Written by Carina Fabia
Last updated on: Sep 17, 2022
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Protein powder is a supplement used by athletes with a range of fitness goals. However, for diabetics choosing the right protein powder given their own unique circumstances can be challenging. Read on as we explore the characteristics of a good protein powder for diabetics.
Most protein powders are suitable for diabetics. Some have been found to help manage type 2 diabetes and reduce postprandial glucose excursions (9). But it is preferable to avoid those with added sugar, artificial sweeteners or flavorings. The reason for this is to control your blood sugar levels and these ingredients can raise insulin production and resistance (22, 23).
It is important to note this article may not discuss factors which apply to your unique condition, various medications you may be taking, or other factors requiring consultation with a medical professional. Speak to your doctor for more advice about whether protein powder will be suitable for you as a diabetic.
Diabetics will often have concerns whether the "Recommended Daily Allowance" (RDA) applies to them. This is important as when taking a protein powder you will need to calculate how much protein you will need to get from dietary sources to hit the RDA . The RDA for protein is 0.8g per kilogram of body weight (1). This level of protein intake can be assumed to be applicable for diabetics. The reason for this is the "American Diabetes Association" (ADA) doesn’t specify a recommended protein intake.
Most protein powders should be safe for diabetics. However, it is strongly advised to to exercise caution and thoroughly check the nutrition facts label on any protein powder before making a purchase. You should check the supplement for any added sugar, artificial sweeteners and flavorings. It is important to make sure these levels are very low.
For maximum safety you should choose a protein powder which is completely free of sugar, artificial sweeteners and flavorings. The reason for this is reduce insulin production. With regards to artificial flavorings, research suggests the chemical propionate which is often used in artificial flavourings may increase insulin production and resistance (2).
Suffering from diabetes doesn't mean you cannot enjoy the benefits of protein supplementation. You can use it as a way to reach your health and fitness goals. It can help you lose weight, improve athletic performance, build muscle mass and enhance your overall health. Let's look at how protein powder can support these goals.
The primary benefit you can get from a protein powder is you can conveniently increase your protein levels. This makes it a great way to get protein and essential amino acids on board before or after a workout. Of these essential amino acids, the branched chain amino acids have been found to be the most effective at promoting muscle growth. You can also consume protein shakes at times when you have a busy schedule and you do not have time to meet your protein requirements through eating protein rich food sources. A good whey protein powder will have a protein content in the range of 70% up to 90%. And plant based protein powders protein content will typically be around 65% to 95%. For fitness and athletic goals pea protein is the plant based protein powder we recommend.
Research into the effects of increased protein intake, found it led to a reduction in calorie intake (3), increased levels of appetite-reducing hormones and decreased levels of ghrelin – the hunger-producing hormone (4). A further study observed a 50% to 65% reduction in hunger levels in subjects who took a 20g dosage of whey protein powder daily (5). Other research found pea and casein protein powders were the most effective at suppressing appetite (24). This research shows how a protein supplement can help you with fat reduction, weight loss and the maintenance of lean muscle mass.
Protein shakes have been found to promote muscle protein synthesis, net muscle protein accretion, and hypertrophy. This is beneficial as it prevent muscle breakdown and helps promotes the growth of muscle tissue (6). The ease of preparation makes protein shakes perfect to consume immediately after exercise.
In fitness circles there is a popular theory called the "anabolic window". This anabolic window occurs after a workout and is suggested to be the perfect time to take a protein shake. This theory has not been confirmed in scientific literature. However, some research suggests taking protein powder close to a workout can provide extra benefits when it comes muscle growth, strength gains, and athletic performance benefits (25).
However, protein intake alone will not guarantee improved strength or muscle gains and must be combined with a regular exercise regime. For the best results you should progressively increase your workouts’ frequency, duration, and volume.
Combined with resistance exercise all good whey protein powders will promote muscle hypertrophy and improve muscle strength. Research has confirmed this to be the case for both trained and untrained individuals. Whey protein powder supplementation has also been found to improve athletic performance by boosting aerobic and anaerobic power (7).
It is not just whey protein powder which has been found to successfully promote strength, muscle growth, lean body mass and athletic performance improvements. Both pea and rice protein have been found to produce comparable results as whey (26, 27).
While the benefits above apply to anyone taking a good protein powder. There are some benefits unique to diabetics. Let’s take a look at the research relating to the potential blood sugar lowering effect protein powder can have on diabetics.
Research into whey protein powder has shown a lot of promise on how it may help the management of diabetes. Whey protein has been shown to slow gastric emptying, stimulate insulin and gut hormones, including the incretins, and reduce postprandial blood glucose, especially when consumed some minutes before a meal. This suggests whey protein may be able to help reduce blood sugar spikes after eating (8). However, the researchers of this study state although promising the effect of whey protein regarding the management of diabetes requires more research.
A study analysing the response to whey protein protein in subjects with type 2 diabetes found the response was dependent on the baseline characteristics of the individual (9). People with lower body weights, lower glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) secretion, and normal triglycerides would respond with lowering glucose levels. However, subjects with obesity, high GLP-1 secretion and hypertriglyceridemia would respond to whey protein in the form of increased glucose levels (9). The results of this study suggests the blood sugar response of people with diabetes when taking whey protein powder could be different dependant on body composition.
