Protein: Quality Over Quantity for Diabetes Prevention

Protein and diabetes: what you need to know

How much protein should I eat?

Protein is a focus for many people who are trying to lose weight and lower diabetes risk. That certainly makes sense, since protein helps delay hunger and stabilizes blood sugar. However, the protein story is not as simple as “more is better,” and not all protein sources are the same.

How much protein should you have, and which foods should you choose for getting your protein? This is what you should know so you can make the best decisions for your health.

How Much Protein Is Enough?

The basic protein need for the average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. That translates into 56 grams of protein per day for someone who weighs 154 lb. Someone on a high-protein diet might aim for around 25% of calories from protein. If you are following a 1,600-calorie-per-day diet for weight loss, that would translate into 100 grams of protein per day.

These amounts may sound like a lot, but consider that the average American has 84 grams of protein per day.  You can get over 100 grams by having: 

  • Breakfast: scrambled eggs with vegetables and cheese.

  • Snack: cottage cheese and fruit.

  • Lunch: green salad with grilled chicken and nuts.

  • Snack: vegetables and Greek yogurt dip.

  • Dinner: fish, broccoli, and a sweet potato.

Protein Content of Selected Nutritious Foods
Food, Serving size Protein Content, grams
Skinless chicken breast, 4 oz.
25-30 grams
Skinless turkey, 3 oz.
Canned salmon or tuna, 3 oz.
Fresh fish, 4 oz.
Lean steak, 4 oz.
Boneless pork chop, 4 oz.
20-25 grams
Lobster, 3 oz.
Greek yogurt, 5-6 oz. (1 container)
Lean ground beef, 3 oz.
15-20 grams
Soynuts, 1 oz.
Tofu, ½ cup
Lentils, ½ cup
Turkey breast (deli), 2 oz.
10-15 grams
Milk, 1 cup
Cheese, 1 oz.
Beans, ½ cup
Peanuts and peanut butter, 1 oz.
Nuts and nut butter, 1 oz.
Egg, 1 large or extra large
5-10 grams
Whole-grain bread, 1 slice
Whole grains, 1 oz., or ½ cup cooked
Broccoli, 1 cup
Spinach, 1 cup cooked
Green peas, ½ cup
Up to 5 grams

It is not that hard to get enough protein if you eat it consistently throughout the day. Just aim to include a serving of a high-protein food at most meals and snacks. You can try for fish, eggs, poultry, reduced-fat dairy products, beans, nuts, or tofu. Vegetables and whole grains also add to your protein totals.

While protein can be good, and more can be better, too much protein can be harmful. The general cut-off for safety is 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. That means the maximum safe amount is 140 grams per day if you weigh 154 lb., and 160 grams if you weigh 176 lb. More than that may lead to liver, kidney, and bone problems over time. Excessive amounts of protein have even been linked to higher body weights.


Seafood, Poultry, and Eggs: Lean and Carb-Free

Fish, poultry, such as chicken and turkey, and eggs are lean protein sources. Not surprisingly, poultry is the top source protein in the U.S. diet, accounting for over 14% of total protein intake. Seafood comes in seventh, making up only 5% of Americans’ protein intake, and eggs are ninth, making up 3%. Shellfish and poultry have about 20 grams of protein per ounce, while eggs have about 6 grams each.


These foods are considered “lean” protein sources because they are fairly low in calories and carbohydrates. They can be good choices for weight loss. A serving of skinless poultry or non-fatty can have about 100 to 130 calories and an egg has about 80. Fish, some shellfish, poultry, and eggs have no carbohydrates, while a few types of shellfish, including mussels, oysters, and squid, have a few grams of carbs.

Try...

  • Tuna salad made with non-fat Greek yogurt or avocado instead of mayo
  • Grilled or roasted skinless chicken or turkey with vegetables or in salads
  • Scrambled egg whites or egg white omelets
  • Spaghetti squash with turkey meatballs
  • Baked fish with vegetables
  • Shrimp in stir fry or on salads
  • Hard-boiled eggs plain or in egg salad with plain Greek yogurt

Fatty fish have more calories, but are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These are heart-health and may lower diabetes risk and risk for weight gain. Salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, anchovies, and trout are a few examples of fatty fish to choose.

Protein Source Keep in mind...
Skinless poultry (chicken and turkey)
Choose skinless poultry and grill, stew, or roast it instead of having fried, breaded chicken nuggets or fingers. It is linked to slightly higher weight and diabetes risk, so watch portion sizes and roast or grill instead of fry.
Eggs
Eggs are a great source of certain nutrients, but too many yolks may increase diabetes risk. Have egg yolks only a few times a week and egg whites the rest of the time.
Fish and shellfish
Fatty fish is higher in calories, but richer in heart-healthy omega-3 fats and linked to health benefits.
Reduced-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt
These can be rich in calcium, potassium, and vitamin D. Cheese is high in sodium. Limit sugar-sweetened flavored yogurt and milk.
Soy and other legumes (beans, lentils, split and yellow peas)
These can be good meat alternatives. Look for low-sodium beans if you choose canned products.
Nuts, seeds and peanuts
These provide healthy fats, fiber, and potassium, but are high in calories, so stick to a small portion.
Red meat (beef, pork)
These provide healthy fats, fiber, and potassium, but are high in calories, so stick to a small portion.
Processed meat (ham, turkey breast, pepperoni, bologna, hot dogs, sausages, etc.)
These are linked to higher weight and increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other health risks. Choose leaner options instead of fattier and look for all-natural, low-sodium, nitrate-free versions.

