Protein foods provide approximately 16 percent of the calories in a typical American diet. For people who have diabetes, the source of those protein calories are important. Protein does not contribute to blood sugar levels per se, but many foods commonly thought of as protein also contain carbohydrate and fat. Protein needs are commonly calculated based on body weight. The Institute of Medicine's Dietary Reference Intakes recommend adult women take in 46 grams protein per day, males 56 g per day.
Protein has several important functions in the body. During digestion, protein is broken down into smaller units called amino acids. These amino acids are then re-assembled in varying sequences to build new body proteins. This process is important for the body to grow new cells and replace older ones. Enzymes, hormones, antibodies and neurotransmitters are a few examples of body components that are protein. Protein also aids in maintaining body fluid and acid-base balance, in addition to blood clotting. Protein requirements are thus dependent upon body size as heavier people have increased needs. Expert nutritionist Dr. Cindy Heiss of Cal Poly State University recommends 0.8 g protein per day per kilogram body weight. To calculate your weight in kilograms, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.
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Because protein is needed for all of these roles, it is not used as a preferred energy source, carbohydrates are. Thus, proteins do not contribute to blood sugar in the way that dietary starches and sugars do. This has important implications for diabetes, because protein does not contribute directly to blood sugar levels. If, however, the calorie contribution from protein exceeds requirements, weight gain results. For individuals with diabetes, glycemic control typically diminishes with increasing weight. Monitoring protein intake is thus important in maintaining healthy blood glucose levels.
Calculation of Protein Requirements
Care must be taken when choosing protein foods on a diabetic diet, as not all foods that you may think of as "protein" are composed of only that. For example, milk is commonly thought of as protein, and it does contain protein, yet it also contains carbohydrate and may also have fat, too. The USDA Food Guide recommends that adults — both those who have diabetes and those who do not — should eat 5 1/2 to 6 ounces of lean meat, fish or poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds each day. Three cups of low-fat milk or yogurt, or a fortified soy beverage should be included, too.
A sample 1,600-calorie menu plan would look like this: --For breakfast, 1 cup cooked oatmeal, 1 cup skim milk and 1/2 medium banana. --Choose 1 cup sliced strawberries and 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese as a mid-morning snack. --Lunch includes a 3-ounce grilled hamburger patty with 1-ounce cheddar cheese slice, a small apple, 1 cup salad greens with 2 tablespoons non-fat Italian dressing and 1 cup skim milk. --For dinner, try 3 ounces broiled salmon with 1 cup brown rice and 1 cup roasted asparagus with 1/2 tablespoon olive oil. Add 1/2 cup fresh cantaloupe for dessert.
- Symposium: Nutritional Implications of Dietary Protein Restriction in Diabetes Mellitus: Protein Consumption and Diabetes Mellitus: An Overview; L. John Hoffer; 1998
- Diabetes Care: Nutrition Principles and Recommendations in Diabetes; American Diabetes Association; January 2004
- Cal Poly State University: Diabetes Tutorial Kcal/Protein Needs; Cindy Heiss, PhD, RD, 1999