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’s role in glucose absorption in your body is to slow down or blunt the release of glucose into your bloodstream. While the metabolism of macronutrients is similar, each one has a different impact on blood sugars.
Protein is broken down into smaller substances called amino acids, which can help with muscle synthesis or be converted into glucose in the liver. Those amino acids stimulate gluconeogenesis, which is the generation of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources.
However, they do not impact how quickly the liver releases glucose into the bloodstream in the presence of adequate insulin. In other words, amino acids may have a minimal impact on blood glucose levels in healthy people.
So, how important really is protein in your diet? Let's have a look at the role of protein on blood sugar.
Protein Helps To Stabilize Blood Sugar Levels
Here are a few examples that may explain why having sufficient protein in your diet may help with blood sugar stabilization.
- Protein takes longer to digest, slowing down the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream.
- There is a slow or small overall conversion of protein into glucose.
- Making glucose from amino acids takes hours, and over that time, the glucose may eventually be disposed of or utilized.
As we mentioned earlier, protein may have little impact on blood sugar levels in people who have adequate insulin. The reason for this is somewhat unclear, but there are various possibilities.
Types of Proteins To Consider
Now that you know why protein is so significant in blood sugar balance, it seems like more would be better, right? Well, not exactly! One study shows that high-protein diets can have varied results depending on the type of protein you consume.
In this study, very high-protein diets, consisting of mostly animal protein—specifically red meat and processed meats—resulted in an increased risk of type 2 diabetes in both men and women. On the contrary, diets high in plant-based proteins like legumes and nuts were associated with lower risks of developing type 2 diabetes.
That being said, these are not 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:
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
- Grass-fed beef: high quality, lean, grass-fed cuts, on occasion
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, even in moderate amounts, can help decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes while maintaining blood sugar stabilization. Some good choices to try:
- Tofu, seitan, tempeh
- Beans: lima, kidney, edamame, and black beans
- Nuts, seeds, and nut butters
Best Practices for Consuming Protein to Manage Blood Sugar and Overall Health
Choose the Healthiest Forms of Protein
What is 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
- Grass-fed beef
- Wild game
- Pasture-raised eggs
- Free-range poultry
- Organ meats
- Organic tofu
- Organic plain Greek yogurt
- Natural nut butters
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts and seeds.
Balance Protein at Meals with Other Important Macros
Balancing meals with protein, healthy fats, and an individualized carbohydrate threshold (if you choose to include carbohydrates in your diet) is essential for blood glucose management. What does that look like on your plate?
It will depend on your overall nutrition needs. Still, generally speaking, a protein choice 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 35-40 grams of protein at breakfast, this may look like:
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.
In one study, a 500 calorie breakfast with at least 35 percent of protein (44 grams) lead to lower post-meal blood sugars than those who ate a low-protein, high-carb breakfast! A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least 30 grams of protein at each meal to help promote stable blood sugars and maintain energy levels throughout the day.
Consume a Healthy Amount of Protein
Getting the right amount of protein in your diet is essential. Still, many of us only get enough to prevent deficiency. Consuming more can help with several things, including but not limited to:
- Building muscle mass
- Promoting satiety and reducing cravings
- Adequate 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 kidney disease, impaired liver function, 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 (0.8g/kg) of body weight.
However, this is now looked at as a minimum suggestion at best. Most healthy, active individuals will need around one to one and a half grams per kilogram (1-1.5g/kg) of body weight to meet their daily needs. For example, an active 145-pound person could aim to consume 80-100 grams of protein a day.
To determine your individualized needs, it may be beneficial to work with a registered dietitian who can tailor your diet to meet your specific protein needs.
Eat Protein First
A recent study found that 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 will promote the release of glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1).
This is a hormone that can reduce the release of both glucagon and insulin, resulting in improved post-meal glucose responses. GLP-1 has also been shown to help suppress appetite and promote satiety.
So the next time you approach a mixed macronutrient meal, aim to eat your protein and/or healthy fats before your carbohydrates. This may limit glucose swings and help stabilize your blood sugars. Read more about meal sequencing and its many benefits here.
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
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Amanda is a Nutrition Manager and Registered Dietitian 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.