Protein has been — and still is — a big buzzword in the word of nutrition. It seems like we can’t get enough of this nutrient — literally. High-protein diets are touted as the path to achieve health outcomes such as weight loss, muscle building, appetite control, and, of course, blood sugar control. There are definitely benefits to making sure you’re getting enough protein. But what IS enough protein? And what are some ways to get enough in your diet?
How much protein do you need?
Protein is an essential macronutrient — along with carbohydrate and fat — that’s essential for life. We need it for building, repairing, and maintaining the cells, tissues, and organs in our bodies. We also need protein to support our immune system, and to make enzymes and hormones.
There’s no denying that protein is essential. What isn’t entirely clear cut, though, is how much people actually need. This is a topic of much debate in the nutrition community. The USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend that adults aim to get between 10% and 35% of total daily calories from protein. The Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for protein for adults is 0.8 grams protein per kilogram of body weight per day (one kilogram equals 2.2 pounds); that comes out to 58 grams per day if you weigh 160 pounds. Some diabetes nutrition guidelines, such as those from Joslin Diabetes Center, encourage a protein intake of between 1.0 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for people with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes.
The amount of protein that you need should be individualized to you. You may need more protein if you are very active, if you are an older adult, or if you are ill or recovering from surgery. And you might find that your diabetes is easier to manage with a higher protein intake. On the other hand, you may need to be careful about getting too much protein in your diet if you have kidney disease, for example. Too much protein can lead to dehydration, constipation, headaches, and bad breath. It’s always best to work with your healthcare team, including a dietitian, to figure out your own nutrition needs.
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Sources of protein
Dietitians often encourage people with diabetes to include a “protein source” at each meal. But some people struggle with what that means, as well as knowing what foods contain protein. What if you don’t eat red meat or any animal foods, for that matter? How do you get your protein? The good news is that a lot of foods — even some you wouldn’t necessarily think of — contain protein. If you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, you can get protein from plant sources. And even if you’re a picky eater, getting enough protein is doable.
Animal sources of protein:
- Poultry (e.g., chicken, turkey, duck)
- Red meat (e.g., beef, pork, lamb, veal)
- Seafood (e.g., fish, shellfish, shrimp, lobster)
- Milk and yogurt
Plant sources of protein:
- Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)
- Seitan (wheat gluten)
- Soy products (e.g., tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Seeds (e.g., pumpkin, hemp, chia, sunflower)
- Grains (e.g., quinoa, oats, teff, millet, amaranth)
- Nutritional yeast
- Meat alternatives (e.g., veggie burgers)
- Plant-based milks (e.g., pea milk, hemp milk)
- Vegetables (e.g., green peas, spinach, kale, corn, asparagus)
Protein powders are another source of protein. Note that protein powders can be from either an animal source (dairy or eggs) or a plant source (e.g., rice, hemp, or peas).
What is a serving of protein?
In the world of diabetes, a serving from the “protein” group contains 7 grams of protein. That’s the about the amount of protein in an ounce of protein. For example:
- 1 ounce of meat, poultry, or fish has 7 grams of protein
Other foods that provide about 7 grams of protein include:
- 1 whole egg
- 2 egg whites
- 1/2 cup beans
- 1/3 cup hummus
- 1/2 cup tofu
- 1 tablespoon peanut butter
- 1 cup milk
- 6 ounces plain yogurt
- 1 ounce cheese
- 1/4 cup cottage cheese
Some of these foods — milk, for example — contain carbohydrate as well, so if you’re counting carb grams, make sure to take that into consideration.
A protein target to aim for at mealtime is between 20 and 30 grams, or about 3 to 4 ounces. Again, your protein needs may be different.
Fitting in protein
Now that you know foods that contain protein, here are suggestions for working them into your daily meals and snacks.
- Egg and cheese sandwich on an English muffin
- Zucchini-Tomato Frittata
- Overnight oats
- Chia pudding
- Whole-grain bread with peanut or almond butter
- Cottage cheese with veggies or fruit
- Greek yogurt parfait with berries and almonds
- Smoothie made with protein powder
Lunch and dinner ideas
- Vegetarian Chili
- Grilled chicken Caesar salad
- Grilled Chicken with Corn and Black Bean Salsa
- Omelet with vegetables and shredded cheese
- Chunky Tuna Salad
- · Tofu stir-fry with edamame and vegetables over brown rice
- Turkey Burgers with Grilled Onions and Blue Cheese
- Cottage cheese
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Peanut butter and crackers
- Pumpkin seeds
- String cheese
- Hummus and veggies
- Hippeas Organic Chickpea Snacks
- Turkey and cheese rollups
- Popcorn sprinkled with nutritional yeast
- Oatmeal Protein Energy Balls