Further research conclusively found supplementing meals with whey protein resulted in a stimulation of insulin release and a reduction in postprandial blood glucose for type 2 diabetic subjects when consumed during lunch (10). Plasma insulin responses were higher with 27.6g whey supplements than when subjects consumed ham or lactose. Plasma insulin responses were 31% higher at breakfast, and at lunch, the response was 57% higher (10).
Additionally, reductions in blood glucose excursions were observed after lunch but not after breakfast. This may be due to different nutrients in the meals. However, it may also be due to higher insulin resistance due to the fasting period preceding breakfast (10). Despite this studies into the reduced postprandial blood glucose excursion caused by protein powder still needs further research.
It must be emphasised, you should consult with a medical professional to remove any doubts over how your body could respond to protein powder.
Glycated Hemoglobin (HbA1c) levels, which are chemically linked to sugar, have been shown to moderately improve in glucose fasting and insulin fasting subjects over an eight-week trial. HbA1c is a measurement of your average blood sugar levels for the last two to three months. Research found replacing more than 35% of your total animal protein per day with a plant-based alternative can decrease HbA1c levels (11).
Diabetics should consume a protein powder which allows them to maintain HbA1c levels equal to or below 48mmol/mol (6.5%), and if you’re at risk of type 2 diabetes, you should keep those levels below 6% (28).
More research is required to conclusively demonstrate the effects of plant-based proteins on the management of diabetes. It requires direct comparisons between plant-based proteins, animal proteins, and the variations of each. Plant-based proteins also can vary greatly in their levels of essential amino acids. Regardless, if you choose a plant based or whey protein powder it is advisable to aim for HbA1c levels equal to or bellow 48mmol/mol (6.5%). A good starting point to achieve this would be to choose an unsweetened and sugar free protein powder.
More research is needed to find out how plant based proteins may be able to help manage diabetes. The effect of different types of animal and plant proteins need to be tested individually to see if they have different effects relating to the management of diabetes.
As an example, pea protein powders uses pea protein isolate. This means most of the starch and fiber has been removed. This could potentially make it less effective for managing diabetes. This hypothesis is based off studies which have demonstrated the starch and fiber make peas low-glycemic index food, This in turn would make pea protein with most of the starch and fibre not being remvoed it beneficial for preventing and treating type 2 diabetes (12).
Soy protein is showing promising signs of controlling clinical indices in type two diabetes (13). Long-term supplementation for a period of 6 months of more has been found to significantly reduce blood glucose levels (13). However, more research is required to effectively observe these long-term effects (14).
So, if you’re a diabetic and would like to take enjoy the benefits offered by a good protein supplement what are the specific factors you need to consider when deciding which protein powder is best for your you?
Firstly, sugar levels are the most important factor to consider. Your goal is to stay within your specific daily requirements. A high quality protein powder will not come with lots of unnecessary sugar. Protein powders with added sugar are not a problem if you stay within daily guidelines. However, a protein powder with no added sugar would be best for most diabetics, particularly considering the high sugar content of most diets (15). It is advisable to avoid any unnecessary risks which can trigger blood sugar spikes.
Artificial flavourings often contain chemical propionate. This is an ingredient used in a wide variety of food sources. Research has found propionate can cause the increased production of numerous hormones associated with obesity and diabetes (16). One study demonstrated propionate activates a catecholamine-mediated increase in insulin counter-regulatory signals. Consequently, insulin resistance and hyperinsulinemia increased in subjects, which can promote obesity and metabolic abnormalities over time (17).
Artificial sweeteners should only be consumed in minimal amounts by anyone at risk of or suffering from diabetes, with evidence suggesting it may be harmful when consumed over time (18).
To achieve good glycemic control, carbohydrate intakes should be measured, and you should measure the glycemic response to artificial sweeteners to determine your intake limit. Research has shown artificial sweeteners to have little effect on glycemic responses in diabetic subjects. Still, some products contain artificial sweeteners will also contain carbohydrates and energy from other sources (19).
For example, stevia, which is often used as a sugar alternative, has shown minimal effects on blood glucose levels. In contrast, some of the compounds derived from it have even shown a therapeutic blood glucose-lowering effect, although this remains inconclusive (19). However, even though artificial sweeteners such as stevia are used widely to control diabetes and reduce caloric intake, they may alter insulin sensitivity. They, therefore, may not have any beneficial effects for the treatment of obesity and diabetes mellitus (19).
The sweetener aspartame, has also been found not to have adverse effects on glycemic control in subjects with diabetes (20). Still, it has been found it may be associated with greater glucose intolerance, particularly for people with obesity (21).
Extensive research is required to draw distinct conclusions about whether it is prudent to limit all consumption of artificial sweeteners. We would advise to avoid artificial sweeteners and go for an unsweetened protein powder if you have any doubts.
Understanding the research which has been conducted on the effects protein powder has on diabetics will help you make better-informed decisions. Taking a protein powder will increase your protein intake, help with weight loss and improve muscle growth, strength gains, and athletic performance.
For diabetics, some protein powders may help with the management of type 2 diabetes and reduce postprandial blood glucose excursion. However, you must beware of sugar levels, artificial flavourings, and artificial sweeteners to ensure you don’t exceed your daily dietary limits.
Once again, we must reiterate, before making any decisions about adding protein powder to your diet as a diabetic, you need to consult with your physician or a specialist. Countless factors in your medical history could affect your body’s response to protein powder.