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Low Protein Intake Linked to Functional Limitations

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Low Protein Intake Linked to Functional Limitations

Not eating enough protein is linked to a greater likelihood of experiencing functional limitations — like difficulty bending down or kneeling — both in people with diabetes and in those without diabetes, according to new research published in the journal Nutrients.

Functional limitations typically aren’t given the same kind of attention in health-related media coverage as widely studied conditions like heart disease or dementia — but they can have a major impact on everyday life, potentially making it difficult or impossible to engage in activities you enjoy or even basic tasks like cooking. Muscle loss (sarcopenia) is closely linked to functional limitations, and it’s well established that people with type 2 diabetes — despite often being overweight — are at higher risk for age-related muscle loss than people without diabetes. For the latest study, researchers sought to examine the relationship between the intake of various nutrients in the diet — including protein — and the risk for functional limitations in people both with and without diabetes, across a range of blood glucose control.

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The researchers used data from a large survey on nutrition and overall health, including a total of 23,487 adults ages 31 and older in the analysis. Participants were classified as having diabetes based on an A1C level (a measure of long-term blood glucose control) of 6.5% or higher, and as having prediabetes if their A1C level was 5.7% to 6.4%. An A1c level below 5.7% indicated that a person didn’t have diabetes. Data on nutrient intake was based on a single 24-hour dietary recall survey. Based on their responses, participants’ estimated protein consumption was used to group them as meeting, or not meeting, the recommended daily intake of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound of body weight). For reference, this would be at least 54 grams of protein for someone who weighs 150 pounds, or about 91 grams of protein for someone who weighs 250 pounds.

Lower protein intake tied to lower dietary quality

The researchers found that participants who consumed less than the recommended daily protein intake tended to consume significantly more carbohydrate, and tended to have a lower dietary quality when it came to overall nutrition. This was especially true for people with diabetes, who tended to have a significantly lower dietary quality and significantly more functional limitations. People with diabetes who didn’t meet the protein intake recommendation were more likely to report being limited across a range of activities, and 52% reported limitations for stooping, crouching, or kneeling.

It’s not completely clear that a lower protein intake is responsible for all or most of the functional limitations seen in this study, since people in this category also had a lower overall dietary quality and were most likely lacking in other nutrients. But since dietary protein is directly linked to muscle growth and repair, it’s not a stretch to conclude that a lower protein intake most likely played at least some role in this risk. This study shows that when it comes to broad dietary recommendations for people with diabetes, it’s about more than just limiting unhealthy or excess carbohydrate — it may also be important to focus on getting enough protein-rich foods, which often have the advantage of raising blood glucose less than carbohydrate-rich foods.

Want to learn about getting more protein in your diet? Read “Easy Ways to Boost Your Protein Intake.”

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips on social media

A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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