The importance of protein for people with diabetes

Table with protein options

Protein is a little molecule that makes a big impact in your daily life. You could say that protein is a building block of all life on Earth. We all need it to survive. Your body uses it to build new tissue, make new cells, and repair any damage. When it comes to protein and diabetes, eating protein can help you feel full without significantly raising blood sugar. Getting the right amount in your diet is also a great way to stay healthy and give your body the nutrients it needs to build strong tissue and muscle.


The link between diabetes and protein

Your body breaks down protein differently than carbohydrates. The good news is that people living with diabetes may not need to track protein intake as carefully.   It’s still important to get enough protein in your diet. Protein contains amino acids that are vital for many of your body’s functions.  Some foods have all essential amino acids, which is why they’re called complete proteins. These foods include:

  • Eggs
  • Poultry
  • Red meat
  • Cheese
  • Milk
  • Soy

However, not all protein contains each of the nine amino acids you need. Protein without all nine essential amino acids is considered incomplete. Nuts, seeds, and grains all provide protein, but they are incomplete.  You’ll have to eat a variety to get all your essential amino acids. 

If you have diabetes, it's important to know that your body doesn't use protein for energy as easily as it uses carbs and fat. This means that eating protein won't raise your blood sugar as much, which is a big deal for people with diabetes. 

Consider how long it takes for protein to be digested compared to carbs. On average, carb-based foods take about 30 to 60 minutes to be digested. Protein-based foods, on the other hand, can take upwards of four hours to be digested. This is because your body uses carbs first to create glucose for energy. Protein stays in your system longer, giving your body time to process it without noticeably raising your blood sugar. 

This effect can vary from person to person, so it’s best to have a protein-rich snack and measure your blood sugar before and after. Compare the results to your numbers after a carb-heavy snack, and you’ll have a good idea of your body’s reaction.


Protein and diabetes: How much do you need?

With or without diabetes, people who want to eat a balanced diet need to ensure about 15% to 20% of their calories come from protein. It’s easy to figure out if you already know how many calories you eat on average. 

One way of figuring out how much protein you need is to divide your weight in pounds by 2.2. That number is the minimum grams of protein you need a day. If you multiply that by 1.5, you will find your maximum allotment of protein. 

Getting the right amount of protein in your diet is necessary as a person living with diabetes for the same reasons it’s necessary for any person without diabetes. Not getting enough protein can make you weak and decrease your body’s ability to build muscle or complete difficult physical tasks. Protein can help you have lots of energy to do the things you love. The connection between protein and diabetes starts there — if you want to be healthy and happy, you need to get your daily dose of amino acids.


Suggestions for a protein-rich diet

The great thing about eating the right amount of protein is that it comes in many different forms, including some of your favorite foods. Here are a few of the protein sources recommended by the American Diabetes Association recommends.


Plant-based proteins

  • Beans
  • Hummus
  • Peas
  • Soy nuts
  • Almonds, cashews, and peanuts


  • Tuna
  • Herring
  • Catfish
  • Salmon
  • Crab
  • Shrimp
  • Oysters

White meat

  • Chicken
  • Turkey


  • Reduced-fat cheese
  • Cottage cheese

Red meat

  • Cuts trimmed of fat
  • Roasts
  • Beef chuck

If you aren’t on a strictly plant-based diet, the ADA recommends eating seafood like tuna and salmon at least twice a week. These protein sources are low in cholesterol, sugar, and calories.   How do you manage the relationship between protein and diabetes? Tell us about your favorite protein-rich foods in the comments!

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Submitted by Kevin Caldwell (not verified) on

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My favorite protein rich foods are: 1) quinoa, 2) beans and rice, 3) soy tempeh, 4) chia seeds, 5) Ezekiel Bread.

Submitted by sabrina.hudasanchez on

In reply to by Kevin Caldwell (not verified)

Hi Kevin, thanks for sharing your favorites. These are items I hadn't considered!

Submitted by Diane Rosamilia (not verified) on

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rice and beans seem to raise my blood sugar would you be able to tell me since I do like this side dish

Submitted by Janie (not verified) on

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Peanut butter and soy milk

Submitted by Bill Schmidt (not verified) on

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With kidney issues, my doctor insist I now consume a vegan lifestyle. To get all of the nutritional benefits in a plant base diet, only, what do you recommend since it appears you’re suggesting both meat & plant base products provide you the amino acids your body needs?

Submitted by Nicole (not verified) on

In reply to by Bill Schmidt (not verified)

This is a conversation best had with your healthcare team. They'll have the best recommendations based on your individual needs.

Submitted by Heather Pickett (not verified) on

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Lean pork is a good protein source.

Submitted by Kenn Kurowski (not verified) on

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First article I have read that talks about eating protein!!! Only eat twice a day due to blood sugar rises. Protein is the only way to stabilize my levels!! Good Article!!

Submitted by sabrina.hudasanchez on

In reply to by Kenn Kurowski (not verified)

So glad you liked it, Kenn! Thank you for the comment

Submitted by Carol Kunselman (not verified) on

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Brown rice doesn't raise blood sugar nearly as fast nor as high as white rice.

Submitted by Bob Wells (not verified) on

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We (diabetic wife and caregiver) have been going low carb for years, especially at breakfast. We have found that BG rises after a zero carb breakfast. So we have started bolusing with bolus wizard by using a carb gram count which is one half of the protien gram count. Seems to work...

Submitted by Howard J Johnson (not verified) on

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I love rice and bread

Submitted by Debra Kirby (not verified) on

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What is your opinion of protein shakes?

Submitted by Kristin (not verified) on

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Eggs, beef and nuts are my go-to’s, however I cannot tolerate fish or seafood of any kind except shrimp. How do I best get the benefits of eating fish without eating fish?

Submitted by Nicole (not verified) on

In reply to by Kristin (not verified)

This is a good conversation to have with a nutritionist, dietician or your healthcare team. They can make the best recommendations based on your individual needs.

Thank you for the information, Your information is very helpful for us

Very nice article with lots of information. Thanks for sharing this one with us.

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