Choosing the right protein can help keep glucose levels healthy and more consistent.
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Salmon Rice Bowl
Credit: Ali Redmond

Carbs seem to get the spotlight when it comes to eating for diabetes. And while it is true that the type and quantity of carbohydrates you eat can profoundly impact your blood sugar management, this isn't the only macronutrient you should be focusing on for a healthy eating pattern. 

Proper protein consumption can help a person with diabetes by improving blood sugar levels, helping promote satiety and preserving lean body mass. The appropriate amount of protein a person needs can vary based on a few factors, including body weight, the presence of kidney disease and the individual's age. Generally, aiming for 20% to 35% of total energy intake as protein is what is recommended, assuming there is no renal function impairment or other reasons why protein intake should be limited. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that would equate to around 100 to 175 grams (3.5 to 6 ounces) of this muscle-building macro every day.

The trick to picking the best proteins to eat if you have diabetes is to opt for those that are lower in saturated fat and/or sodium. Enjoying proteins that are baked, roasted, grilled or poached—instead of fried—can also help you cut back on the added fat from cooking.

The 6 Best Proteins to Eat If You Have Diabetes

If you are ready to include some quality proteins for diabetes, read on to learn which proteins deserve a spot on your plate as part of an overall balanced, healthy eating pattern.

1. Fish

As long as it isn't fried or covered in high-fat and high-sodium sauces, fish is one of the best protein choices for people with diabetes. In fact, the American Diabetes Association specifically recommends eating fatty fish two to three times per week.

One major reason why seafood is recommended is because of the omega-3 fatty acids that this protein provides. Including this fatty acid in your diet can help reduce inflammation and increase insulin sensitivity—two factors that can benefit those with diabetes.

According to results of a meta-analysis, higher fish intake was associated with a significantly lower risk of coronary heart disease. This can be especially important since people with diabetes are at an increased risk of developing this condition.

People with diabetes are also at an elevated risk of experiencing diabetic retinopathy, a condition that includes damage to the blood vessels in the retina of the eye. Results of a study published in Scientific Reports showed that higher fish intake was linked to a lower likelihood of having severe diabetic retinopathy.

You can eat more fish by enjoying a simple Salmon Rice Bowl, a flavorful Cod with Tomato Cream Sauce or zesty Fish Tacos with Kiwi Salsa.

2. Lentils

Lentils are packed with both fiber and protein, two nutrients that may help keep blood sugar levels in check. Lentils' blood-glucose-lowering effects have been linked to both the types of carbohydrates they contain and their protein content. Plus, one indigestible fiber found in lentils (called beta glucan) has been shown to reduce post-meal blood sugar levels in people with diabetes, adding to the list of factors that make lentils such a fantastic protein option.

Lentils are also a good source of B vitamins and zinc, micronutrients that may play a key role in managing diabetes.

Eating some Vegan Lentil Soup and enjoying Lentil Meatballs are tasty ways to include more of these pulses in your diet.

3. Tofu

Tofu is made from soybeans, a rich source of plant-based protein that is both versatile and affordable. Results from a meta-analysis suggest that eating soy products, like tofu, may help improve cardiovascular health in patients with type 2 diabetes. Not a tofu fan? Snacking on edamame or including tempeh in your diet can help you reap the benefits of soy too.

Tofu can be enjoyed in a variety of dishes, including a Mushroom & Tofu Stir-Fry and Beefless Vegan Tacos.

4. Nuts

No matter whether you love walnuts, pistachios, almonds or macadamias, including nuts in your diet for a boost of plant-based protein may offer some unique benefits if you have diabetes. The unsaturated fats (including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids) present in nuts may play a role in glucose control and appetite suppression, while the fiber and polyphenols may have anti-diabetic effect by altering gut microbiota. Finally, the arginine (an amino acid) and magnesium in nuts may also help improve inflammation, oxidative stress, endothelial function and blood pressure.

You can include more nuts in your diet by snacking on Rosemary-Garlic Pecans or enjoying them in a meal with a recipe like our Walnut Pesto Pasta Salad.

5. Eggs

Eggs are an all-around nutrient powerhouse. They are packed with protein (around 6 grams per large egg) and have numerous essential vitamins and minerals, including carotenoids that are important for eye health like lutein and zeaxanthin. Eggs naturally have 0 grams of carbohydrates.

Data published in Food & Function showed that adding one large egg to the daily eating pattern for 12 weeks reduced fasting blood glucose by 4.4% for adults with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, the results showed that egg consumption did not have a negative impact on total cholesterol levels. A growing body of evidence supports eggs as an important addition to a healthy dietary pattern even for people at risk for cardiovascular disease, like those with diabetes.

Enjoy an Avocado & Smoked Salmon Omelet or Avocado-Egg Toast to include more eggs in your diet.

6. Chicken

Chicken is one of the most popular protein sources, and rightfully so. It contains all of the essential amino acids our bodies can't make on their own, it's versatile and it can be an economical choice compared to other meat options. It also provides important micronutrients, like vitamin B12 and zinc.

Breaded and fried chicken dishes should be limited on a diabetes-friendly diet. Instead, chicken dishes like Sheet-Pan Chicken Fajitas and Baked Lemon-Pepper Chicken are great options that are lower in added fat and sodium.