High Protein Foods For Diabetics

  • 1st Revision: Stanley Anthony Chidera [Linkedin]

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Introduction:

Proteins are natural substances consisting of residues of amino acids that are linked by peptide bonds. They are found in all living things and often contain crucial compounds that are biological such as hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.1

Diabetes, a long-term condition, causes a person’s blood glucose to rise to high levels.

The two main types of Diabetes are Type 1 diabetes and Type 2 diabetes. In Type 1 diabetes, the immune system of the body fights and destroys insulin-producing cells while in Type 2 diabetes, the body does not produce enough insulin or the cells of the body have some insulin resistance.2 

Gestational diabetes is a type of diabetes that occurs in pregnancy where some women experience high levels of blood glucose exceeding the capacity of their insulin to regulate. This fades away after pregnancy but increases the risk of the individual having diabetes in the future.2

Prediabetes is a condition where the blood glucose level is above the normal range but not so much for the diagnosis of diabetes. This increases the risk of long-term diabetes. Early diabetes diagnosis is essential as it shines the light on early intervention and reduces complications.2

Protein and diabetes: What we need to know

Other than helping your body to grow, protein is broken down into glucose before being used as energy in the body. This process is known as gluconeogenesis.3

Proteins are broken down to glucose in the body especially when fewer carbohydrates are consumed or during a period of starvation. Since proteins are depleted to glucose slowly unlike the faster carbohydrate breakdown, the effect proteins have on your blood glucose levels can occur over several hours after eating. The effects of proteins on blood glucose should be considered by type 1 and type 2 diabetic patients when consuming high-protein meals. An understanding of how your body reacts to high-protein meals is essential for the regulation of your insulin requirements.3

High protein foods for people with diabetes

High protein diets are famous for proffering lasting blood glucose regulation but animal proteins that contain saturated fats increase insulin resistance in cells. As a result, plant proteins are known to be more effective than animal proteins in the regulation of blood glucose over time. Plant proteins are different kinds of protein acquired from eating a vegan diet, that is a plant-based diet like nuts, peas, and seeds, while animal proteins are present in animal-based sources which include: fish, eggs, red meat et cetera.4

Benefits of plant based protein for diabetics

Plant proteins that aid weight loss are essential for diabetic patients. Three major benefits of plant-based proteins for diabetes include the following:

Improves glycaemic control: When your body loses its effectiveness in the regulation and utility of consumed sugar, higher levels of glucose pile up in the blood leading to type 2 diabetes. Research carried out through randomised controlled trials indicates that plant proteins are beneficial to people living with diabetes as they help their bodies in regulating glycaemic levels which are needed for combating the complications of diabetes to a greater measure. As a result, if you are diabetic, the addition of plant-based high proteins in your meal is a good meal plan to consider.4

Delays the onset of Type 2 Diabetes: Some researchers at the University of Eastern Finland carried out a study on plant-based and animal-based proteins and they confirmed that plant proteins are more effective than animal proteins in delaying the onset of type 2 diabetes.  They also found out that the consumption of animal-based proteins has been implicated with a high risk of type 2 diabetes development due to the associated rise of insulin resistance in cells.4

Among plant-based protein sources, peas are highly placed for their effectiveness in delaying the onset of diabetes. They act by reducing the rate of digestion which allows the body more time for the full usage of produced insulin, controlling the blood sugar levels.4

Reduces insulin resistance: The resistance of the body to insulin is the root cause of type 2 diabetes. The pancreas produces insulin but it is not being utilised sufficiently in type 2 diabetic people which means that consumed glucose in these people is not absorbed as much as possible by the cells of the body and this glucose remains in the bloodstream leading to high levels of blood glucose over a long period if not controlled which in turn results in grave complications.4 Plant-based proteins that are low in saturated fats but rich in fibre are beneficial to people living with diabetes in regulating their blood sugar as they make you feel full and eat less. They are also absorbed slowly leading to regulated levels of blood glucose post-prandial and over several hours by lowering the body’s insulin resistance.4

Plant based high proteins for diabetics 

The following includes the list of plant-based high proteins that you may want to consider adding to your meal plan if you have diabetes.

