The Importance of Protein for People with Diabetes by Splenda

Protein is one of the three macronutrients that make up the foods we eat—the other two are carbohydrate and fat. Protein, carbohydrate, and fat are essential nutrients, meaning they each play a vital role in the human body. Protein’s job is to make and repair our body’s cells, which is important for growth, muscle-building, and skin-healing.

The Importance of Protein for People with Diabetes Unfortunately, many people with diabetes have trouble getting enough protein or consuming it in healthy ways. A recent study showed that half of the adults with diabetes who were surveyed did not consume the daily recommended amount of protein, which is 0.8g/kg of body weight. The adults who did not meet protein recommendations had significantly poorer diet quality and did not meet recommended nutrient intakes according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They also had a significantly higher number of physical limitations, including trouble standing for long periods, kneeling, and pushing or pulling large objects.

It has been shown through previous studies that people with diabetes are more prone to muscle loss compared to people without diabetes. Given that protein is essential for building muscle, paying attention to protein intake is important for diabetes management. Something else to consider is that diabetes makes it difficult for skin to heal, making people with diabetes more prone to foot ulcers—which can lead to amputations if left untreated. Because protein helps skin heal, it’s important to get enough of it when managing diabetes.

How Much Protein Should Someone with Diabetes Eat?

The protein recommendation for people with diabetes is not much different from the general population, which is that adults should get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day (10–35% of total calories). For example, this would mean that a 150-pound (68-kilogram) person should aim for a minimum of 55 grams of protein per day.

The average protein intake is 1–1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight per day (15–20% of total calories). Protein needs for people with diabetes and kidney disease can range from 0.8 to 2g/kg per day. Protein intake goals should be individualized based on a person’s current eating patterns, preferences, and weight goals.

How Does Protein Affect Blood Glucose?

Many people believe protein has no impact on blood glucose (blood sugar) levels, but this isn’t completely true. A recent study in people with type 1 diabetes found that when a high amount of protein (75 grams or more) is eaten alone, it can significantly impact blood glucose levels three to five hours after eating. Because other studies have found similar results, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) now recommends people who take mealtime insulin take additional insulin for high-protein meals. So, if you take insulin for meals, talk with your doctor or diabetes educator about how you should dose for high-protein meals. However, keep in mind that this is only for high-protein meals. Consuming 2-3oz of protein or about 14–21g of protein per meal will typically have minimal to no impact on blood glucose levels, especially for people who do not need to take insulin, such as people with prediabetes and many people with type 2 diabetes.

How Does Protein Contribute to Weight Loss?

Studies have shown that meal plans with higher levels of protein can contribute to weight loss. Protein takes longer to digest compared to carbohydrates and this helps increase satiety or a feeling of fullness. This makes sense if you really think about it. Have you ever had a carb-dense breakfast like cereal and found yourself hungry in just a couple of hours? Compare that to when you had a protein-dense breakfast, such as an omelet. Did that one keep you feeling full for longer? Typically, balanced meals that include enough protein will keep you feeling fuller than meals with high amounts of carbs.

People with diabetes with excess weight can greatly benefit from weight loss because it’s associated with decreased insulin resistance, improved blood glucose management, and improved blood pressure. Now this doesn’t mean you should go on an all-protein diet to lose weight and get your A1C down. (Remember: Everything in moderation!) Rather, including lean animal or plant-based protein with carbs that contain a good source of fiber at every meal and snack can help you get full faster and stay full so you don’t overindulge.

Is Too Much Protein Bad for People with Diabetes?

The most recent guideline from the ADA states that people with diabetes who have kidney disease should not decrease their protein intake below the standard recommendation of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Unlike past recommendations, we now know that there is no need to restrict protein intake below 0.8g/kg/day if you have kidney disease.

What are the Best Protein Foods for People with Diabetes?

There are a variety of protein foods for people with diabetes, but some are certainly better for your health than others.
  • Lean meats and fish: For people with diabetes, lean poultry meats and seafood are preferred over red meats because of the strong connection between diabetes and heart disease. Red meats are higher in saturated fat, which can raise your blood cholesterol and further increase your risk of heart disease. This doesn’t mean you need to cut out all red meat—just limit it. Examples of lean meats and fish include:
    • Skinless chicken or turkey breast
    • Seafood like tilapia, cod, tuna, and salmon. Try our Dijon Salmon (25g protein per serving)
  • Eggs and dairy: Not only are eggs an excellent source of protein, they are packed with 13 essential vitamins and minerals. For most healthy adults, general recommendations include eating one to two eggs a day, depending on how much other cholesterol is in your diet. For individuals with high cholesterol or other risk factors for heart disease, recommendations include not eating more than four to five eggs per week.
The protein content in dairy foods varies depending on the type of dairy food. To avoid extra calories, opt for low- or fat-free dairy products—you’ll get the protein either way. Examples of high-protein dairy foods include:
  • Plain or flavored Greek yogurt. Try our Blueberry Lemon Yogurt Parfait (19g protein per serving)
  • Reduced-fat cottage cheese
  • Reduced-fat and lower-sodium varieties of cheese, like Swiss and mozzarella
  • Ultra-filtered low-fat or fat-free milk
  • Plant-based protein: What’s great about plant-based proteins is that they include healthy fats and fiber. However, many also contain carbs, so make sure to consider this and read the Nutrition Facts label if you are carb counting. Here are some examples of plant-based proteins:
    • Beans and lentils. Try our Garden Veggie and White Bean Chili (10g protein per serving)
    • Chickpeas
    • Edamame
    • Soy nuts
    • Nut butters (opt for no-sugar-added and low-sodium varieties)
    • Tofu
  • Protein shakes and snacks: If you’re struggling to get enough protein in your meals, consider getting it through protein shakes. A shake is ideal for getting that 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 glucose management should be top of mind, so aim for a lower carb variety. Splenda Diabetes Care Shakes contain a diabetes-specific nutrition formula designed to help people with diabetes manage their blood glucose. Included in that formula is 16 grams of high-quality protein. You can pair the shake with a meal or have it in place of a meal or snack when you’re on the go. Also, try this Peach and Cream Smoothie or Chocolate Cherry Smoothie.
Other ideas for diabetes-friendly protein-filled snacks include:
  • 1/3 cup of hummus with one cup veggies like celery sticks or baby carrots
  • ¼ cup of your favorite unsalted nuts or one tablespoon of nut butter and a medium apple
  • One light cheese stick and six whole grain crackers
  • ¼ cup of cottage cheese and ¾ cup fresh fruit like berries

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 should have a source of protein at every meal. Remember, this protein can be anything from chicken to tofu. Use the Diabetes Plate Method for guidance, which recommends filling a quarter of your plate with protein foods. A standard portion of animal protein is three ounces, which is equivalent to about 21 grams of protein. To put that in practical terms, this means your piece of meat or fish would be about the size of a deck of cards.

Remember: While protein is important for diabetes management, people with diabetes do not need a “special” amount of protein in their diet—they can follow the standard guidelines like anyone else. Also remember that everyone’s protein needs are unique, so talk to your health care provider about setting a protein goal for you.

This article is brought to you by Splenda, a proud supporter of the American Diabetes Association and Diabetes Food Hub. 

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