You’ve probably heard a lot of information about carbohydrates because they have an obvious and direct effect on our blood glucose levels. But what about protein? There’s much less information on what protein has to do with diabetes. In fact, there’s a lot of misinformation about how protein works as a macronutrient, the value of including protein in our diet, how it relates to managing our diabetes, and how it helps us reach our health and fitness goals.
So let’s dispel some of the myths about protein and discuss why it’s so important. Protein is one of the three macronutrients with the other two being fat and carbohydrates, meaning it’s a source of energy that can be stored in the body. Protein is the essential building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. There are two macronutrients that have an impact on blood sugar. The big one that we’ve already mentioned and tends to get all of the attention is carbohydrates. The second one, and the topic of this blog post, is protein.
Let’s do a quick recap on carbs and how they affect blood sugar. A very processed or “simple” carb will cause blood glucose levels to go up quickly and go down quickly, what we typically refer to as a spike in blood sugar. Some foods that cause spikes include sugar, honey, agave, fruit juice, white bread, white rice, and soda. A less processed or more “complex” carb will cause a more gradual rise in blood glucose over a longer period of time. These carbs include brown rice, oatmeal (less processed kinds like steel cut oats), fruit, whole grain bread, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and winter squash.
How much your blood sugar rises and for how long depend not only on how much fiber and sugar are in the food but also how much fat and protein are present. Fat and protein slow down the rise in blood sugar and make it last longer because of the way these two macronutrients are broken down in the body. Meaning, consuming fat and protein along with carbohydrates will result in less of a spike in your blood glucose levels. Adding in micronutrients from fruits and vegetables together with the macronutrients form a very well balanced and healthy meal, and will keep your blood sugars more steady.
You might be thinking, then, that protein alone wouldn’t cause a rise in blood sugars. Actually, protein alone will convert in the body to sugar even if there are no carbohydrates present. Studies published in 2016 showed that 75 to 100 grams of protein (about 9 to 13 ounces of meat) will cause a rise in blood sugar similar to 20 grams of carbohydrates. If you have ever bloused for a meal and then experienced a higher blood sugar than expected based on the amount of carbs you consumed, it might be because you didn’t take protein into account. This can happen for instance when eating a very protein-rich food like steak. Before you make any changes to your insulin regimen, keep track of what’s happening with your blood sugars and then speak to your health care provider for guidance on how to adjust.
Now let’s get into discussing some myths about protein. First, you might be thinking you need to be consuming a lot more protein in your diet than you currently are. However, chances are, unless you are an extremely active person who does a lot of heavy lifting, you don’t need as much protein as you think. Focus on healthy, lean sources like fish, chicken, and poultry, and be mindful about how much red meat you consume. Also, try to choose high quality cuts of meat.
A second myth surrounding protein is that it is a “free” snack for those of us with type 1 diabetes. Meaning, one can consume protein without having to bolus insulin and not have to worry about our blood sugar levels. This isn’t necessarily true for everyone. As we discussed, protein converts to glucose although it does so much more slowly than carbs. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to start blousing for protein if you currently are not, but if you are experiencing elevated blood sugars this could be one reason why. Again, don’t make any changes to your insulin without speaking to your healthcare provider. Write down your blood sugars and let your healthcare provider advise you on any adjustments that need to be made.
Finally, eating any of the macronutrients in excess—even protein—will prevent you from losing weight. Remember that macronutrients are stored in the body as energy. So, too much energy in the body, even protein, gets stored as fat. Eating excess protein, especially protein sources that are also higher in fat, could be getting in the way of your weight loss goals. You might have heard some advice to eat as much protein in grams as your current weight. But for most of us that’s simply way too much. The general recommendation for protein requirement is this calculation from the Dietary Reference Intake: 0.8g x body weight in kilograms= recommended amount of protein per day in grams. This recommendation isn’t set in stone but it’s a good starting point.
If you are working out in the GlucoseZone and on a fitness regimen, talk to your healthcare provider about how much protein they feel is right for you. Remember, just like with other foods, not all protein choices are right for everyone. The right amount and kinds of protein will help you feel more energized for your workouts, build lean muscle, lose weight, and can be a great tool for balancing your blood sugars around meals.
If you’re looking for more information on this topic, be sure to watch our diabetes talk on the importance of protein.
By: Lauren Szalkiewicz and LaurieAnn Scher, MS, RD, CDE