Diabetic Diet Tips: 3 Guidelines for Adding Protein

How do you fill the protein corner of your plate if you’re on a diabetic diet? Here are healthy ways to add meat into the mix of protein-rich vegetarian options like kidney beans, black-eyed beans and lentils.

3 Tips for Adding Protein to a Diabetic Diet

Meat has its role to play a diabetic diet—as long as you choose carefully.

Meat contains fat, which is a drawback because fat means calories. We don’t propose that you should eliminate fat from your diet—that wouldn’t make sense. Fat adds flavour, richness and texture to foods. It makes you feel full and satisfied. And it helps the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A and E. In fact, people who cut out too much fat from their diets are less likely to succeed at losing weight. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can eat all the fat you want or that every type of fat is good for you. Use the following guidelines to plan meals that provide a good helping of protein.

1. Cut Back on Saturated Fat

The culprit in most heart problems that are blamed on fat intake is saturated fat, the type found in meat and full-fat dairy products such as cheese. Saturated fat raises “bad” LDL cholesterol, the kind that clogs blood vessels and can lead to heart attacks and strokes – and you already have an increased risk of these when you have diabetes. Just as important for you, research shows that saturated fat may increase insulin resistance and make blood sugar control more difficult.

The trick is to choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products. It’s no great hardship.

In general, you should:

  • Choose meats that are relatively low in saturated fats. Before cooking, trim off any visible fat from steaks, chops and cutlets, and from cubes of meat that are to be used in casseroles or stews. (Put meat in the freezer 20 minutes beforehand and it will firm it up, making it easier to cut.)
  • Cook casseroles and stews ahead of time and allow them to cool overnight in the fridge. A layer of congealed fat will form on the top which can easily be skimmed off. Or drop a few ice cubes into a warm casserole or stew: the fat will solidify around them and they can then be lifted out.
  • Eat chicken without the skin. (You can leave the skin on while cooking to help keep the meat moist, then remove it before eating.)
  • Choose lower-fat versions of dairy foods. Skimmed milk, for example, is virtually fat-free, while whole milk gets almost half of its fat calories from saturated fat. For 100kcal, you can have either 300ml (10fl oz) skimmed milk or 150ml (5fl oz) whole milk.

2. Favour Oils, Nuts and Fish

Not all fat is bad for your heart or your insulin sensitivity (although all fat is high in calories). In fact, some fat—the unsaturated kind—is actually good for you. This type of fat lowers your “bad” cholesterol rather than raising it. And one type of unsaturated fat, called monounsaturated fat, has even been shown to help reduce insulin resistance and make blood sugar easier to control. Sources of monounsaturated fat are:

  • Almonds and other nuts
  • Avocados
  • Olive oil and canola oil
  • Peanuts and peanut butter
  • Seeds

However, you’ll still have to watch how much you eat, because at 9 kilocalories per gram, even “good” fat can pack on the pounds. For example, peanut butter makes an excellent protein choice for a quick lunch or snacks, but you should limit yourself to 2 tablespoons because of its high fat content.

Fatty fish are another source of “good” fats: omega-3 fatty acids. These fats are the kind proven to cut the risk of a fatal heart attack—so people with diabetes should eat them. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in:

  • Oily, cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, canned sardines, and mackerel. Using the plate approach, you should aim to fill the protein quarter of your plate with fish two or three times a week.
  • Shellfish such as prawns, lobster and mussels. They contain smaller amounts of omega-3s but are low in saturated fat and calories. They also contain other important nutrients for people with diabetes, including vitamin B12 and zinc.
  • Certain vegetable oils such as linseed, walnut and rapeseed. But recent evidence suggests that these may not bestow the same benefits as oily fish.

3. Keep Dairy Foods on the Menu 

Dairy deserves a special mention because foods such as low-fat cheese and fat-free milk and yogurt are high in both protein and calcium. Why is calcium important? Studies have found that if you get adequate amounts of calcium this can help you to lose weight. This is because a lack of adequate calcium triggers the release of a hormone called calcitriol, which prompts the body to store fat. Eating two or three servings of calcium-rich dairy foods per day helps to keep calcitriol levels low so your body burns more fat and stores less. Taking calcium supplements doesn’t seem to produce the same effect, which has led researchers to conclude that dairy foods may have some other, as-yet-undiscovered, weight-loss advantage as well.

Not everyone tolerates the lactose in milk well, but if you are bothered by symptoms such as bloating and gas, you can ease dairy into your diet by having small amounts with meals, which slows the rate at which lactose enters your system. You can also forgo milk in favour of dairy foods that are naturally lower in lactose, such as low-fat cheese and yogurt.

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