The Best Protein Supplements and Powders for Diabetics

UK Fitness Pro
UK Fitness Pro
· 11 min read
A protein shake for a diabetic

Diabetes, a condition marked by irregular blood sugar levels, necessitates careful dietary management. 

Among the essential nutrients, protein plays a crucial role in overall health and in muscle mass maintenance and satiety, which is important for weight management and avoiding hunger pangs (1). For diabetic patients, choosing the right protein supplements can be a balancing act between managing blood sugar spikes, insulin secretion, and ensuring enough protein intake. 

Here, we explore the best protein supplements for diabetics by considering their macros (carbs, fats, proteins) and the evidence relating to their use by those with diabetes so you can find the right protein powder for you. 

Importance of Protein for Diabetics

Protein is vital for muscle growth and repairing tissues. 

Diabetics need to ensure they get enough protein without negatively affecting their blood sugar levels. Protein sources that do not lead to blood sugar spikes or insulin resistance are ideal. Protein drinks and supplements can be an excellent choice for maintaining protein intake, especially for those on a high-protein diet for weight loss or muscle mass gain. In terms of how much protein you need, the Mayo Clinic suggests that those training for an endurance event or who frequently lift weights should aim for 1.2–1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. 

For example, a 50-kg individual would aim for 60 to 85 grams per day, while a 100-kg person would aim for 120 to 170 grams per day. 

Whey Protein Powder

Whey powder is a popular choice among diabetic patients for its low impact on blood sugar levels and its ability to aid in muscle growth. It's a complete protein, containing all essential amino acids. Whey protein concentrate is a great way to get high-quality protein without too much added sugar. 

Per 100 grams, Myprotein's whey protein concentrate contains 5.9 grams of carbs (5 grams from sugars), 6.3 grams of fat, and 75 grams of protein. 

A whey protein shake

For comparison, their whey protein isolate contains 4.6 grams of carbs (3 grams from sugars), 1.1 grams of fat, and 81 grams of protein. Thus, compared to whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates tend to be slightly lower in carbs (including sugars) and fats and higher in protein. 

If you're looking for something with more carbs (and sugar), you could consider a whey-based meal replacement powder. For instance, Myprotein's meal replacement powder contains 34 grams of carbs (28 grams from sugars), 13 grams of fat, and 34 grams of protein.

If you'd like to test out a whey supplement without spending too much, you could try one of these small samples:

Research on Whey Protein and Diabetes

Studies, including those led by Dr Daniel West* at Newcastle University and the Human Nutrition Research Centre, have highlighted the potential benefits of whey protein in moderating blood glucose levels. 

A low dose of whey protein, as per their findings, can have an insulinotropic effect, beneficial for diabetic patients. Specifically, they found that having a small drink of whey protein (100 ml with 15 g of protein) 10 minutes before breakfast, lunch, and dinner resulted in blood sugar levels being within the normal range for an additional two hours each day (2). 

While the researchers acknowledge that it's necessary to complete further studies over longer periods (their participants were only monitored for a week), their results suggest that whey protein powder could help to promote steadier and more continuous glucose levels in the blood. 

A whey protein shake with strawberries

Additionally, there's evidence that whey protein supplements can reduce triglyceride levels, which tend to be higher in those with diabetes and are linked to an increased risk of conditions like heart disease and stroke (3). 

As well as for diabetic individuals of "normal body weight", there's also evidence that whey protein supplements can be of value for overweight people with diabetes. Research published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry (4) suggests that whey protein powder can improve fat loss in overweight diabetic individuals and can increase glutathione peroxidase – an enzyme that protects the body from oxidative stress.

You might also like our article on the best protein supplements for weight loss or our article on how whey protein compares to casein protein.

Plant-Based Protein Powders

For those who have allergic reactions to components of dairy products like lactose (i.e., those with lactose intolerance), plant-based protein powder is an excellent alternative. Options like pea protein, brown rice protein, soy protein, and hemp protein can provide essential nutrients with minimal impact on blood sugar levels.

Pea Protein Powder

Pea protein, derived from yellow peas, is gaining popularity as a dairy-free alternative. 

