it probably only does, not because of the high protein intake, but because of the potential reduction in harmful carbs and saturated fats.

However, that’s something that could be done with just healthy eating and doesn’t require a switch to high protein diets.

Credible research has shown that increased protein intake or taking too much protein doesn’t have any appreciable impact on the way your body digests sugar.

It also doesn’t have any long term effects on your blood sugar levels or insulin resistance. It mostly just does nothing.

However, it is important to note that the opinion of scientists on this isn’t settled by any means because there have been conflicting research results.

In 2003, for example, a five weeks study suggested that people who have a high protein diet may be less likely to develop high glucose levels.

In 2010, that study was challenged after a look at 146 South Asian Indians living in the United States saw that those who followed a high protein diet also had a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

These conflicting results have led scientists to have an agnostic stance on the benefits of eating protein-rich food for diabetics.

Even though we don’t know too much about the benefits of protein on people with diabetes, what we do know is that it’s certainly a healthy alternative for them.

For example, if you’re craving a quick snack, you might be tempted to get something with a lot of bad carbs and artificial sweeteners. But something like a protein shake might end up being healthier for you since protein digests slower than carbs and carries a reduced risk of a sugar spike.

If you’re one of those who think that meals high in protein need extra insulin, well, the answer to that is a bit complicated.

Here’s the thing; when you eat carbohydrates with protein or fat, it generally takes longer for your body to convert the carbs to glucose.

This can be a great thing if you eat a lot of snacks since snacks are great if they stave off hunger for longer. However, for larger meals, the effect can be a bit more complex because it’s harder to predict.

For one, it all depends on the makeup of the meal. How much protein, exactly is in it? What of fat? What kind of carbs are in it?

Let’s consider pizza, for example. When you eat pizza, you get a lot of carbs from the crust. The cheese and the toppings of the pizza are usually made up of protein and fat, so it’s a good combination of carbs and protein/fat.

Once you eat pizza, you could see your glucose levels rise for up to six hours afterwards — of course, this depends on how much you eat.

If you are on mealtime insulin, you have to account for the effect of protein or fat on your glucose levels.

Some people go around this by stretching out their insulin dose for big meals. This means that they take less insulin around the time of the meal, and then a correction bolus later. Either they do that, or they use their insulin pump to deliver an extended or dual bolus.

This is one of the reasons why taking large meals with carbs, proteins and fat can be a real problem for people with diabetes.

Taking too much insulin in this case may make your glucose levels go too, and taking too little, of course, may make it go too high. That’s why it matters to test your blood sugar a few hours after a meal or to use a continuous glucose monitor to stay on top of your glucose levels.

Another thing that people with diabetes should know is that high protein diets aren’t great for everyone with diabetes. For example, some studies have shown that people with type 1 diabetes may have to get an insulin shot after eating a meal high in protein.

Diabetic Nephropathy And Protein

diabetic nephropathy

Diabetic nephropathy is a kidney disease related to diabetes. It’s one of the complications associated with diabetes, and the peculiar thing about it is that one of the most important ways to manage it is to eat less protein.

Many people think that diabetics generally have to reduce their protein intake because of diseases like diabetic nephropathy and how it affects diabetics.

But that’s not true. If you’re a diabetic and still have full kidney function and haven’t suffered from kidney disease, you have nothing to worry about. The only thing that reducing your protein intake may do for you, in this case, gives you malnutrition.

If you’re suffering from this illness, you need to have a systematic review of your diet, as you may need to stop eating protein-rich foods. However, before you make any drastic decision concerning it, you should see your doctor.

Protein And Weight Loss

protein and weight loss

If you are in search of a good and easy to follow weight loss diet and think that eating more protein is the way to get there, you may not be entirely wrong.

If you’re suffering from type 2 diabetes, for example, you’re likely already dealing with obesity since that’s a contributing factor to it.

Since protein generally takes longer to digest than diabetes, including more protein in your diet may end up making you full for longer and may decrease your urge to eat unhealthy food.

However, people with diabetes should know that adding more protein to their diet will only help if the protein that is added is used to replace carbohydrates and fat. If it’s merely added on top of your normal diet, it will not lead to weight loss but weight gain.

This doesn’t mean that protein should replace all the important carbohydrates in your diet. For example, protein shouldn’t replace fresh fruits, vegetables, and wholegrain foods because these food groups contain fibre which is very beneficial to the body.

Reducing the level of fibre in one’s diet can be dangerous since fibre is crucial to the normal workings of the body.

It follows that the best diabetes diet or weight loss one can have is to combine foods rich in protein with high fibre ingredients, as they provide the best benefits nutrient-wise.

FAQs About Protein And Diabetes

FAQ

Is Protein Better Than carbohydrates For Diabetics?

There’s a popular myth that protein is better than carbohydrates for diabetics — or even that carbohydrates are bad for diabetics. That’s just patently false.

First off, carbohydrates are an important part of any diabetic diet. Cutting carbs from your diet entirely as a diabetic will only lead to malnutrition.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can eat carbs with abandon. They do affect your blood sugar levels, which is where you need to keep track of how much you eat each day.

Carbohydrates are necessary to provide your body with energy to function, and a lot of carb food sources also have vitamins, minerals and fibre, which are all important to the body. Some of those carb food sources include whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Some carbohydrates, such as starchy foods or sugary carbs do not have these essential nutrients, so they are less vital and their intake should be tightly controlled.

It’s easy to say that protein is better for people with diabetes than carbohydrates, but that’s not necessarily true either.

A lot of protein comes with too much saturated fat, which can lead to weight gain or obesity, which is a risk factor for people with diabetes.

You should also be very careful with your portion size even when taking protein, as exceeding your recommended daily calories can lead to high glucose levels.

Should you use carbohydrates and protein to treat hypoglycemia?

According to the American Diabetes Association, pure glucose is the preferred treatment for low blood sugar, which is also known as hypoglycemia. This doesn’t mean you should always use pure glucose, though, as any carbohydrate that has glucose will raise your glucose levels.

Carbohydrate sources with a very high levels of protein should not be used to treat or prevent hypoglycemia because it doesn’t have the level of glucose needed to drastixau increase the body’s glucose levels.

Is It Possible To Eat Fruit For Snack Without The Protein?

Yes, fruit can be a snack. It’s also advised that you eat something with protein and fat while eating fruit, as it will keep you full and prevent a spike in your glucose levels. A good example is eating a slice of pineapple with something like peanut butter on each slice. You could also eat nuts too, as they usually have a lot of protein.

But you’ve also got to remember that everyone has different bodies, so you need to check your glucose levels to know exactly what’s right for you.

Conclusion

Protein doesn’t directly affect your blood glucose levels. However, since it’s difficult to eat foods that are just protein alone, it’s important to understand how the other components of high-protein foods can affect you.

That’s why diabetics need to understand what kind of proteins they should be eating, and which kinds they should limit to a recommended level.

In addition to that, people with diabetes need to limit their protein intake to the daily recommended amount and avoid using it to entirely replace the carbs in their diet, since carbs are still essential.

All of this is really hard work, and it can be very difficult to keep track of the protein in one’s diet, and how it’s affecting one’s blood sugar levels. That’s why diabetics should consult experts who understand how to help them live fuller lives with healthier habits.

With the help of such experts, diabetics would be able to make brave and sensible decisions about their lifestyle choices that will help them have a more complete life.

Written by

Supriya Lal

Supriya Lal is a Registered Dietitian based in New York City. She completed her training at Duke University Hospital System and has specific interests in personalised nutrition therapy, nutritional counseling, and sustainability related to food and nutrition. She is currently completing her Master's in Public Health at New York University.

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