Protein and diabetes

Monday, 2 November 2020

Do you know much about the impact of protein for people living with diabetes? If the answer is no we’re here to give you the lowdown on protein.

The word protein often conjures up images of bodybuilders, muscles, pieces of steak, fit athletes and perhaps a powdered shake.

Out of all of the macronutrients, protein really is the one that still has a pretty squeaky clean image. Poor old fat and carbohydrate continually are under scrutiny, while good old protein stands out as the child that can do no wrong.

So is this reputation deserved, and for people living with diabetes is there anything else you need to know about protein?

Is protein helpful for your diabetes management?

There is no denying it, foods that are good sources of protein in our diet have many benefits and are essential to life. Protein is a macronutrient that is made up of amino acids, the building blocks that help create and repair muscles, tissues, bones, hormones and enzymes in our body.

When thinking about food and diabetes management on a day to day basis, the main goal is usually trying to choose foods that don’t cause blood glucose levels (BGLs) to soar and then later crash. When eaten, protein alone causes little rise of glucose in the blood initially. This gets people excited and why you often hear advice around aiming to choose meals and snacks high in protein.

Research is starting to show that both fat and protein can cause BGLs to rise in a delayed manner (three to five hours after a meal); however, this is only of major significance for particular meals that are large in portion size or that also contain large volumes of fat and protein. These factors are of more consideration to you if you are living with type 1 diabetes.

Another benefit of including high quality protein foods in your diet, is that it plays a role in appetite regulation and can give you a sense of satisfying fullness after you’ve eaten. Feeling full means you are less likely to want to reach for further food or snacks again after meals, helping to ensure BGLs remain in a healthy range.


Can you have too much protein?

Media and advertising may lead you to believe we don’t get enough protein in our diets and that needing to supplement is the only answer. This is false for the majority of people. The reality is, these additional protein supplements usually add on extra kilojoules, leading to unnecessary weight gain and wasted money.

Protein supplements are best for elite athletes, for people who are unwell, or for elderly patients that find it difficult to eat enough food.

The fact is, too much of one thing is not always healthy for us in life. All macronutrients have their specific roles to keep us functioning well, so aiming to keep your diet balanced ensures less chance of nutritional deficiencies and the knock on effects that this may cause.

Eating too much protein in extreme circumstances can even be harmful, as it puts both the liver and kidneys under more pressure. This can also have a negative effect on bone health, as too much protein may cause excessive losses in calcium.

The key is to ensure you choose high quality proteins from real foods.


Sources of high quality protein rich foods

Protein come from both animal and plant sources. Some will be foods made up predominantly of just protein, while other foods may also contain carbohydrates and fats.

Protein foods containing carbohydrates will directly impact BGLs if the amount of carbohydrate is large enough. This does not make these foods unhealthy for people living with diabetes, but just means you need to be mindful of portion sizes.

Here is a list of some healthy protein rich foods that you may like to consider incorporating into your diet at both meal and snack times.


Protein rich foods with little carbs – should not impact your BGLs

  • Lean meats and poultry
  • Fish and seafood
  • Eggs
  • Nuts (in small portions)
  • Cheese
Steak grilled (85g)  = 27g protein Chicken breast grilled  (85g) = 25g protein  

Salmon grilled (85g g) = 24g protein



2 x large eggs = 12g protein


Handful of nuts = 6g protein 2 x cheese sandwich slices = 10g protein


Protein rich foods containing carbs – will impact your BGLs (depending on the portion size)

  • Dairy products – milk and yoghurt
  • Beans, legumes and lentils
  • Quinoa



250ml milk = 9g protein


150g tub yoghurt = 7g protein 1 cup mixed beans = 13g protein


How much protein do you need?

Importantly, the amount of protein needed in your diet differs from person to person. Like most things diet related, you will need individualised advice. Your age, gender, exercise levels, other health conditions and if you are pregnant are just some of the factors to be taken into account.

Here is a general guide of how much protein to be aiming for each day:

  Male Female
19-70 years 64g per day 46g per day
70+ years 81g per day 57g per day


If you would like further information regarding your protein requirements we urge you to visit an Accredited Practising Dietitian or call the NDSS Helpline on 1800 637 700.


By Linda Uhr, Accredited Practising Dietitian

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