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In diabetes, the body cannot maintain normal levels of blood sugar. One way to manage glucose levels is through dietary choices. Does this include protein shakes?

When a person has type 2 diabetes, the food they eat can make a difference to their wellbeing.

Carbohydrates — especially refined, processed carbohydrates — can trigger blood sugar spikes. In the long term, this can lead to complications.

Whole grains and protein foods take longer to digest than sugars and processed carbohydrates. With slower digestion comes a more gradual rise in blood sugar. This is more healthful for people with diabetes.

However, proteins shakes are often highly processed, and they can contain a lot of sugar.

Read on to find out what this means for a person with diabetes, and get some tips on healthful ways to incorporate protein shakes into the diet.

Protein shakesShare on Pinterest
Some protein shakes may be suitable for people with diabetes, but check the label first to make sure they do not contain sugar.

Everyone needs protein. Proteins enable every cell to function. They help to maintain, rebuild, and repair muscle.

Protein is a building block for the skin, nails, bones, and blood, and it makes up hormones, enzymes, and antibodies.

Our bodies create some proteins, but others must come from the diet. Protein food, such as whey, meat, and tofu, enable the body to create the proteins it needs.

Apart from playing a key role in bodily processes, protein may also have other benefits for people with diabetes.

Managing blood sugar

Consuming additional protein may affect the likelihood of having blood sugar spikes.

Back in 2003, researchers suggested that a high-protein diet might help people with diabetes to manage blood sugar levels. During a 5-week study, people who followed a high-protein diet had lower glucose levels after meals.

In 2010, however, results of a study that looked at 146 South Asian Indians living in the United States suggested that those who followed a high-protein diet also had a higher risk of type 2 diabetes. However, it was unclear what caused the link.

In 2017, a small study of 22 people found that including whey protein in the diet might help some people with type 2 diabetes.

The study found that whey powder stimulated insulin secretion in people with normal body weight and triglyceride levels. However, in those with obesity, whey protein appeared to trigger an increase in glucose levels.

The researchers called for more investigation into how whey powder affect the gut microbiota and plasma metabolites in order to understand how this form of protein might help some people.

Scientists need to carry out more research to find out how adding protein to the diet might affect people with diabetes.

A healthful alternative

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People with type 2 diabetes can mix protein powder with milk and add a piece of fruit for a healthful snack.

When you need a quick snack to eat on the move, the options are often high in carbs or sugar, for example, sodas, pastries, and candies.

These can trigger sugar spikes in people with diabetes.

A protein shake might be a more healthful option, as protein digests more slowly than carbohydrate. The chance of a blood sugar spike is lower, and the person will feel full for longer.

However, packaged protein drinks and foods often have a high sugar content, which can send glucose levels soaring.

Be sure to check the label first, to ensure there is no added sugar.

Protein for weight loss

Type 2 diabetes often occurs alongside excess weight and obesity. A person with diabetes may be seeking to lose weight.

Some people introduce more protein into their diet as part of a weight-loss diet.

Since protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, it increases the feeling of being full, known as satiety. The person will not feel hungry so quickly after consuming protein.

Adding protein to the diet may help a person lose weight, as long as they use the protein to replace carbs and fats. Adding protein to an existing high-carb, high-fat diet will not lead to weight loss.

Protein should not replace fresh fruits, vegetables, and wholegrain foods, as these provide fiber. Reducing fiber intake can lead to a number of health problems.

Combining protein foods — including shakes — with high-fiber ingredients can help people with diabetes maintain a healthy weight.

How much protein do we need?

People need to eat the right amount of protein each day.

From the age of 19 years, the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a protein intake of between 46 and 56 grams (g) each day depending on the person's age and sex. Protein intake for adults should account for 10 to 35 percent of their daily calories.

Protein intake is not the same as protein-rich food intake.

According to Choose My Plate, these protein recommendations equate to between 5 and 6.5 ounces of protein-rich food each day. One ounce could be, for example, one egg, one ounce of meat or fish, or a tablespoon of peanut butter.

Research suggests that endurance athletes may need more protein than healthy adults who do not exercise.

One study has proposed that people who do endurance training should consume 1.2 g to 1.4 g of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight each day.

Some bodybuilders and athletes consume extra protein to increase muscle composition, but protein alone does not increase muscle. People have to do the work in the gym to see any result.