Soybeans: Soybeans are classified as one of the top high-protein foods for diabetics as every 100 grams contains about 43.2 grams.5 Soybeans have good amounts of vegetable proteins. They not only contain proteins but also contain concentrated levels of a group of compounds known as Isoflavones and phytoestrogens as their structure looks like those of the female hormone estrogen. These compounds have potential benefits for you if you have diabetes.6 This is mostly beneficial to postmenopausal women with diabetes insulin resistance. 

Phytoestrogens found in soy reduce the risk of heart disease by reducing cell insulin resistance and the levels of cholesterol in type 2 diabetic postmenopausal women.6 Soybeans improve glycaemic control. According to research published in the journal ‘Nutrition and Research Practice’ which was carried out in Korea involving research participants that consumed about 69 grams of soybean powder thrice daily for a month, the supplementation of soybean in their meal yielded a significant improvement in their fasting blood glucose and their post-prandial blood glucose levels.6

Lentils: Lentils are legumes and just like other legumes, they contain low fat and high protein and fibre. They have a mild, earthy flavour, are easily cooked, and are great when extra flavouring is added to prepare them.7 The percentage of protein found in lentils is about 25%.5 They aid blood sugar regulation and the improvement of glycaemic control which are essential factors in the management of type 2 diabetes. High-fibre foods and legumes are known to have a low glycaemic index (GI) making them essential components of a diabetic diet. The glycaemic index is the measure of the impact of a meal on blood glucose. As a result, most diabetics are at some point in their lives advised to consume legumes and whole grains.8

According to research carried out at the University of Toronto to determine the extent of high fibre and high legume diet benefit for type 2 diabetics, a group of 121 diabetic participants were in half. Each half had a cup of legumes added to their diet per day while the other half had whole wheat added to their diet. The impact of these diets on blood sugar and blood pressure was measured. The result of this research, which was published online by the scientific Journal Archives of Internal Medicine, revealed that HbA1c which is a measure of blood glucose over time dropped for both groups while the high legume group experienced a higher drop. Also, there was a higher drop in blood pressure amongst the high-legume group than the high-fibre group which indicates that a high-legume diet like lentils helps to shield diabetics from heart disease. It is easy to add lentils to your diet as it does not need any prior soaking and they are great with many other dishes.8 

Kidney beans: Kidney beans belong to the family of Phaseolus vulgaris also known as common beans. They are rich in protein, vitamins, minerals, and natural fibre. They are essential in diabetes nutrition plans and are referred to as ‘super foods’ by the American Diabetes Association as they are a good source of various nutrients required while living with diabetes.9

Kidney beans also contain slow carbohydrates, that is carbohydrates that are digested and absorbed slowly in your digestive tract. This means that there is no cause for alarm in the consumption of kidney beans as the slow metabolism has a dampening effect on your blood sugar, unlike fast carbohydrates that have a quicker breakdown in your intestinal tract.9

Kidney beans are a significant source of dietary fibre. Though fibre is essential for everyone, it is more crucial to you if you have diabetes as they help drop your blood cholesterol level by linking your intestinal fats which leads to their excretion in your stool. Fibre-rich foods like kidney beans also help you to open your bowels more frequently, keeping you away from chronic constipation which is usually a complication of long-standing diabetes where there is an intestinal slowdown in the presence of diabetes-related nerve damage.9

Potassium is a mineral found in kidney beans that has many functions in the body including water balance maintenance. Insufficient dietary potassium raises your high blood pressure risks as a diabetic due to accompanying heart and kidney disease. This is why it is important to keep your blood pressure in check which includes the consumption of sufficient dietary potassium.9 Another mineral found in kidney beans is Magnesium which is actively involved in the ability of cells to react to the hormone insulin, a blood-lowering hormone. Adequate consumption of this mineral is particularly important in type 2 diabetes. If you consume water tablets to control your high blood pressure in diabetes, you may require an extra Magnesium intake. Recommended daily magnesium intake in women and men is 320 mg and 420 mg, respectively. You need medical advice regarding the impact of additional magnesium on your health if you are diabetic.9

Chickpeas: Chickpeas also known as garbanzo beans are healthy meals as they contain vital nutrients including protein. They are a rich source of nutrients like iron, zinc, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, thiamine, vitamin B6, folate and riboflavin. These healthy beans help control your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Chickpeas are classified as low glycaemic index meals with a GI level of 28, as they have less impact on blood glucose levels after consumption. They are also known to control your appetite as they are rich in fibre and are not chewed quickly and make you feel fuller for several hours.10 