Protein Power of Plants

Plant-based proteins may not have quite as much protein per serving as meat, poultry, and fish, but they are still proteins worth choosing. They have beneficial nutrients such as dietary fiber and potassium. Examples include soy and soy products, such as tofu, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, peanuts, and seeds. Grains, especially whole grain products, also have a bit of protein.

Despite their carb counts - an ounce of almonds has 6 grams of carbs and a half-cup serving of beans has about 20 grams of carbohydrates - plant-based proteins are linked to lower body weight and a lower risk for diabetes. One study found that compared to meat eaters, people following a vegan or plant-based diet had half the risk of diabetes.

Some people are concerned about plant-based proteins because most of them do not provide all of the essential amino acids that you need. However, that need not be a serious concern if you eat a balanced diet. It is true that only a few plant-derived proteins, such as soy and quinoa, are complete with each of the essential amino acids, but it is easy enough to get them all due to the principle of complementary proteins. You can get each of the essential amino acids by combining any two types of plant-based proteins from the following groups:

  • Legumes

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Grains

  • Vegetables

By combining proteins, you can get a complete protein with all the essential amino acids. These are some examples.

  • Peanut butter or almond butter sandwich on whole-grain bread.

  • Carrots or celery with peanut butter.

  • Carrots or celery with hummus.

  • Green beans with almond slices.

  • Beans and brown rice.

  • Green salad with garbanzo beans.

  • Lentil stew with cashews.

  • Veggie burger patty made with corn, oats, and other vegetables.

Try...

  • Meatless bean or soy veggie burgers on lettuce or a whole-grain bun
  • Low-sodium bean, pea, or lentil soup
  • Salad with garbanzo or kidney beans
  • Cereal or oatmeal with nuts or peanut butter
  • Tofu scramble with vegetables
  • Power bowl with quinoa, black beans, and kale

Dairy Products - Protein Plus Calcium

Dairy products have somehow gained a poor reputation, and that may not be fair. They have been linked to lower risk for cardiovascular disease and lower body weights, and are a central part of the DASH diet to lower blood pressure. Now, there is data to suggest that people who eat reduced-fat dairy products have a lower risk for diabetes.

Try...

  • Cottage cheese with seeds or nuts and fruit
  • Overnight oatmeal with milk or yogurt
  • Nachos with bell peppers instead of chips, tomatoes, olives, and cheddar cheese
  • Stuffed tomatoes with spinach, ricotta, and Italian seasoning
  • Plain yogurt with oats or shredded wheat
  • Non-fat cream cheese and celery sticks

Red and Processed Meat: False Friends?

Beef comes in a close second behind chicken, making up 14% of total American protein consumption. Pork, ham, and bacon come sixth. That does not make them healthy, though. They also contribute a good amount of calories and saturated fat, and have been linked to higher body weight and quite a few health problems, including certain cancers, heart disease, and diabetes risk.

Lean red meat is better than fatty, and fresh meats appear far better than processed. Do your best to limit fatty processed meats such as pepperoni, salami, bacon, and sausage, and when choosing lean deli meats, look for all-natural, low-sodium versions. Choose lean steaks and pork chops when you can, and trim off any visible fat before cooking red meat.

Try...

  • Extra-lean ground beef
  • Canadian or turkey bacon
  • Sirloin or loin chop
  • Low-sodium all-natural turkey breast or ham

Better Protein in the Best Package

You can make the best of your protein by choosing healthier sources and eating them with other nutritious foods.

Making Healthier Protein Choices
Instead of... Try...
Sandwiches with deli meat
Sandwiches with leftover chicken or refrigerated pre-cooked chicken breast
Beef burger
Ground turkey or veggie burger
Hot dogs and sausage
Veggie or chicken dogs and sausage
Bacon
Meatless bacon
Fried chicken, chicken nuggets, and fish sticks, and breaded fish patties
Grilled and roasted choices without breading
Whole eggs
Egg whites and cholesterol-free liquid eggs

What you eat with your protein source can be as important for your weight and blood sugar control as the protein source is. You are best off keeping the general diet guidelines in mind when you plan your meals and snacks with protein. That may mean having vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains when you can, rather than having your protein with refined starches, fried potatoes, or butter or mayo.

You might consider…

  • Stir fry with tofu, chicken, or fish and tons of vegetables

  • Whole-grain pasta and vegetables with your chicken or shrimp

  • Apples with peanut butter

  • Baked sweet potatoes or carrot sticks with your veggie burger

Help with Protein, Please!

Are you getting enough protein? How do you choose the right ones? What other foods can be part of a healthy weight loss diet for lowering type 2 diabetes risk?

Help is here! Lark DPP can help you get the right amount and right types of protein as part of your healthy prediabetes diet. Keep logging your meals and snacks to get tips on choosing better protein sources and fitting them into your nutritious meal plan. Weight loss and healthy eating can be simple and delicious!

Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Assistant Professor of Public Health