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Protein and Blood Sugar: How Protein Affects Blood Glucose

Kasey Brixius, MS, RDN, CSSD, IFNCP

Published in Nutrition

9 min read

December 29, 2021
February 20, 2024
two eggs and toasts on a plate
two eggs and toasts on a plate

One of the best ways to manage your blood sugar is to eat a balanced diet composed of all three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Still, we know carbohydrates tend to have the most significant impact on blood sugar. In contrast, fat and protein have a more minor effect.

Protein can help slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. While the metabolism of macronutrients is similar, each one has a different impact on blood sugars.

Protein is broken down into smaller building block units called amino acids, which your body then uses to build and repair tissues or convert into glucose in the liver. Amino acids are used in a process called gluconeogenesis, which produces glucose from non-carbohydrate sources. This process is especially important during long fasts, like overnight while sleeping, or during prolonged periods without food.

In other words, amino acids have a minimal impact on blood glucose levels in healthy people. So, how important is protein in your diet? Let's look at the role of protein in blood sugar.

Protein Helps To Stabilize Blood Sugar Levels

a person eating hummus

Even though protein doesn't necessarily impact blood sugar levels directly, it can still have a stabilizing effect on them. When you eat carbohydrate-heavy meals or snacks, your blood sugar will rise as those carbs are broken down into glucose. Pairing carbs with protein can help prevent sharp rises in blood sugar levels.

Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, which means it'll slow down the absorption of glucose into your bloodstream. This leads to a more gradual rise in blood sugar levels, avoiding sudden spikes and crashes.

Moreover, protein can also help you feel fuller for longer periods of time. This is because it takes longer to digest and can keep you satiated between meals, reducing the temptation to snack on ultra- processed, carbohydrate-rich foods that can cause blood sugar spikes.

Types of Proteins To Consider

a bowl of chickpeas

Now that you know why protein is so important in blood sugar balance, more would be better, right? Well, not exactly. Depending on how old you are, whether you have pre-existing health conditions, and what type of protein you eat, eating higher amounts of protein than your body needs also has its downsides.

In general, eating a diet with more protein (about 23 to 32 percent of your total daily calories from protein) for up to a year can help lower your blood pressure and body weight than if you eat less protein. However, if you've been diagnosed with kidney disease, eating more protein may overwork your kidneys and cause more harm than good.

At the same time, high-protein diets can have varied results depending on the type of protein you consume. Plant-based and animal-based protein sources can be included in a healthy and balanced diet. However, studies show that incorporating more plant-based protein and less animal-based protein reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes and other health challenges. 

Choosing a diet that includes predominantly plant-based proteins, such as legumes and nuts, may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. On the other hand, diets high in animal protein, especially red and processed meats, may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes.

These aren't the only factors that contribute to diabetes, and both animal and plant-based protein can be a part of an overall healthy diet. So what should we include in our diet to help balance our blood sugar and avoid the risk of type 2 diabetes?

Here are a few examples of both animal and plant-based protein that you can consider including in your diet to manage blood sugar:

Proteins From Animal Source

shrimp bowl

Remember to focus on the quality and frequency of animal protein, not necessarily on omitting it entirely. Source grass-fed meats, free-range poultry, and wild-caught fish, and avoid highly processed meats. Some good choices to try include:

  • Fatty fish: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring
  • Poultry: chicken and turkey
  • Organic free-range eggs
  • Organic grass-fed beef: high quality, lean, grass-fed cuts, on occasion
  • Organic dairy products

Proteins From Plant Sources

While these contain a good amount of protein, they also contain carbohydrates, so it is vital to watch portion size. Choosing high-fiber, low glycemic index plant-based foods is key to blood sugar stabilization.

Finding ways to substitute plant protein for animals, may help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes while maintaining stable blood sugar. Some good choices to try:

  • Tofu, seitan, tempeh
  • Legumes: lima, kidney, edamame, and black beans
  • Lentils
  • Nuts, seeds, and nut butter 
  • Nutritional yeast

Special Power of Whey and Lupin Protein

In recent years, two types of protein have emerged as superfoods for managing blood sugar: whey and lupin. Whey protein comes from dairy, while lupin protein comes from legumes. Both have been shown to improve blood sugar control and increase insulin sensitivity.

Whey protein contains one of the essential amino acids known as leucine. It's been demonstrated to stimulate insulin production and aid in the regulation of blood sugar levels. It also contains prebiotic properties that can help improve gut health, which is essential for managing blood sugar.

Similarly, lupin protein contains a protein called γ-conglutin that may improve insulin sensitivity by helping your cells use glucose more effectively glucose uptake and promoting glycogen synthesis in muscle cells. 

The protein also possesses anti-diabetic properties as it helps mitigate the risk of oxidative stress, which is caused by the generation of free radicals and oxidants. It may also lower inflammation and reduce the risk of diseases like non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. 

Incorporating whey and lupin protein into your diet may provide valuable support for managing blood sugar levels, weight loss, and promoting satiety. Whey protein is commonly used by athletes to enhance muscle mass, while lupin protein offers its unique benefits.

What You Should Know About Protein Powder

Many protein shake powders use whey protein as the main ingredient. Even though whey protein is a wonderful resource, you must be cautious about all the other ingredients that go into the powder. Some protein powders contain high amounts of sugar, artificial sweeteners, fillers, and other additives that may not be beneficial for your health.

