10 Nutrition-Approved Protein Picks for Diabetes

Protein is a critical part of a satisfying diabetes diet. Here’s how to load up on lean, heathy options.

If you have diabetes, it’s natural to focus on making sure you make the right carb choices so you don’t spike your blood sugar. But your protein picks can have a big impact on how healthy and satisfying your overall diabetes diet is. Here's how much protein to eat as part of your diabetic diet, and make sure to fill your shopping cart with plenty of these nutritious protein picks.

1. Cheese

If your blood sugar levels are elevated, reach for cheese, says Toby Smithson, MS, RDN, LD, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Association of Diabetes Educators. It’s high in protein (around 7-8 grams per ounce in varieties like cheddar, goat, and mozzarella) and low in carbs. Just steer clear of cheese in a can and processed cheese slices (as they are notoriously high in sodium). And be careful of the serving size. As anyone who’s accidentally eaten half a wheel of brie can tell you, it’s easy to go overboard on this calorie- and fat-rich foods. The proper serving size is one ounce, or a piece about the size of your thumb.

2. Beans

Pick your favorite: black, pinto, chickpeas, and others are a good source of protein—around 20 grams per cup—and soluble fiber (that’s the fiber that attracts water and turns into a gel in your digestive tract, which is digested slowly and makes you feel fuller, longer). “For heart health benefits and blood glucose control, studies recommend approximately 10-25 grams of fiber per day be from soluble fiber,” says Smithson. Here's more info why eating fiber is so critical for diabetes management.

3. Soybeans

“Soybeans offer a combination of plant-based protein, fat, and fiber which also gives them a very low glycemic index,” says Smithson. That means the impact on blood glucose is very gradual. One cup of boiled soybeans has around 30 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber.

Luckily, there’s a variety of ways to eat it besides plain ole soybeans. Tempeh, made from whole soybeans and tofu, made from soy milk, can both be used to replace meat in stir fries, pasta dishes, and salads. Edamame—young soybeans picked while green—have a satisfying crunch. Soy milk is a nutritious non-dairy alternative that can be stirred in coffee, overnight oats, or over a bowl of cereal. Opt for the original soy milk variety and not ones with added sugars or flavorings.

4. Salmon

If you’re not a fan of fish, the many health benefits just may hook you. (See what we did there?) Besides being an excellent, lean protein, with 18 grams per three-ounce serving, salmon is also an excellent source of vitamin D, vitamins B3 and B6, and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s could help improve insulin resistance by lowering inflammation.

5. Nuts

A study published in the journal Diabetes Care showed that eating just under three ounces of nuts a day could meaningfully reduce participants’ A1C levels. The study gave people unsalted and mostly raw almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, peanuts, cashews, and macadamias—which packed around 18 grams of protein per three ounces, along with heart-healthy fats, fiber, magnesium, and iron.

While all nuts are good sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, you may want to focus on eating more walnuts. “Walnuts lower LDL, the bad cholesterol, and diastolic blood pressure, the bottom number, and they are the only nuts rich in ALA, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid with positive anti-inflammatory effects,” says Melissa Dobbins, RDN, CDE, an American Association of Diabetes Educators spokesperson

6. Lentils

You may have passed by these lonely gems on the supermarket shelf before, but you should give them a second chance. Just a half cup has 12 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber, as well as an excellent source of the minerals iron, magnesium, and potassium. Lentils are so versatile you can even use them as meat substitute in recipes such as beef bolognese, meatballs, burritos, and chili. “No soaking required—just simmer, rinse, and serve,” suggests Dobbins.  Like beans, they are the “good” kind of carb—they’re considered a resistant carb, which means they take their time in the digestion process, converting slowly to glucose. Lentils are also amazingly good in smoothies.

7. Lean ground beef (95%)

Surprise! Ground beef can actually be a healthy low-fat protein source when it’s lean and mean. Look for labels that say it’s at least 93 percent (or higher) lean. Each three-ounce portion will give you around 20 grams of protein which helps you feel fuller longer and less likely to go looking for a snack an hour after you eat.

8. Eggs

Crack open a large egg and you’ll get about 7 grams of protein and 8 essential amino acids (they help build tissues, skin, hair, organs, and muscles), along with healthy amounts of a star nutrient you might not know about: choline, which is essential for building cell membranes and transporting nutrients in and out of cells. Think twice before you stick with an egg whites-only order: The protein in the egg is pretty much divided, with the egg white containing just a little more than half of the egg’s protein. (Here’s more on why egg yolks aren’t bad for your heart.)

9. Quinoa

If you want to walk away from a meal pleasantly full, make a batch of quinoa and use it in a variety of dishes in place of rice or pasta. You could also replace half the beef in chili or taco meat with quinoa or stir in a little milk, walnuts, and cinnamon into quinoa for hot breakfast cereal. Each cooked cup contains around 9 grams of protein. Quinoa is also rich in fiber and magnesium and is gluten free. “It will help with increasing fullness and not raise blood glucose as much due to the higher protein and fiber content and lower amount of carbs,” says certified diabetes educator Kathleen Rodgers, RD, CDE. Try this kale, quinoa, and asparagus salad or this quinoa "fried rice" recipe.

10. Seitan

Say-what? If you’re not familiar with seitan, listen up. Some people refer to it as “wheat meat,” because it is made from wheat and has a meaty texture. “It comes from the protein portion of wheat and contains about 18 grams of protein in just three ounces,” notes Rodgers. You’ll find it near the tofu in the grocery store. Enjoy it sliced up in sandwiches, as a pizza topping, in a stir-fry or on the grill.