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Can adequate protein consumption help prevent diabetes?

Published on:10 December 2020, 13:17pm IST
The incidence of diabetes has only risen in the last few years, and many experts suggest a link between the lifestyle disease and protein deficiency. Read on to know more.
Dr Kavitha Reddy
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The link between protein consumption and diabetes. Image courtesy:

Diabetes is one of the key problems plaguing many people around the world, especially Indians. India is only second after China to have the highest diabetic population. Last year, news reports stated that 77 million people in India are suffering from diabetes, while other studies projected that India could be home to 134 million diabetics, within the next 25 years. So, no amount of attention we give this condition can be enough. 

Is protein deficiency a cause of diabetes?

Diabetes is a manageable disease. However, India needs a course correction in the factors that have impacted its prevalence within the population – starting with nutrition. Eating habits are tilting towards processed foods (fast/junk foods), and the lack of well-proportioned and well-timed meals are shifting the balance towards a greater risk of diabetes, especially amongst the younger population.

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Another lesser-known cause for diabetes may be protein deficiency.

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A recent study by the American Diabetes Association indicated that the lack of protein, required to regulate the body’s absorption of blood sugar, plays a significant role in insulin resistance among patients with type 2 diabetes – the most commonly detected in India. On the flipside, people with insulin resistance often receive a diagnosis of prediabetes, which might lead to type 2 diabetes in the long run. In both cases, protein deficiency could aggravate the condition and inhibit the body’s ability to balance sugar or ‘glucose’ levels.

This is why dieticians and medical practitioners prescribe high protein diets. Research shows that a high-protein diet helps people with diabetes improve their blood sugar control and reduce their weight by decreasing post-meal blood sugar spikes and helping satiety, which has a positive impact on insulin regulation in the body.

Then, by consequence, protein deficiency could be seen as underrated and unidentified, and probably an indirect cause of type 2 diabetes.

India’s continuous struggle with protein deficiency

India’s struggle with protein deficiency is not an unknown chapter. Several national statistics have indicated that protein has been slipping out of Indian diets, leading to protein deficiency among both the urban and rural households in the country. Lately, this has been attributed to lower levels of awareness, prevalence of misinformation and myths, and limited knowledge of protein rich food items, by the India’s Protein Paradox national study. 

Don’t overdo protein To fight diabetes

For most people with diabetes, the amount of protein you need is the same as for people without diabetes. So the key really lies in balanced meals, where carbohydrates are controlled, and more importantly, protein is not overlooked.

People with diabetes should work on reducing refined carbohydrate intake (because these foods raise blood sugars rapidly), and instead fill up more on high-fiber complex carbohydrates (like whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and whole-wheat pasta), non-starchy vegetables, and lean protein to keep blood sugar balanced.

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Both vegetarians and non-vegetarians should also turn to local whole foods to fulfill their protein requirements. Skip protein that’s high in saturated fat and focus more on lean protein and plant-based protein to maximise your health. In fact, plant foods like soy-based foods, and tofu are excellent sources of non-animal proteins and fit quite well into a diabetic meal plan, because it is also low in carbs. The same can be said for nuts, and legumes such as black beans, chickpeas, lentils, and edamame as well as some whole-grain foods such as quinoa, kamut, and couscous that contain good amounts of protein.

As per the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) given by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) for Indians, 0.8 to 1 gm protein per kg body weight per day is sufficient to meet the basic nutritional requirements. An effective way to do so would be to ensure that at every meal, 1/4th of your plate is filled with protein. Monitoring daily protein intake through freely accessible tools like Right to Protein’s Protein-O-Meter and Protein Calculator, and guides like the Protein Index is a good habit to follow. These tools can help individuals make dietary changes at a macro level.

Dr Kavitha Reddy Dr Kavitha Reddy

Dr. Kavitha Reddy is an eminent nutritionist and director of Sreya Nutrition. She is also a supporter of the Right To Protein initiative.