When it comes to eating with diabetes, much of the focus is on carbohydrates, and with good reason. After all, carbohydrate is the nutrient that has the most impact on blood sugar levels.

But a healthy eating plan for diabetes isn’t just about cutting back on carbs. Ensuring that you get a balance of nutrients is important, not just for diabetes, but for overall health. 

Protein also plays a starring role in diabetes management. This article will focus on why protein is so important and the best high-protein foods to fit into your eating plan, as well as a few recipe ideas to help you meet your daily protein needs.

A variety of high-protein foods on a table

Key Points:

  • Protein is an essential nutrient that supports a variety of functions in the body, including helping to stabilize blood sugar levels.
  • A quick and easy way to determine your protein needs is to aim for eating 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, as a general guideline. But you may need more if you are older, pregnant, an avid exerciser, or recovering from surgery or an illness.
  • You can easily meet your daily protein needs by including a protein food at each of your meals and snacks every day.
  • Animal foods are some of the best sources of protein, but plant-based foods can give you quality protein, as well. Go for less processed and lower-saturated-fat protein foods for optimal health.
  • Pairing protein with carbohydrates can slow glucose absorption, reduce blood sugar spikes, and increase feelings of fullness, helping with weight management and blood sugar management.

Why is protein important?

Protein is a macronutrient. Macronutrients, which also include carbohydrates and fat, are the nutrients that the body uses in the largest amounts. They provide calories, or fuel, and are essential for helping the body to function.

All cells, enzymes, hormones, muscles, skin, bones, hair, and teeth in the body contain protein. The “building blocks” of protein are amino acids. Some amino acids are made in the body, called nonessential amino acids. But there are nine amino acids, called essential amino acids, that we must obtain from food. 

We need protein to build and repair cells and tissues; it’s also important for growth and development in children, teens, and pregnant women. Protein makes up enzymes that drive chemical reactions in the body and is a part of hemoglobin that carries oxygen in the blood. 

Protein is so powerful that at least 10,000 different proteins (if not more) are found in the human body.

A secondary role of protein is to provide the body with energy, especially if carbs aren’t available to be used for fuel. Like carbohydrates, protein provides 4 calories per gram

How much protein should you eat?

The quick answer is: It depends. The National Academy of Medicine has established a wide range for an acceptable protein intake — anywhere from 10 percent to 35 percent of calories per day. That translates into between 200 to 700 calories from protein for a 2,000-calorie diet.

If you’re not too keen on figuring out percentages, another way to determine how much protein you need is to aim for about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. To calculate, multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36. For example:

  • If you weigh 130 pounds, you need about 47 grams of protein each day.
  • If you weigh 200 pounds, you need about 72 grams of protein each day. 

Who may need more protein?

The above protein recommendations are approximations. Your protein needs may be different, depending on factors such as:

  • Your age (older adults often need more protein to prevent losing muscle mass)
  • Your health goals, including whether you want to lose or gain weight
  • If you are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Underlying health or medical conditions, such as kidney problems
  • If you are recovering from illness or surgery
  • Your activity level (people who exercise regularly and athletes need more protein)

If you’re unsure how much protein you should consume each day, talk with your healthcare provider. They may refer you to a registered dietitian nutritionist RD/RDN) to help determine a protein goal based on your individual needs and health status.

What are the best food sources of protein?

There are many sources of protein, both from animal and plant-based foods. Some people believe that only animal protein foods are sources of “quality” protein. 

While animal protein foods contain all the essential amino acids that the body needs (called “complete proteins”), some plant-based protein foods are complete proteins, too, including soybeans and quinoa. 

Other plant-based foods don’t have all essential amino acids, but this doesn’t mean they are unhealthy or that they should be avoided. People who follow a vegan eating plan or who prefer to eat more plant-based/plant-forward meals can also obtain all the essential amino acids they need if they include a variety of foods in their diet. 

