A registered dietitian and diabetes expert weighs in on the best and worst protein sources if you have diabetes.
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You've likely heard that protein is critical for muscle growth, immune health and tissue repair, but did you know this essential macronutrient can also affect people with diabetes?

Protein alone doesn't significantly impact blood sugar, but it can influence how your blood sugar reacts to carbohydrates. One of the things protein does is slow down digestion, which can help you avoid blood sugar spikes. So while having diabetes doesn't require adding more protein to your diet, protein sources should be chosen carefully to better manage your condition.

"For those with diabetes who have normal kidney function, consuming daily protein in the mid to high range of the daily recommendations may be beneficial," says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and author of 2-Day Diabetes Diet. "Protein provides a greater sense of satiety after a meal than carbohydrates, which can help with appetite regulation. In addition, balancing meals with a good source of protein and adding protein to replace additional carbohydrates may help improve post-meal glucose levels."

Choosing the right protein sources for diabetes can help manage your blood sugar. Read on to learn which protein sources those living with diabetes should add to their menus and which ones they should limit in their diet. Plus, find out how much protein you actually need.

How Much Protein Should You Eat?

Protein requirements vary widely based on individual needs. According to a 2017 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the average healthy adult needs at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. For example, a person weighing 150 pounds (68 kilograms) would need about 55 grams (1.9 ounces) of protein daily. However, several factors affect your protein requirements, including your level of physical activity, age, height, weight, gender and kidney function.

These protein recommendations are generally safe for people with diabetes who have normal kidney function. Palinski-Wade tells EatingWell, "For people living with diabetes that have compromised kidney function, a more limited protein intake may be recommended. The American Diabetes Association recommends that people with diabetes who have early-stage kidney disease reduce protein intake to 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, whereas those with later stages of kidney disease are recommended to reduce intake to no more than 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight."

Best Protein Sources for Diabetes

The ADA recommends that people with diabetes get their protein from lean sources low in saturated fat. Plant-based protein sources are ideal for diabetes since they're low in saturated fat and high in fiber. In fact, saturated fat is primarily found animal foods with a few exceptions, such as coconut. Fiber is an essential nutrient that helps you feel fuller longer and promotes a healthy weight—a critical factor for helping those with type 2 diabetes regulate their blood sugar. Here are the best sources of protein for people living with diabetes.

Legumes

Legumes are among the healthiest, most nutritious foods available. Legumes such as beans, chickpeas, lentils, peas and peanuts are packed full of plant protein and fiber to protect your heart health and help regulate blood sugar. A 2018 study published in Clinical Nutrition found that "frequent consumption of legumes … may provide benefits on type 2 diabetes prevention in older adults at high cardiovascular risk." Additionally, an older study from 2012 published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, observed that people with type 2 diabetes who regularly ate beans, lentils and other legumes had improved glycemic control and a reduced heart disease risk.

Pistachios

Nuts and seeds are excellent plant protein and fiber sources for those with diabetes. With 25 grams of protein per cup, per the USDA, pistachios can be included as part of a healthy diabetes diet. As a matter of fact, a 2021 study published in Nutrients concluded that regularly eating nuts reduced the risk of metabolic syndrome in people with type 1 diabetes.

"Eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as pistachios, as part of a diet low in saturated fat may reduce the risk of heart disease, which is good news for people living with diabetes who have an increased risk of developing heart disease," states Palinski-Wade.

Fatty Fish

"Fatty fish such as salmon and tuna are rich in lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids," says Palinski-Wade. "These fatty acids can help reduce inflammation, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease, which is two times greater in people with diabetes than those without the disease. Eating four 6-ounce servings of fatty fish weekly has also been shown to reduce post-meal blood sugar levels."

Worst Protein Sources

Protein itself isn't harmful to people with diabetes; on the contrary, it is essential. However, many high-protein foods, especially animal-based ones, are also high in saturated fats. Research published in 2020 in PLOS Medicine shows that saturated fats might contribute to insulin resistance in people with diabetes, whereas unsaturated fats may improve insulin sensitivity. Here are some of the worst high-protein, high-saturated-fat foods that people with diabetes should limit.

Processed Meats

Processed meats such as bacon, sausage, salami, pepperoni, roast beef and bologna contain high amounts of saturated fat and can cause inflammation. Multiple studies, as explained in a 2020 article published in Diabetes Care, have shown that eating processed meats increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, colorectal cancer and all-cause mortality. Additionally, some preservatives, additives and chemicals added to processed meat during manufacturing could potentially contribute to disease.

Red Meat

Red meat is another high-protein food that people with diabetes should eat in low quantities. Though high in protein, red meats such as beef, pork and lamb are higher in saturated fat. Because of its high saturated fat content, red meat is associated with an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers and premature death, per a 2019 publication in BMJ.

Full-Fat Dairy Products

Though full-fat dairy products can be a healthy option for many, people with diabetes should be more cautious about them due to their saturated fat content. High intakes of saturated fat can increase your LDL cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease, especially in people with diabetes.

The Bottom Line

It's a given that people with diabetes must be careful when it comes to their diet, yet all foods in the right amounts can be part of your eating habits. The key to managing diabetes is to eat a well-balanced diet containing carbs, fats and protein from various sources. However, not all foods are created equal. Heart-healthy protein sources low in saturated fat and high in healthy fats are the best options for people with diabetes. This includes legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fatty fish and seafood. Talk to your health care provider or registered dietitian to create a meal plan that's right for you.