Furthermore, the processing of whey protein can also have an impact on its quality and nutritional value. A recent market research on 134 protein powder products discovered that many of them contain heavy metals, bisphenol-A (BPA), pesticides, and other contaminants that have been linked to cancer and other health conditions.

When choosing a protein powder, look for a brand that uses third-party testing and is NSF certified, such as a high-quality, organic whey protein or plant-based protein powders such as pea, hemp, and brown rice. This ensures a higher level of quality assurance.

Best Practices for Consuming Protein to Manage Blood Sugar and Overall Health

a bowl of tofu and veggies and an avocado on a table

Choose the Healthiest Forms of Protein

What's considered good quality protein? This can be confusing at times, but source and quality are crucial if you choose to increase your protein intake, especially with animal protein!

As mentioned above, sources of high-quality protein in your diet should include:

  • Fatty fish
  • Organic grass-fed beef
  • Lean protein such as chicken and turkey
  • Wild game
  • Organic pasture-raised eggs
  • Free-range poultry
  • Organ meats
  • Organic tofu
  • Organic plain Greek yogurt
  • Natural nut butter
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, almond, sunflower seeds, chia seeds

Balance Protein at Meals with Other Important Macros

Balancing meals with protein, healthy fats, and the right amount and type of carbs is essential for blood glucose management. What does that look like on your plate?

It'll depend on your overall nutrition needs. Still, generally speaking, one ounce of protein is around seven grams of protein. How much protein you need at each meal will influence your overall portion size. For example, if you're aiming for 20-30 grams of protein at breakfast, this may look like:

a list of 38 grams of protein breakfasts

This example includes quality protein, non-starchy vegetables, fiber, healthy fats, and whole grains to provide a balanced meal and blood sugar stabilization. 

Consume Protein Evenly Throughout The Day

Consuming protein throughout the day is a good idea for many reasons. It promotes stable blood sugars, energy levels, and a feeling of fullness and may limit overeating later in the day. Adequate protein at meals, especially breakfast, can lower post-meal blood sugar levels.

One study found that a high protein breakfast led to beneficial changes in the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals that regulate food intake.

Consume a Healthy Amount of Protein

a glass of almonds

Getting the right amount of protein in your diet is essential. Consuming more can help with several things, including but not limited to:

  • Building muscle mass
  • Promoting satiety and reducing cravings
  • Supporting bone health, especially as we age
  • Weight maintenance

Although protein is packed with benefits, some people will have to watch their intake and limit it. This can be due to health conditions like advanced kidney disease,, and protein metabolism disorders.

So, how much protein is suitable for you? That depends on a few factors: your weight, activity level, and body composition goals, to name just a few. Older guidelines suggested 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.

However, this is now regarded as a minimum suggestion at best. Most healthy, active individuals will need around 1.4–2.0 grams per kilogram of  body weight to meet their daily needs. For example, an active 145-pound person could aim to consume 93–132 grams of protein a day.

To determine your individualized needs, it may be beneficial to work with a registered dietitian or nutritionist who can tailor your diet to meet your specific protein needs.

Eat Protein First

pancakes, bananas, almonds and yogurt on a plate

The order or sequence in which you eat a meal may impact your blood glucose levels. More specifically, eating protein and/or fat before carbohydrates may reduce post-meal glucose levels and promote the release of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1). GLP-1 has also been shown to help suppress appetite and promote satiety.

So the next time you approach a mixed macronutrient meal, try eating your protein and/or healthy fats before your carbohydrates. This may limit glucose swings and help stabilize your blood sugars.

Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense

Even though protein doesn't directly affect blood sugar levels, it still plays a pivotal role in blood sugar management. Incorporating the right amount and types of protein into your diet helps moderate blood glucose fluctuations, provide a steadier energy source, and prevent sugar spikes and crashes.

This is where Nutrisense shines, offering you the tools to observe how different proteins work. Our continuous glucose monitor (CGM) allows you to track in real time how your body responds to various proteins and how your blood sugar level changes over time.

With this information from our glucose meter, our team of expert dietitians and nutritionists can help you adjust your protein content intake to optimize your glucose levels and overall health.

When you join the Nutrisense CGM program, you'll receive personalized recommendations for your daily intake based on your unique body composition, lifestyle, and glucose data. We understand that every individual is different, and we tailor our program to fit your specific needs and goals.

Are you interested in learning more about how Nutrisense can transform your health? Our quiz will help determine if our program is right for you.

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Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense

Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.

With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.

When you join the Nutrisense CGM program, our team of credentialed dietitians and nutritionists are available for additional support and guidance to help you reach your goals.

Ready to take the first step? Start with our quiz to see how Nutrisense can support your health.

Find the right Nutrisense program    to help you discover and reach your health potential.
Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Reviewed by: Amanda Donahue, MS, RD, CD

Amanda is a Nutrition Manager and Registered Dietitian at Nutrisense, with a Masters in Dietetics from Stephen F. Austin State University. Originally from south GA, she got her undergrad degree from Texas Tech University. Before joining Nutrisense, she worked at a hospital in Fort Worth, TX, for 4 years as a dietitian, counseling those living with HIV.

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