Animal-based protein sources

In their quest to obtain or even boost their protein intake, some people overlook the reality that protein foods come as a package. This means that along with protein, the food will contain other nutrients or substances, such as fat, sodium, vitamins, and minerals. 

When it comes to animal protein foods, the main concern is the type of fat they contain. Fat isn’t bad — we all need fat in our diets. However, the type of fat is the issue. The two most unhealthy types of fat are trans fats and saturated fats.

Trans fats are manufactured and primarily found in processed foods and found naturally in animal products and by-products from ruminant animals (such as cows, sheep, and goats). Trans fat from both sources are equally bad. For example, fried meats prepared with partially hydrogenated oils or certain processed meats may contain trans fats.

Trans fats are linked with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. 

Saturated fats are naturally found in animal foods, including meat, poultry, butter, cheese, and other dairy products (they’re also found in some plant-based oils, such as coconut, palm, and palm kernel oils). 

Saturated fats have also been linked with an increased risk of heart disease, although more recent research suggests that may not be the case. While the jury is still out on this issue, most health experts still recommend limiting saturated fat and replacing saturated fat with more healthful unsaturated fats.

Healthy animal-based proteins

Here are some of the healthiest animal protein foods, including their calories and grams of protein and fat, based on a 3-ounce serving, unless otherwise indicated. 

Note that fatty fish, such as salmon, have more fat compared with poultry and lean meat. However, the type of fat in fish is the healthy omega-3 fatty acids that support heart health and may lower the risk of some forms of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and age-related macular degeneration.

The recommended serving for meat, poultry, or fish is 3 ounces.

Boneless, skinless chicken breast: 3 ounces: 90 calories, 20 grams of protein, 2 grams of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Skinless turkey breast: 3 ounces: 97 calories, 20 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Grilled salmon: 3 ounces: 220 calories, 22 grams of protein, 14 grams of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Flank steak: 3 ounces: 207 calories, 25 grams of protein, 12 grams of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Egg: One large (including the yolk): 72 calories, 6 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Low-fat cottage cheese: 4 ounces: 93 calories, 12 grams of protein, 3 grams of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Nonfat plain Greek yogurt: 6 ounces: 100 calories, 18 grams of protein, 1 gram of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Plant-based protein sources

Protein is found in a wide variety of plant foods, such as: 

  • Legumes and beans: e.g., lentils, peas, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans
  • Soy products: e.g., tofu, tempeh, edamame, soy milk
  • Whole grains: e.g., quinoa, oats, farro, bulgur, barley, brown rice
  • Nuts and seeds: e.g., almonds, peanuts, walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Nut and seed butters: e.g., peanut butter, almond butter, sunflower seed butter
  • Vegetables: e.g., green peas, spinach, artichokes, corn, avocado, asparagus, Brussels sprouts

There are several nutritional benefits to eating plant-based protein foods. In addition to providing a wide range of essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals, plant-based foods contain fiber and phytonutrients and are generally low in saturated fat. 

In addition, plant-based diets are associated with a lower risk of developing certain health conditions, such as metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, overweight and obesity, heart disease, and some forms of cancer.

Note that many of these foods contain carbohydrates. That doesn’t make them “bad,” but to help manage your carbohydrate intake, try these tips:

  • Focus on higher-protein, non-starchy vegetables, which are naturally low in carbohydrates.
  • Note that lentils and chickpeas have a little less carbohydrate than beans.
  • Choose whole grains, which have more fiber than refined grains, such as white bread and white rice.
  • Include healthy sources of fat in your meals to help keep you full. Good choices are nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, olive oil, peanut oil, and safflower oil.

Keep in mind, too, that eating a more plant-based diet doesn’t have to mean avoiding animal foods entirely, unless you choose to. Talk with a registered dietitian about the best eating plan for you.

