Protein Dos and Don'ts for Diabetics

Sometimes it seems as if carbs get all the attention from nutrition experts who extol the virtues of "good" ones vs. "bad" ones. But protein comes in various forms, too. Some are better for your overall health, and others should be eaten more sparingly.

Protein, depending upon what kind, may have an effect on your blood sugar, just as carbs do. Some protein sources (like egg whites and meat) have no carbohydrates at all. But proteins that come from vegetable sources like beans and seeds contain carbohydrates and must be "counted" when you're planning meals.

It's important to eat protein at each meal, and most individuals need 5½ to 6½ servings of protein in a day, explains Rachel Neifeld, RD, CDN, of NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill-Cornell Medical Center in New York City. But, she cautions, a serving of protein doesn't mean a big steak, a giant bacon-and-egg breakfast, or a half-pound burger. Instead, a serving of protein should consist of a much smaller portion—a handful of nuts, an egg, or a piece of meat about the size of a deck of cards.

Visualize a dinner plate when you are deciding how much protein to serve yourself for dinner, Neifeld says. To eat a healthy meal, half the plate should be filled with non-starchy vegetables, a quarter of the plate should consist of protein, and one quarter of the plate can come from carbs or starchy vegetables such as potatoes.

"Eating protein at the same time as carbohydrates will stabilize the blood sugar and hold the food in the stomach longer," Neifeld says. "Combining protein and carbohydrate at the same meal won't spike the blood sugar as quickly."

As for which proteins are best to choose, lean red meat, turkey, or chicken are best for general heart health, Neifeld says. If you're buying lunch meats, make sure they contain under three grams of fat per serving (the same goes for sausage or hot dogs.)

Adds Monica Dorsey-Smith, CDE, an outpatient dietitian at the Diabetes Resource Center at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, moderation is key where protein is concerned. "You don't want to eat five hot dogs a day but one every now and again won't kill you," she says.

If you don't have high blood cholesterol, you don't have to severely restrict your intake of eggs, Dorsey-Smith says. "If you do have high cholesterol, keep to three egg yolks per week," she recommends.

When eating cheese, choose the reduced-fat varieties since cheese is a big source of saturated fat. And while nuts such as walnuts don't have harmful fats, that doesn't mean you can chow down on however many you want. Remember, a serving of nuts consists of a small handful.

And, Dorsey-Smith says, don't drive yourself nuts trying to work more protein into your diet. Most Americans get plenty. "We are a protein-obsessed culture," she says. "Most of us think we need more protein than we do."