It's a relatively complete protein (i.e., it has a good balance of essential amino acids) and is a good source of iron. Pea protein supplements are often recommended for their low glycaemic index and high protein content, essential for blood sugar management and muscle maintenance. A study published in the European Journal of Nutrition found that participants taking a pea protein drink alongside 50 g of glucose had smaller blood sugar spikes and higher insulin levels compared to those who just had glucose (5). 

Similar to their whey protein isolate, Myprotein's pea protein isolate contains 2.6 grams of carbs (1 gram from sugars), 5.5 grams of fat, and 80 grams of protein per 100 grams.

Brown Rice Protein Powder

Brown rice protein powder is another potential option for vegan diabetics as it provides a plant-based protein source with a low glycaemic index, which can help manage blood sugar levels. As with pea protein, there's evidence that brown rice protein can minimise blood sugar spikes when taken alongside simple sugars (6). Similar to their whey and pea protein isolates, Myprotein's brown rice protein isolate contains 3.8 grams of carbs (1 gram from sugars), 2.1 grams of fat, and 78 grams of protein per 100 grams. 

You might be interested in our comparison of rice and pea protein powders.

Soy Protein Powder

Derived from soybeans, soy protein is one of the most well-established plant-based protein supplements. 

A soy protein isolate

A sample of Myprotein's Soy Protein Isolate. 

As such, many studies have examined the potential benefits of soy protein for those with diabetes. A meta-analysis of 11 randomised controlled trials examining the impact of soy protein supplementation on individuals with type 2 diabetes revealed significant improvements in several health markers (7). These include reductions in fasting plasma glucose, fasting serum insulin, insulin resistance, diastolic blood pressure, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (aka "bad cholesterol"), total cholesterol, and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation). Another large meta-analysis and systematic review suggests that components of soy protein (e.g., soy lecithin) may lower the risk of type 2 diabetes (8). 

Myprotein's soy protein isolate contains 1.8 grams of carbs (0.5 grams from sugars), 1.5 grams of fat, and 90 grams of protein per 100 grams. 

Hemp Protein Powder

Hemp protein is made by grinding the seeds of the hemp plant into a fine powder, a process that separates the oil from the seeds, leaving a rich protein concentrate that is high in fibre and essential fatty acids. 

There's evidence that, compared to other plant-based proteins, hemp protein can significantly increase glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP). In turn, this may increase insulin secretion and lead to lower blood sugar levels (9). 

However, hemp protein powders tend to be higher in carbohydrates (including sugar) than other plant-based and milk-based protein powders (Table 1). 

The Pure Hemp 50 Protein Powder from Bodybuilding Warehouse contains 15.5 g carbs (5.4 g from sugars), 12.6 g fat, and 47 g protein per 100 grams. 

Even the best protein shakes can become boring if you have them too often. If you're following a plant-based diet and want to increase your protein consumption, you could try out one of these plant-based high-protein snacks to keep things interestingYou might also like our article comparing pea and hemp protein powders

Table 1. Macronutrients per 100 grams in different types of protein powders

Protein Powder TypeCarbohydrates (g/100g)Fats (g/100g)Proteins (g/100g)
Whey Protein Concentrate (Myprotein)5.9 (5g from sugars)6.375
Whey Protein Isolate (Myprotein)4.6 (3g from sugars)1.181
Pea Protein Isolate (Myprotein)2.6 (1g from sugars)5.580
Brown Rice Protein Isolate (Myprotein)3.8 (1g from sugars)2.178
Soy Protein Isolate (Myprotein)1.8 (0.5g from sugars)1.590
Hemp Protein (Pure Hemp 50)15.5 (5.4g from sugars)12.647

If you'd like to see whether a plant-based protein powder might be suitable for you, you could start with one of these small samples:

Balancing Carbohydrates and Sugar Content

Diabetic patients need to carefully monitor their carbohydrate intake and may need to avoid added sugars. 

Sugar-free protein shakes or those using artificial sweeteners can be a safer choice. Thus, it's essential to check the nutritional information for hidden sugars and carbs. As you can see in Table 1 above, most of the protein powders considered here are quite low in carbohydrates and sugars, though there is some variability. Hemp protein has the most carbs and sugars, and soy protein isolate has the least. With just 0.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams, using soy protein isolate will get you about as close as you can get to a sugar-free protein shake

If you check the ingredient list on the packaging of any protein supplement, it's common to see artificial sweeteners like sucralose. According to dieticians at the Cleveland Clinic, there's no evidence that sucralose has any negative health effects on people, including those with diabetes. However, if you're concerned about consuming sweeteners, most protein powders are available in "unflavoured" forms that do not contain any artificial sweeteners. 