Healthy plant-based proteins

Here are some of the top plant sources of protein:

Cooked beans, peas, and lentils: 1/2 cup: 125 calories, 15 grams carb, 7 grams protein, 0 to 3 grams fat

Recipe suggestions:

Tofu: 4 ounces: 96 calories, 1 gram of carb, 12 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Whole grains: 1/4 to 1/2 cup cooked: 80 calories, 15 grams of carb, 3 grams of protein, 0 to 1 gram of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Peanut butter: 1 tablespoon: 94 calories, 3 grams of carb, 4 grams of protein, 8 grams of fat

Recipe suggestions:

Least-healthy protein foods

While there is no food that you should never eat (barring having a food allergy or intolerance), there are some protein foods that are less healthy. Save these foods for an occasional splurge.

The least healthful protein foods include:

  • Fatty cuts of meat, such as ribeye steak and pork belly, which are high in saturated fat.
  • Processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and luncheon meats. 
  • Fried foods, such as fried chicken and breaded fish filets.
  • Whole-milk dairy foods, such as whole milk, cream, and some cheeses
  • Some plant-based meat alternatives, such as those that are highly processed and contain added sugars, sodium, and preservatives.
  • Highly processed protein bars and shakes, which may contain added sugars, artificial ingredients, and preservatives. 

In general, the more ultra-processed a food, the less healthful it is.

What role does protein play in managing diabetes?

Protein can play a pivotal role in helping to manage blood sugars, and many diabetes experts suggest eating a protein food at each of your meals and snacks each day. Here’s how protein can benefit people with diabetes:

Stabilizes blood sugars

Because protein has little effect on blood sugar levels when you have adequate insulin in the body, including a protein source when you eat carbohydrates can be helpful in slowing down the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream. This, in turn, can lessen glucose “spikes” and keep blood sugars more stable after meals.

Promotes satiety (fullness)

Another benefit of eating protein is that it can keep you feeling fuller, longer. For example, if you eat a piece of plain toast for breakfast, and nothing else, chances are you’ll feel hungry a little while later. 

However, if you slather some nut butter on your toast, most likely you’ll feel satiated and not have to deal with the hungry horrors two hours later. Another benefit of protein: By keeping you feeling fuller, you may be likely to eat less food, overall, helping you to manage your weight.

Improves glycemic control

Some research suggests that a higher protein intake may improve glycemic control and insulin sensitivity in people with diabetes. 

One reason may be that protein-rich foods have a lower glycemic impact compared to high-carbohydrate foods, meaning they cause a slower and smaller increase in blood sugar levels after consumption. 

For this reason, a higher-protein diet may be beneficial for people who have insulin resistance, a hallmark of both prediabetes and type 2 diabetes

Enhances metabolism

A higher-protein diet has a higher thermic effect compared to carbohydrates and fat — in other words, the body expends more energy to digest and metabolize protein. This could potentially help with weight management and glucose metabolism.

According to the National Council on Aging, a helpful rule of thumb when it comes to fitting protein into your eating plan is to aim for approximately 20 to 30 grams of protein at each main meal and about 12 to 15 grams for snacks. 

This strategy can be especially beneficial for older adults with diabetes, helping to ensure a steady intake of protein throughout the day for muscle maintenance, fullness, and stable blood sugar levels. 

These mealtime targets are designed to complement the overall daily protein recommendation of 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound of body weight. 

Remember, these figures are general guidelines to help distribute your total protein intake evenly across meals and snacks. It’s important to personalize your protein needs based on your health status, dietary preferences, and individualized advice from your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian

Final thoughts

Protein is an important part of a healthy eating plan. Everyone needs protein for growth and repair, and to support overall health.

People with diabetes can benefit from protein to help with managing blood sugars, controlling hunger levels, and reaching and maintaining a healthy weight. Making a point to include a protein food at each meal and snack may make it easier to manage diabetes. 

Eating a combination of both animal and plant sources of protein is one of the best ways to meet your daily protein needs. But remember to talk with your healthcare team about how much protein you need every day, as well as the best protein foods to meet your daily goals.