Type 2 diabetes is an extremely common concern in current times, a condition where cells cannot use sugar (glucose) properly for energy. Insulin is secreted from the pancreas when we eat in order to take sugar into our cells for energy. Too much sugar (including factors that raise sugar levels, like stress) taxes the pancreas to produce insulin, until it just doesn’t. Risk factors include being overweight, family history, consuming too much sugar and processed food, soda consumption, sedentary lifestyle, and artificial sweeteners.
Research-Backed Benefits of Protein for Diabetes
A recent study done by the German Institute of Human Nutrition demonstrated that protein is an important component of someone’s nutritional plan, either animal or plant-based, as it helps reduce fat build-up in liver (can be from too much sugar even in absence of alcohol), and minimize that feeling of being hungry an hour after you’re pretty sure you ate a decent amount.
In the latter case, foods that contain simple sugars or starches cause a quick spike in blood sugar, and an even quicker drop down that tells you you’re hungry again. While the USDA recommends 10-35% of calories come from protein in our diet, we may want to consider lifestyle strategies aiming towards 30-35% instead, especially to help prevent type 2 diabetes. In addition, animal-based protein improves insulin sensitivity (over plant based), and plant-based protein demonstrated better kidney function (over animal based).
In choosing your protein source, animal-based protein is best chosen with quality in mind, such as:
- wild caught fish
- organic, grass-fed dairy, poultry, and meat
- nuts, seeds, and legumes (plant sources rich in protein)
When it comes to additional nutrients important for glucose control and diabetes risk, those like iron and B12 are best absorbed as animal protein, yet they can also be attained through supplements if someone is vegan or vegetarian.
The Perfect Ratios: Protein, Carbs, and Fats
Protein is an extremely beneficial macronutrient, yet does need to be in balance with the two others, carbohydrates and fats. It’s not that carbohydrates are ‘bad’ per-se, but depending on the person’s concern and health goals, they may need to be adjusted. Carbohydrates in the form of sweets, sugar, breads, root vegetables (tend to be higher in sugar/starchy), and grains stimulate insulin after consumption, and each food has it’s own ability to cause a certain increase in blood glucose levels (glycemic index).
Higher quantities and frequency of the food being consumed causes the pancreas to constantly release insulin, and eventually become exhausted. Insulin is a type of growth hormone so it can lead to the creation of new fat cells (which only shrink upon weight loss, never disappear, and have their own need for energy) and increased storage of energy throughout the body, including depositing in organs (such as your liver).
We do need carbohydrates to survive (important source of energy for brain function), yet carbohydrates doesn’t have to mean a loaf of bread with a side of fries. There is a balance between increasing protein intake (aim for quality) and reducing carbohydrates, while also having fats (preferably the healthy kind), which can also work for prediabetics, those with poor insulin sensitivity, and/or seeing weight management or weight loss.
Do I Need to Eat Protein for Breakfast?
Our first meal sets up what we may consume later in the day, so starting your day off with starches (e.g. breakfast cereals, waffles, pancakes) that are usually low in protein, can actually increase our carb craving throughout the day. Instead, aim for pastured eggs (consider adding vegetables to make an omelette), back bacon (quality kinds like naturally raised, no hormones, no antibiotics, no nitrites), tofu (organic) or tempeh, steel cut oats (low glycemic index, consider adding protein like chopped nuts), and allergen-friendly protein powder for a smoothie (such as at least 70% vegetables/no more than 30% fruit). And consider leftover dinner for breakfast!
Smart Protein Ideas for Lunch and Dinner
The next two meals tend to be stereotypically similar, general considerations include a high quality protein (antibiotic & hormone free, natural, organic when possible- turkey, chicken, meat; wild caught fresh or canned fish) instead of processed lunch meats that are also high in sodium and preservatives. Also consider legumes like black beans, kidney, chickpeas, adzuki, lentils, peas, and navy, which are high in protein, and also high in fiber, which also helps reduce drastic blood sugar swings, promote fullness, and good gut health. Have these options cooked next to a plate of vegetables (or in a salad), top with some olive oil (and/or slices of avocado) to help absorb the fat-soluble nutrients like vitamins A, D, E, and K, and check out some different flavors and spices like garlic and turmeric.
Think small and protein-packed when snacking, and aim for protein. A handful of nuts, or nut butter and celery sticks, or hummus and almond sticks, are all wonderful choices. Eat when you’re hungry, but be mindful if you’re constantly snacking every few hours versus sitting down to take time in a relaxed environment to truly enjoy your food and nourish yourself (much more beneficial). Most importantly, listen to your body, as taste buds can take some time to reset- your body will thank you.
This great guest post was written by Dr. Serena Goldstein, a naturopathic doctor specializing in natural hormone balance! I encourage you to go check out her website!
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