Of all the things you need to watch out for with diabetes, losing muscle strength may be one you haven't heard of yet. If you're living with diabetes, you can largely follow the same muscle-building diet as those without diabetes, and it's possible to do it without hurting your blood sugar.
There are two main types of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. In type 1 diabetes, the body can't make insulin, which helps cells turn blood sugar into energy. In type 2, which is much more common, the body doesn't use insulin well, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
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Muscle mass in general declines with age, but a small August 2013 study in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association found muscle strength declined more quickly in older adults with type 2 diabetes than in those without diabetes. And a June 2018 Medicine study also found a connection between low handgrip strength — a typical measure of overall strength — and type 2 diabetes. So if you're living with diabetes, focusing on building muscle is likely a worthwhile pursuit.
Choose Carbs and Fats Wisely
For your everyday diet with diabetes, aim for whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limit sugar and simple carbs like white bread and white rice, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Making these healthier choices can help you avoid blood sugar spikes.
In general, muscle-building nutrition — which requires a balance of carbohydrates, fats and protein — isn't that different for people with or without diabetes, says Carla Cox, PhD, RD, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator in Missoula, Montana.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommends people who are working on building or keeping muscle aim to get half their calories from carbohydrates, which is also what the CDC suggests for a diabetes diet.
According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, people living with diabetes will need to make smart choices when it comes to carbs to keep blood sugar in check though, opting for carbs from:
- Whole grains
- Low-fat or nonfat milk
These carbs will help your muscles get the power they need during strength training.
Dietary fat is also a critical component to building muscle — but go for the good stuff. The AND and the CDC both recommend opting for foods high in healthy fats like:
Pack In the Protein
Adults should get around 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily — that's about 56 grams a day for a 150-pound person, according to the AND. But your body may need more when you're building muscle as opposed to maintaining it.
Protein sources are key for both muscle growth and controlling diabetes, says Baltimore-based Julie Stefanski, MEd, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist and spokesperson for the AND.
Reach for the protein sources that go above and beyond, delivering essential amino acids and nutrients that can help with inflammation. Stefanski recommends foods like:
Your physical activity should include strength training two or more days a week, according to the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"If you're serious about building muscle, you need to do eight or more types of weightlifting [exercises] and at least 1 set of 10 to 12 reps of each," Cox says. "You can definitely build muscle with diabetes."
But any physical activity, whether it's cardio or strength training, is good if you have type 2 diabetes. The American Diabetes Association recommends at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week.
And the benefits of staying active for people living with diabetes go far beyond feeling stronger: They include better sleep, improved memory and a lower risk of heart and nerve damage, according to the CDC.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “What Is Diabetes?”
- Journal of the American Medical Directors Association: “Patients With Type 2 Diabetes Show a Greater Decline in Muscle Mass, Muscle Strength, and Functional Capacity With Aging”
- Medicine: “Association Between Muscle Strength and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Adults in Korea”
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020: Appendix 1: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans”
- Carla Cox, PhD, RD, CSSD, CDE, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, Missoula, Montana
- American Diabetes Association: “Get and Stay Fit”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Get Active!”
- U.S National Library of Medicine: “Diabetic Diet”
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: “4 Keys to Strength Building and Muscle Mass”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Carb Counting”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Diabetes Diet, Eating, & Physical Activity”
- Julie Stefanski MEd, RDN, CSSD, LDN, CDCES, FAND, registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist, spokesperson, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Baltimore, Maryland