We often equate protein with something bodybuilders eat in mass quantities to achieve lean muscle mass. But when it comes to diabetes nutrition, protein is so much more than bulging biceps.
Protein, a macronutrient along with fat and carbohydrates, is involved in many key roles in your body. Notably, it helps grow and repair tissues in your skin, muscle, bone, blood, and other organs. Getting enough protein as you age is especially important.
“We begin to lose muscle mass as early as in our thirties,” says Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE, the Guilt-Free RD® podcast host of Sound Bites. “This loss can lead to poor nutrition status, decreased ability to engage in activities of daily living such as climbing stairs, and instability and increased risk of falling.”
How Does Protein Affect Your Blood Sugar?
Generally, you don’t have to worry about protein affecting your blood sugars or be concerned about having to count grams of protein like you do with carbs. “Typically, protein has little impact on blood glucose,” says Kathleen Rodgers, RDN, CDE, of the General Internal Medicine Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “However, some people may experience a rise in their blood glucose when they consume a high-protein, low- or no-carb meal when there is an insufficient amount of insulin in the bloodstream,” she adds.
Protein takes time moving through the digestive tract compared with carbs. This slow movement helps slow down the absorption of food, which can help steady blood sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes and overeating. That’s why nutritionists often recommend pairing carbs with protein, because the protein helps slow down the absorption of carbohydrate, which offers steadier glycemic control.
How Much Protein Should You Eat?
There’s no right answer, per the 2018 Standards of Medical Care for Diabetes: “Evidence suggests that there is not an ideal percentage of calories from carbohydrate, protein, and fat for all people with diabetes. Therefore, macronutrient distribution should be based on an individualized assessment of current eating patterns, preferences, and metabolic goals.”
In other words, how much protein you eat on a diabetic diet depends on things like your overall calorie intake, your weight-loss goals, and other personal factors.
It’s a common misconception to assume you’re getting enough protein, says Dobbins. Guidelines suggest that adults get 10 to 35% of their calories from protein. Translation: A 150-pound person needs about 55 grams of protein to meet the minimum requirement. That could be hard to hit if your breakfast is a carb-heavy bagel or your typical lunch is a veggie-packed salad without much chicken, beans, or other protein sources.
For many Americans, dinner is commonly the meal where protein is the main ingredient. But research suggests that it might be most beneficial if you spread your protein intake out throughout the day, instead of the typical pattern of eating little or no protein at breakfast, some at lunch, and the majority at dinner, notes Dobbins.
When you incorporate protein into every meal, you’ll not only be more likely to meet your personal protein requirement, but you may also avoid overeating, since you digest protein more slowly, which can help you feel more full for longer.
What Counts as "Quality Protein"?
When it comes to following a diabetes-friendly and heart-healthy diet, not all protein sources are equal. Lean cuts of meat (without a lot of skin, fat, or marbling), lean dairy (like low-fat cottage cheese, low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese), and plant-based foods such as beans, quinoa, and nuts, are considered quality protein sources. That means they’re not high in saturated or trans fat, sodium, or other less-healthy nutrients.
For example, chicken is a quality protein when it is broiled, baked, or grill without the skin; the same piece of chicken slathered in batter and deep fried would not be.
You make not think of dairy as a quality protein because of foods like sour cream, ice cream, and cheese but low-fat or fat-free versions of these food are part of the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which is recommended by the American Diabetes Association in the 2017 ADA Diabetes Spectrum. The ADA Diabetes Spectrum says that nearly two out of three people with diabetes suffer from high blood pressure. Following the DASH diet would benefit people who have both hypertension and diabetes.
What's Considered "Lean Protein"?
When it comes to preparing meat for meals, the leaner the better. Choose lean cuts of meat (like 90-95% lean) to keep the fat content low. Remove the skin and trim fat before cooking. Avoid eating processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, and sausage, which are high in sodium and fat. (By the way, here's the real difference between eating turkey bacon and pork bacon.)
Take chicken for example. A three-ounce piece of white meat with skin has 7 grams of fat versus skinless at 3 grams. Dark meat with skin has 13 grams of fat compared with 8 grams in the skinless version.
How you cook your protein counts for a lot too. Deep frying or slathering a skinless chicken breast in butter plucks your best intentions. Dobbins recommends using heart-healthy fats like olive oil and canola oil, or any oil with less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. And definitely stay away from oils with partially hydrogenated oils or trans fats. The healthiest ways to cook meat: bake, grill, or use a roasting rack so the fatty juices drip into the pan.