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12/29/2021
Glucose

Protein and Blood Sugar: How Protein Affects Blood Glucose

Written by
Team Nutrisense
Reviewed by
Amanda Donahue
MS, RD, CD
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’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. 

To understand this further, remember that protein is broken down into smaller substances called amino acids, which can help with muscle synthesis or be converted into glucose in the liver. While those amino acids may stimulate gluconeogenesis, which is the generation of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources, in the liver they do not impact how quickly the liver releases glucose into the bloodstream in the presence of adequate insulin. In other words, amino acids have a minimal impact on blood glucose levels in healthy people. 

Protein Helps To Stabilize Blood Sugar Levels

a person eating hummus

As we’ve already mentioned, protein has little impact on blood sugar levels in the presence of adequate insulin. The reason for this is somewhat unclear, but there are various possibilities. Here are a few examples that may explain why having sufficient protein in your diet may help with blood sugar stabilization. 

  • One of the reasons 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.  
  • Protein takes longer to digest, slowing down the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. 

Types of Proteins To Consider

a bowl of chickpeas

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:

Animal Proteins 

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
  • Eggs
  • Grass-fed beef: high quality, lean, grass-fed cuts, on occasion 

Plant Proteins

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
  • Lentils
  • Nuts, seeds and nut butters 

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 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 (You can use a tool like Seafood Watch to search for the best sustainable fish options)
  • Grass-fed beef (Search for a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in your area that can provide good quality, local meat options)
  • 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: 

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. In one study, a 500 calorie breakfast with at least 35 percent of protein (44 grams) found 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

a glass of almonds

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

pancakes, bananas, almonds and yogurt on a plate

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

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