Your Protein Prescription

By Janis Jibrin, MS, RD, Best Life lead nutritionist and co-author, along with Bob Greene and John J. "Jack" Merendino Jr., MD, of The Best Life Guide to Managing Diabetes and Pre-Diabetes.

Your Protein Prescription

When you have diabetes, your food focus tends to be on carbs--as it should be--but there's another macronutrient that deserves your attention, too: Protein. Those eggs (or liquid eggs) at breakfast, the turkey breast or smoked tofu in your lunch sandwich, the fish at dinner are all helping you keep blood sugar in the healthy zone.

In The Best Life Guide to Managing Diabetes and Pre-diabetes, as well as on the diabetes program on, you'll be taking in about 24 percent of your calories from protein, right in the middle of the 10 to 35 percent healthy range prescribed by the Institute of Medicine. (The "Protein by the Numbers" chart below offers a healthy level of protein at various calorie levels.) This amount allows you to get a few ounces of protein at major meals, and, a little at snacks. It's important to include protein in meals because when it's eaten at the same time as a high-carb food (such as a chicken breast sandwich or pasta with tomato sauce and shrimp), it slows and reduces the rise in blood sugar compared to eating the carb-rich food alone.

It's not just the quantity of protein that's important--you also need to focus on the quality. Most of your protein should be the lean type listed in the What's a Protein? list [where]. These foods are low in saturated fat, which, in excess, raises your risk for cancer and heart disease.  Because diabetes can double your chances of developing heart disease, reining in saturated fat is even more important for you than for the rest of the population. Try to limit your intake of high-saturated-fat protein foods, such as ground beef that is less than 85 percent lean, other fatty meats, poultry with skin, and fried fish, chicken, or meats, to no more than once a week. And limit regular cheese to an ounce or two about twice a week. Your protein staples should come from the list below.

Protein By the Numbers

The number of daily protein servings you get depends on your daily calorie level.  If you're not sure how many calories you're taking in, go with 1,700 if you're a woman, and 2,000 if you're a man.  Those are reasonable levels for most people.

Calories Per Day         1,500   1,700   2,000   2,250
Protein Servings                7        7.5          8          9

Here's how to divvy up your protein
Have 2 to 5 servings at a given meal, and try to have at least one serving in your snack. A serving looks small--just 1 ounce of lean meat or 2 ounces of tofu--but remember, you get 7 to 9 servings of high-protein foods daily. For instance, at a meal you could have 3 ounces of lean roast beef in a sandwich (3 servings), or 6 ounces of tofu in a stir-fry (3 servings), or, if you're at the high end of daily protein servings, 5 ounces of broiled fish (5 servings). While you can have a high-protein food, such as eggs or scrambled tofu, at breakfast, you don't have to. Milk, yogurt, or soymilk, which count toward your carbohydrate servings, also have enough protein to balance out the meal without using up a protein serving.

What's a protein serving?
About 7 grams of protein and 65 calories per serving. The lean protein foods on the list below should be your protein mainstays.

One serving equals

  • Beef, lean (such as sirloin, tenderloin and 95 percent lean ground): 1 ounce cooked
  • Cheese, reduced-fat hard (such as reduced-fat cheddar, jack or Swiss): 1 ounce (check label for no more than 3 grams of saturated fat per ounce)
  • Chicken, skinless broiled: 11/2 ounces or 1/4 cup diced
  • Chicken, skinless, stewed: 1 ounce or 3 tablespoons diced
  • Egg: 1 large
  • Eggs, liquid (such as Better'n Eggs): 1/2 cup
  • Fish, white-fleshed (such as grouper, flounder or snapper): 2 ounces cooked
  • Fish, oily (such as salmon, trout or bluefish): 1 ounce cooked
  • Peanut butter (such as Smart Balance): 1 tablespoon (also uses up 1 fat serving)
  • Pork tenderloin: 1 ounce
  • Salmon, canned, packed in water, drained: 2 ounces
  • Seitan (wheat protein): 2 ounces
  • Tempeh (fermented soy): 11/4 ounces
  • Tofu: 2 to 4 ounces (check label as calories vary)
  • Tuna, canned, light, packed in water, drained: 2 ounces
  • Vegetable burger, soy-based: 1/2 patty (check label as products differ; ideally, the entire burger should have at least 12 grams of protein and no more than 9 grams of carbohydrates, which you must count toward your grain/starchy vegetable servings)

From, used with permission.

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