Whey protein is a dairy protein produced when making cheese, according to the Mayo Clinic. As a powder, it can be added to a shake or sprinkled on food. If you have diabetes, you may be wondering if it's a good protein option for you. The truth: more research is needed.
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Among other things, whey protein is often used to improve athletic performance, notes the Mayo Clinic. It can also help with weight gain in people who are underweight or losing weight. And it's also being looked at for its role in blood sugar and insulin resistance.
Read more: Is Whey Protein Good or Bad?
Whey Protein for Diabetes
In a very small September 2017 study in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care, having whey protein before a meal was linked with lower blood sugar spikes by increasing insulin in people with type 2 diabetes. However, the study also found that, in people who had overweight or high blood fats, blood sugar actually spiked after having whey protein.
While previous research suggests that whey protein increases insulin secretion, there has not been enough evidence to show that taking whey protein in powders or shakes causes glucose levels to improve in people with type 2 diabetes. In the small BMJ study, researchers concluded that whey protein could be an option for providers to discuss with their patients with diabetes who do not have obesity or have high triglycerides, but more research is needed.
"I often caution against processed foods, including protein shakes, when counseling people living with diabetes," says Joy Ashby Cornthwaite, RD, LD, certified diabetes educator at UT Physicians, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. "Supplements remain a largely under-regulated industry. If people choose to use them, I encourage frequent glucose monitoring around or near use of shakes and supplements."
Whey Your Options
The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) says that protein is an essential part of a diabetic diet, and it's needed in the same amounts among people with and without diabetes — and that the best way to get protein is from eating whole foods such as:
- Lean meat.
- Plants, like beans or soy.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, adding one scoop of protein powder to a glass of milk to make a shake or smoothie can add anywhere from 10 to 30 grams of protein to your diet. The recommended general daily protein allowance for people with or without diabetes is:
- Women: 46 grams.
- Men: 56 grams.
You'll need to check the labels and count any powdered protein intake toward your daily goals. Also, many protein supplements — including whey — have added sugar and calories that could turn a glass of milk into a 1,200-calorie jolt and spike your blood sugar. While whey protein is an animal-based powder along with casein or egg protein, there are also plant-based powders such as soy, rice, hemp, potato and pea proteins, the Cleveland Clinic notes.
Finally, a March 2014 Cell Metabolism study reported by the National Institutes of Health found that adding too much protein to the diet was linked with earlier death. The study found that adults (without diabetes) ages 50 to 65 who had a diet made up of 20 percent protein or higher were four times more likely to die of cancer over the next 18 years than people on a low-protein diet. And, a high-protein diet was associated with a five-fold increase in death from diabetes.
Although there are many supplements marketed for diabetes, there is not enough evidence to recommend any supplement to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes or help people manage diabetes, says the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Some supplements may also interact with diabetes treatments or increase the risk of kidney damage. You may just want to put the brakes on your whey protein shake.
Your best bet on a diabetes supplement, such as whey: talk to your doctor or diabetes dietitian. "We can develop personalized whole food-based shake preparations that can be made ahead or prepared ahead for convenient quick processing. An example is a vegetable-based smoothie with added protein and low glycemic index fruit or sweetener. This way, convenience meets preference," Ashby Cornthwaite says.
- Joy Ashby Cornthwaite, MS, RD, LD, CDE, certified diabetes educator, UT Physicians, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
- BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care: “Glucose-Lowering Effect of Whey Protein Depends Upon Clinical Characteristics of Patients With Type 2 Diabetes”
- Mayo Clinic: “Whey Protein”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “The Hidden Dangers of Protein Powders”
- Cleveland Clinic: “How to Choose the Best Protein Powder for You”
- National Institutes of Health: “Protein Consumption Linked to Longevity”
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Type 2 Diabetes and Dietary Supplements”
- University of California, San Francisco: "Understanding Protein"