Additional Nutritional Considerations

Essential Nutrients Beyond Protein

Diabetics should look for protein powders that offer more than just protein. Essential nutrients like dietary fibre, healthy fats, and vitamins can support overall health. Sources of protein like peanut butter, cottage cheese, chia seeds, and fish appear to offer a range of health benefits in relation to diabetes. 

With respect to peanut butter, a longitudinal study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nut and peanut butter consumption was linked to a decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes in women (10). 

Toast with peanut butter

Similar to the aforementioned research on pea and brown rice proteins, research on the consumption of cottage cheese by type 2 diabetics indicates that it can attenuate blood sugar spikes and increase insulin when consumed alongside glucose (11)

Regarding chia seeds, a study published in Nutrition and Health found that adults with type 2 diabetes who consumed 40 grams of chia seeds every day for 12 weeks ended up with significantly lower blood pressure than those in the control group (12). 

With regard to fish, there's evidence that cod protein, compared to other animal proteins, can lead to significantly greater improvements in insulin sensitivity in insulin-resistant men and women (13). 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also highlight how diabetes can increase your chances of getting sick and how, therefore, it's important to support your immune system with vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables. However, in moments when you're unable to eat enough fruits and vegetables, you could consider vitamin and mineral supplements to help support your immune system. 

Consulting Healthcare Providers

Before making any lifestyle changes or starting any new supplement, including protein powders, it's important to consult a healthcare provider

They'll be able to provide you with guidance while taking into account your current diabetes medication, individual needs, and medical history. They'll also be able to give you information about the potential side effects of protein supplements. For instance, such supplements may increase the risk of gestational diabetes mellitus when taken during early pregnancy (14). There's also evidence that having an excessive amount of protein may cause complications for those with kidney damage (15). Individuals with a sensitive digestive system should also ask about the digestibility of different proteins. 

For example, whey protein may be easier to digest than soy protein (16). 

Conclusion

Finding the best protein powder for diabetics involves understanding your individual nutritional needs, how to manage your blood sugar, and your overall health goals. Whether it's whey protein powder, pea protein, or another plant-based option, the key is to choose a product that supports a healthy lifestyle without compromising diabetic health. Remember, protein supplements should complement real food and a balanced diet for effective diabetes management and overall well-being.

You might also like these articles on the best protein powders for weight gain, the best protein powders for seniors, and the similarities and differences between whey and hemp proteins

About the Author

Dave Robinson is a co-founder of ukfitness.pro and has a background in psychology (BSc) and neuroscience (MSc, PhD). As well as strength training, he enjoys endurance challenges and has completed marathons and ultramarathons, cycled across several countries, and completed the Three Peaks Challenge. When writing, he draws on scientific evidence to understand the pros and cons of different diets, supplements, and training regimes. 

References

1. Paddon-Jones, D., Westman, E., Mattes, R. D., Wolfe, R. R., Astrup, A., & Westerterp-Plantenga, M. (2008). Protein, weight management, and satiety. The American journal of clinical nutrition87(5), 1558S–1561S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1558S

2. Smith, K., Taylor, G. S., Brunsgaard, L. H., Walker, M., Bowden Davies, K. A., Stevenson, E. J., & West, D. J. (2022). Thrice daily consumption of a novel, premeal shot containing a low dose of whey protein increases time in euglycemia during 7 days of free-living in individuals with type 2 diabetes. BMJ open diabetes research & care10(3), e002820. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmjdrc-2022-002820

3. Zhang, J. W., Tong, X., Wan, Z., Wang, Y., Qin, L. Q., & Szeto, I. M. (2016). Effect of whey protein on blood lipid profiles: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. European journal of clinical nutrition70(8), 879–885. https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2016.39 

4. Flaim, C., Kob, M., Di Pierro, A. M., Herrmann, M., & Lucchin, L. (2017). Effects of a whey protein supplementation on oxidative stress, body composition and glucose metabolism among overweight people affected by diabetes mellitus or impaired fasting glucose: A pilot study. The Journal of nutritional biochemistry50, 95–102. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnutbio.2017.05.003