Protein shakes can help athletes maintain their protein levels, whether or not they have diabetes.

Protein throughout the day

The American Diabetes Association advise people with diabetes to space their meals out during the day and not to skip meals or to eat too much.

The body can only absorb and use so much protein at one time. It uses what it can and then creates waste with the leftover.

Instead of having 50 g of protein in one meal, for example, it is better to spread that 50 g out into three to four meals containing 15-20 g each.

A protein shake with added oatmeal, yogurt, and fruit could make a meal.

It is also important to vary your sources of protein.

Protein shakes can act as a protein supplement, but it is still important to eat a variety of protein foods, such as meat, fish, dairy produce, nuts, and beans, as these provide other essential nutrients.

There are different types of protein shake. Some you can make from a protein powder, while others come ready to drink.

Both of these can contain sugar, artificial sweeteners, and unnecessary chemicals.

People with diabetes should take care to limit sweeteners like sugar, agave, or fruit juice in their shakes.

Ready-to-drink protein shakes

Ready-to-drink protein shakes can range from a 0-percent sugar content to 30 g of added sugar in one drink. Even those without sugar may contain other sweeteners.

A person with diabetes should check the sugar content before purchasing the drink.

You can add healthful ingredients, such as oatmeal and chia seeds, to a ready-made drink.

People can purchase sugar-free protein drinks online.

Protein powder

Protein powder drinks may be a more healthful option than ready-to-drink shakes.

For a low-sugar shake, start with a high-quality protein powder and mix the drink at home. This will give you more control over the contents.

Start by checking the ingredient label and find a product that does not contain added sugar. Then mix the drink, adding your own flavorings.

Whey-based or plant-based?

Protein powders can be whey-based or plant-based. Whey-based powders get their protein from milk, and plant-based powders use a variety of things such as soy, peas, nuts, rice, or hemp.

Plant-based shakes are suitable for:

A study published in 2017 concluded that both plant-based and animal-based protein foods can offer short-term benefits to people with diabetes in terms of cardiometabolic and inflammatory variables.

You can mix protein powder with water, but it may not be very tasty, and you may not feel satisfied.

Other options include:

  • milk
  • soy milk
  • nut milk
  • seed milk

Unsweetened and low-fat milks can provide a satisfying, reduced-calorie option.

Serving suggestions

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If you mix a protein shake at home, you can be more certain of its ingredients and make healthful additions.

The following recipe can provide a tasty drink, with added nutritional value:

  • one cup of dairy or non-dairy milk
  • half a cup frozen or fresh fruit
  • one scoop of unsweetened protein powder
  • two to three ice cubes

Mix all the ingredients in a blender until they are smooth.

For added flavor and nutritional value, add one or more of the following:

  • a handful of chia seeds
  • a quarter cup of raw oats
  • a tablespoon of organic or unsweetened peanut butter
  • one eighth of a cup of Greek yogurt
  • cottage cheese
  • unsweetened cocoa powder
  • cinnamon
  • a handful of spinach or kale
  • a cupful of blueberries or other berries

Whole fruit provides fiber and natural sweetness. Add berries, bananas, and other soft fruits to premade shakes or powder-based shakes.

Seeds, nuts, and oatmeal also add fiber.

For people with diabetes, at least one study suggests that some types of fiber may:

  • improve blood glucose management
  • help to reduce cholesterol levels

Protein powder that is suitable for people with diabetes is available for purchase online.

There are a number of risks for people with diabetes when using protein shakes.

Unhealthful ingredients

Apart from sugar, many protein shakes contain other ingredients that may not be healthful, such as:

  • artificial sweeteners
  • refined oils
  • artificial colors and flavorings

It is best to avoid ingredients that you do not recognize as food.

Too much protein?

Most guidelines suggest that people should eat 0.8 g of protein per kg of body weight.

Harvard Health recommend an upper limit of 2.0 g of protein per kg of body weight.

A review of studies published in 2013 found evidence that a high protein intake increased the risk of various health conditions.

Possible problems include:

People with kidney disease may need to limit their protein intake.

A balanced diet

People should also make sure they do not depend solely on shakes for their protein intake, because they may miss out on minerals and other valuable nutrients that protein-rich foods provide.