Protein Revisited

Protein has been a hot topic for a while now. Higher-protein diets are often touted for people who have diabetes and for those who want to lose weight. Dozens of protein supplements line the shelves of health-food stores with claims that they can build muscle while melting away fat. Is protein truly a miracle nutrient? Does it really deliver on all of the promises and claims? Let’s take a look at what we know about protein and its role in diabetes management.

Protein is an essential nutrient, but we need less than we think. Depending on who you believe, dietary protein needs, per the Institute of Medicine, can be met by eating 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (or, 8 grams of protein per 20 pounds of body weight). And what’s “acceptable” is anywhere from 10% to 35% of daily calories. Most people consume about 15% of their calories as protein. Who might need more? Possibly people who are trying to lose weight, endurance athletes, the elderly, those who are chronically ill, and folks who have Type 2 diabetes. And by more, I’m referring to the upper end of the recommended or acceptable range (that is to say, 20% to 35% of calories). Not much evidence is out there to support a higher intake.

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Plant foods are an acceptable source of protein. Most of us know that meat, poultry, fish, dairy foods, and eggs are sources of high-quality protein. But for various reasons, not everyone chooses to eat animal sources of protein. Can people who follow a plant-based diet get enough protein? The answer: yes. Granted, getting adequate protein means following a more well-rounded plant-based diet (eating vegetables all day won’t cut it, in other words), but that’s not difficult to do. Key sources of plant protein include: soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk), seitan (cooked wheat gluten), legumes (black beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils, etc.), nuts and nut butters, seeds (chia, hemp, flax, sunflower), and some grains (quinoa, amaranth, barley, buckwheat, spelt, wheat, wild rice).

Eating protein doesn’t cause diabetic kidney disease. Kidney disease (sometimes called diabetic nephropathy) is a complication of diabetes. High blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels in the kidneys, which affects how well the kidneys work. An early sign of kidney damage is the presence of small amounts of protein in the urine, called microalbuminuria or microproteinuria. Keeping blood glucose and blood pressure levels within target ranges is the goal to prevent kidney damage. Some people mistakenly think that following a low-protein diet will prevent kidney disease. This isn’t really the case. Protein, in and of itself, doesn’t “damage” the kidneys, especially if they’re working as they should. However, someone in the early stages of kidney disease may benefit from consuming an amount on the lower end of the recommended intake of protein, such as 15% of calories from protein — but not necessarily a “low” protein diet. A doctor or a dietitian who specializes in the kidney can provide guidance as to how much protein you need if you have any type of kidney problem.

High-protein diets can provide health benefits. When you think of a high-protein, the Atkins diet may come to mind, with plates piled high with meat and eggs, for example. Many health experts scoffed at the idea of people eating this way, claiming that doing so was a recipe for a health disaster, like a heart attack. However, more evidence points to some benefits of a lower-carb, higher-protein eating plan. For example, in a study of over 80,000 women, those who ate a lower-carb diet that was high in vegetable protein and fats had a 30% lower risk of heart disease than women who ate a higher-carb diet. The OmniHeart study showed that replacing some carb in the diet with healthy protein or fat did a better job at lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and blood pressure. In terms of diabetes, higher protein diets have been shown to be beneficial in controlling blood sugars. However, the point is not to cut out carbs completely but rather to aim for a slightly higher healthy protein intake (along the lines of perhaps 30% of calories).

Eating more protein really can (maybe) make you feel full. Always feel hungry? Try boosting your protein intake. While not necessarily “new” news, thanks to a small study published last week in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there’s even more evidence to support the basis of protein being more filling. This, in turn, can be a boon for those trying to shed a few pounds. But the authors caution that eating more protein isn’t a “magic bullet” for weight loss, since many other factors play a role, such as total calorie intake, hormones, and non-food-related reasons for eating. And don’t forget that protein foods contain calories, too.

Protein supplements are not all they’re hyped up to be. Search the Internet and you’ll find plenty of articles, “experts,” and advertisements hawking the benefits of protein supplements. Names like Hydroxycut, QuadraLean, and Wheybolic Extreme might have anyone thinking that taking these will turn them into a lean, mean, fighting machine. But the reality is that trying to bulk up with large amounts of protein can be harmful to your health. Too much protein can lead to decreased bone mass, cause digestive issues like constipation or diarrhea, possibly aggravate an existing gout condition, and even lead to weight gain. That being said, there could be a role for protein supplements, such as whey protein, in diabetes and weight control, but thinking that “if some protein is good, more is better” isn’t the way to go about it. Talk with a qualified health expert about how to use protein supplements in your eating plan.

How do you distinguish good fats from bad fats when it comes to nuts and oils? Bookmark DiabetesSelfManagement.com and tune in tomorrow to find out from Regina Shirley, a registered dietitian living with Type 1 diabetes.

  • Joan McKniff

    I wish you’d put daily amounts in terms we understand, not grams and %. So is one egg, a peanut butter sandwich, and cereal, milk, and blueberries enough protein in a day? age 74, D II.

    • acampbell

      Thank you, Joan. Many people do count grams of protein, just as they may count grams of carbohydrate. To learn more about how much protein you need in clearer terms, you might visit the MyPlate website at http://www.choosemyplate.gov/protein-foods