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Diabetes Diet - Protein and Diabetes

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Protein and Diabetes

By Nina Nazor

What is protein?

Protein functions like building blocks in our body. It is present in more than 10,000 molecules including skin, bones, muscles, enzymes and hormones, like insulin, or vehicles like hemoglobin, the molecule that transports oxygen in our blood.

Different building units called amino acids form protein. Our body, according to genetic information, puts them together to build those more than 10,000 proteins that keep our body working properly.

How much protein do I need every day?

The recommended daily amount (RDA) of protein is between 12-15% of total daily calorie intake. However, the average protein intake for adults in the USA is between 15% and 20% of energy intake.

It is considered that 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight would cover the protein needs of most adults, and 1.2 g of protein per kilogram of body weight would cover the protein needs for most children, adolescents, and athletes.

Now, if you are designing your meal plan, you should know how many calories you need in a day. One gram of protein provides 4 calories. So, to calculate the grams of protein you should eat, find out the 15-20% of your total calories and divide it between 4. Then you will have the total amount of protein in grams you need in a day.

What happens if I eat too much protein?

The main concern about a high protein diet for people with diabetes has been the belief that it can be correlated with a decrease in kidney function. However, there is limited evidence for this in people with diabetes without kidney disease.

In the case of people with nephropathy, a diet low in protein, with about 0.6 to 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight, is associated with a better kidney function and decrease in the onset of end stage renal disease.

The other interesting issue we should take into account is that a high protein diet can deplete our body from calcium, thus increasing the risk of osteoporosis.

Animal vs. vegetal protein

Animal protein contains all the amino acids our body needs to function properly and is called complete protein. Vegetable protein does not provide all the amino acids we need in one food. However, the mixture of amino acids from cereal and grains (rice, oat, wheat, corn) plus the amino acids contained in starchy legumes (beans, soy beans, chickpeas, dry peas, lentils) provides our body with complete protein.

That is why the traditional meals in most ancient cultures have been for centuries the mixture of grains and legumes, like beans and corn for Americans, soybeans and rice for Asians, or chickpeas and lentils plus wheat for Arabs.

So, if you are a vegetarian, you should pay more attention to the amount of complete proteins you eat to make sure your body gets all what it needs.

What kind of protein should I eat?

Protein derived from lean meats, fat free dairy products, and/or low-fat plant protein foods should be the first option in your diet. The leanest cuts of fish or poultry are excellent alternatives.

Try to eat fish at least three times a week, especially the one that comes from cold water like trout or salmon. This kind of fish is high in Omega 3 fatty acids, which are associated with a decrease in blood triglyride levels and a reduction of the risk for cardiovascular disease.

Also, try to eat only two or three whole eggs a week and better choose egg whites, which provide all the high quality protein without the cholesterol and fat.

If you prefer vegetable protein, you must have heard that soy protein can help reduce the risk of heart disease, but there is no clear evidence for this, although it provides no cholesterol.

Also, avoid the fatty animal sources of protein since they are loaded with saturated fat, cholesterol and it is proven that they increase bad cholesterol levels and the risk for developing hear disease and other chronic diseases.

Does protein affect blood glucose levels?

Protein can be converted in glucose by a process called gluconeogenesis (new production of glucose). However, the rate of protein conversion to glucose in people with diabetes depends on the amount of insulin available and the degree of blood glucose control.

In persons with poorly controlled diabetes, this conversion can occur rapidly and affect blood glucose control negatively.

In people with controlled type 2 diabetes, protein intake does not increase blood glucose levels. However, in individuals who still produce insulin, protein intake is just as potent as glucose in stimulating insulin release.

On the other hand, in persons with type 1 diabetes under control, protein intake added to carb intake does not affect the absorption of carbs or affect glucose levels at 5 hours.

So, if you have heard that you must eat protein before bedtime or before exercise to avoid hypoglycemia, it may not work like that for you.

Although approximately 50% to 60% of protein can be converted to glucose, it does not increase the rate of glucose release from the liver. We don't know exactly what happens to glucose, but it is believed that it is stored in the liver or muscle as glycogen (a molecule that stores glucose).

In conclusion, eat between 15 to 20% of all your calories in the form of protein, and distribute them through out the day, choosing the leanest sources of animal protein or combinations of grains and legumes from vegetables sources.