5. Thondre, P. S., Achebe, I., Sampson, A., Maher, T., Guérin-Deremaux, L., Lefranc-Millot, C., Ahlström, E., & Lightowler, H. (2021). Co-ingestion of NUTRALYS® pea protein and a high-carbohydrate beverage influences the glycaemic, insulinaemic, glucose-dependent insulinotropic polypeptide (GIP) and glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) responses: preliminary results of a randomised controlled trial. European journal of nutrition60(6), 3085–3093. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-021-02481-8  

6. Tan, S. Y., Siow, P. C., Peh, E., & Henry, C. J. (2018). Influence of rice, pea and oat proteins in attenuating glycemic response of sugar-sweetened beverages. European journal of nutrition57(8), 2795–2803. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-017-1547-3 

7. Zhang, X. M., Zhang, Y. B., & Chi, M. H. (2016). Soy Protein Supplementation Reduces Clinical Indices in Type 2 Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome. Yonsei medical journal57(3), 681–689. https://doi.org/10.3349/ymj.2016.57.3.681 

8. Zuo, X., Zhao, R., Wu, M., Wan, Q., & Li, T. (2023). Soy Consumption and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes and Cardiovascular Diseases: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients15(6), 1358. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15061358

9. Neacsu, M., Vaughan, N. J., Multari, S., Haljas, E., Scobbie, L., Duncan, G. J., Cantlay, L., Fyfe, C., Anderson, S., Horgan, G., Johnstone, A. M., & Russell, W. R. (2022). Hemp and buckwheat are valuable sources of dietary amino acids, beneficially modulating gastrointestinal hormones and promoting satiety in healthy volunteers. European journal of nutrition61(2), 1057–1072. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00394-021-02711-z 

10. Jiang, R., Manson, J. E., Stampfer, M. J., Liu, S., Willett, W. C., & Hu, F. B. (2002). Nut and peanut butter consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes in women. JAMA288(20), 2554–2560. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.288.20.2554

11. Gannon, M. C., Nuttall, F. Q., Lane, J. T., & Burmeister, L. A. (1992). Metabolic response to cottage cheese or egg white protein, with or without glucose, in type II diabetic subjectsMetabolism: clinical and experimental41(10), 1137–1145. 

12. Alwosais, E. Z. M., Al-Ozairi, E., Zafar, T. A., & Alkandari, S. (2021). Chia seed (Salvia hispanica L.) supplementation to the diet of adults with type 2 diabetes improved systolic blood pressure: A randomized controlled trial. Nutrition and health27(2), 181–189. https://doi.org/10.1177/0260106020981819  

13. Ouellet, V., Marois, J., Weisnagel, S. J., & Jacques, H. (2007). Dietary cod protein improves insulin sensitivity in insulin-resistant men and women: a randomized controlled trial. Diabetes care30(11), 2816–2821. https://doi.org/10.2337/dc07-0273

14. Yang, M., Cao, Z., Zhou, J., Liu, J., Zhong, Y., Zhou, Y., Cai, X., Yu, L., Hu, L., Xiao, H., & Zhou, A. (2023). Protein powder supplementation in early pregnancy and the risk of gestational diabetes mellitus: a prospective cohort study. Food & function14(8), 3815–3823. https://doi.org/10.1039/d2fo03609f

15. Kalantar-Zadeh, K., Kramer, H. M., & Fouque, D. (2020). High-protein diet is bad for kidney health: unleashing the taboo. Nephrology, dialysis, transplantation : official publication of the European Dialysis and Transplant Association - European Renal Association35(1), 1–4. https://doi.org/10.1093/ndt/gfz216 

16. Almeida, C. C., Monteiro, M. L. G., da Costa-Lima, B. R. C., Alvares, T. S., & Conte-Junior, C. A. (2015). In vitro digestibility of commercial whey protein supplements. LWT - Food Science and Technology, 61(1), 7-11. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lwt.2014.11.038

*Additional publications by Dr Daniel West (a senior lecturer and principal investigator within Newcastle University's Diabetes Research Group) can be found here: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/medical-sciences/people/profile/danielwest.html