Nuts: Nuts are beneficial in decreasing the risk of type 2 diabetes. They are particularly a huge benefit to people living with diabetes. The journal of the American College of Nutrition published a study which revealed that the consumption of nuts is linked with a lowered prevalence of risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Almonds are rich in numerous nutrients, especially vitamin E, walnuts consist of healthy omega-3 fatty acids while cashews are rich in magnesium. Peanuts, pistachios and almonds all lower bad cholesterol in the blood. Salted nuts should be avoided as they are connected with increased heart disease risk.11

The effect of nuts on cholesterol is one of the most significant advantages of nuts in diabetes as they reduce the risk of arterial narrowing. Nuts have a low glycaemic index which means that your body absorbs the carbohydrates present in your consumed nuts, slowly. Most nuts have a heart-healthy capacity which drops your risk of cardiovascular health issues, making nuts a healthy high-protein meal for diabetics.11 Walnuts and almonds are rich in vitamin E which limits the development of plaques that cause the narrowing of arteries. Walnuts also contain Omega-3 fatty acids, an unsaturated fat (usually found in fish) which raises the ‘good’ cholesterol in your blood. Numerous nuts contain amino acids known as L-arginine which offer a great strengthening to the walls of the arteries, making them more flexible and improving blood flow. Incorporating nuts that offer cardiovascular health into your diet is vital if you have diabetes.11

Animal based high proteins for diabetics

Dairy foods: Dairy foods include milk, cream, yoghurt, butter and cheese. The consumption of dairy foods is associated with a lower incidence of the development of type 2 diabetes. They are related to weight loss which drops insulin resistance of cells, lowers weight around your waist and raises lean muscle mass. Some compounds of dairy foods play a crucial role in reducing diabetes risks.12

Research reveals that vitamin D, dairy fats, calcium and trans palmitoleic acid found in yoghurt, milk and cheese, have the important function of improving insulin sensitivity. Other functions of trans palmitoleic acid also aid to reduce fasting insulin, blood pressure, C-reactive protein and triglycerides. Studies show that eating lower-fat foods regulates blood pressure. Researchers discovered that people who consumed most dairy had a 30% reduced risk of high blood pressure when compared with people that consumed less dairy.12

Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease. This means that keeping blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol in check is necessary for lowering heart disease risk. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity in May 2021 which was carried out by researchers from the University of Reading in the UK, revealed that people who consumed a higher milk intake had a lower risk of heart disease in comparison with people who don't drink milk. The addition of milk, cheese or yoghurt to your diet, reduces the risks of heart disease and stroke.12

Summary

High-protein meals have a significant impact on diabetics as they improve glycaemic control and reduce insulin resistance in cells. Plant-based and animal-based high protein help to regulate blood sugar, and blood pressure and also reduce the risks of heart disease in diabetics. If you have diabetes, it is beneficial to add these high-protein meals to your diet.

References

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  3. Watts M. Protein is one of the three main energy providing macronutrients, along with carbohydrate and fat. Protein helps the body to grow new tissue, therefore helping to build muscle and repair damage to the body. [Internet]. Diabetes. 2019 [cited 2023 Jan 6]. Available from: https://www.diabetes.co.uk/nutrition/protein-and-diabetes.html
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  11. Singh A. Nuts provide a number of benefits for people with diabetes. Studies suggest that nuts may even decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes. [Internet]. Diabetes. 2019 [cited 2023 Jan 8]. Available from: https://www.diabetes.co.uk/food/nuts-and-diabetes.html
  12. Campbell A, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES. Dairy foods for diabetes [Internet]. Diabetes Self-Management. [cited 2023 Jan 8]. Available from: https://www.diabetesselfmanagement.com/healthy-living/nutrition-exercise/dairy-foods-for-diabetes/
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Sandra Fidelis

Bachelor’s (Honours) Degree, Nursing Science, Nnamdi Azikiwe University

Sandra Fidelis is a registered nurse, certified health writer and public health researcher.
She has a wide range of experience in the care of diabetic patients, cancer patients, acutely ill patients, elderly care, clients with long-term conditions, palliative care, and public health care across various health systems with a bachelor’s degree in Nursing Science and continuing education in Public Health.
She brings her medical background to bear in her health content writing with the capacity of creating a layman’s impression of health articles and health content search engine optimization.

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