Protein is one of the three macronutrients needed for a healthy diet. But there’s quite a bit to protein that you maybe don’t know - particularly its effects on blood sugar levels. For example, will eating protein increase your blood sugar concentration? How does protein affect your body’s insulin levels? But hold up, what is insulin, anyway?
If you find yourself scratching your head over these questions during meal planning, bookmark this article to learn everything about protein consumption relative to your blood sugar levels.
Please note: This article is meant for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from a healthcare professional.
What Happens In Your Body After Eating Proteins?
Unless you’re counting calories in the name of healthy eating, you may not care much about what happens after scarfing down your favorite cheese-baked pork chops — hey, it’s a protein-rich meal, right?
As a matter of fact, protein consumption doesn’t impact your overall blood glucose levels much (although a protein-rich diet may temporarily reduce it in the short run). Still, the amount of protein you eat affects the insulin levels in your body.
How Is Protein Digested in Your Body?
To start, let’s talk about the exact mechanisms in which protein is broken down within your body. Dietary proteins (proteins that come from your meals) are mainly digested in the stomach and small intestine, where they are broken down into smaller organic compounds called amino acids (the basic building blocks of protein).
For humans, there are two types of amino acids to take note of:
- Essential amino acids (EAAs): These amino acids are not naturally produced in your body. They must be supplemented through your diet, either in the form of whole foods and/or supplements.
- Non-essential amino acids (non-EAAs): These amino acids are naturally synthesized by your body. You don’t have to rely on dietary means to ensure an adequate supply of them.
Essential amino acids are: phenylalanine, valine, tryptophan, threonine, isoleucine, methionine, histidine, leucine, and lysine. All other amino acids are considered non-essential. That said, some non-EAAs, like arginine and histidine, are conditionally essential. This is because the human body isn’t capable of producing these amino acids in sufficient quantities.
You should also know that most amino acids are glucogenic. In other words, they can be converted into glucose (a simple sugar) or glycogen (a type of carbohydrate) in your body, ultimately raising your blood sugar levels.
That being said, only a small amount of amino acids are converted to glucose, creating a slight upsurge in blood glucose concentration. A 1936 study had proven this finding: the blood glucose levels of 15 diabetic patients and three healthy individuals did not change following a protein-rich meal of lean beef.
How Does Eating Protein Affect Your Insulin Levels?
While protein consumption creates no difference in blood sugar levels between healthy and diabetic people, it affects insulin levels differently. Before we go any further, let’s explain what insulin is and its function in the human body.
Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates your blood glucose levels. After a meal of carbohydrates and protein, your blood sugar levels spike, prompting the pancreas to release insulin. Your body then absorbs and converts the extra glucose into glycogen for storage in the liver.
In a similar way, insulin helps your body absorb digested proteins. Here’s how:
- Extra amino acids that are not used to fuel the gut are transported to the liver.
- In the liver, non-EAAs are metabolized, broken down, then passed out of the body as urea (in urine).
- On the other hand, EAAs pass from the liver into the bloodstream, raising the amount of circulating amino acids.
- In response, the pancreas releases insulin, which signals to your cells to absorb specific amino acids for new protein creation and/or muscle growth.
As such, protein consumption naturally triggers insulin release in everyone. That being said, protein ingestion increases insulin secretion to a greater extent in diabetic people than in healthy individuals. The reason being, branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — valine, leucine, and isoleucine — are broken down more quickly in the muscle tissues of diabetic patients. Consequently, the liver takes in more alanine than usual.
But, how does this lead to a spike in insulin content? Remember, alanine is a conditionally essential amino acid that is transformed into glucose. The greater alanine uptake by the liver will ultimately boost blood glucose levels, stimulating the release of more insulin.
The Journal of Clinical Investigation backs this up: diabetic patients without insulin supplementation show a greater rise in blood glucose levels, coupled with a three- to four-fold increase in liver glucose output after a protein-rich meal. When these individuals were supplemented with insulin, the hormone halted the liver’s uptake of alanine, eventually stopping the surge in blood sugar concentration.
This is why in well-controlled diabetes, where there is adequate insulin in the body, high protein consumption may only increase blood glucose levels to a small extent. Under such circumstances, there is likely no need for large insulin doses.
On a related note, the significant amount of protein in diabetic diets generally compensates for the increased protein breakdown. As such, diabetic patients are usually not susceptible to protein malnutrition as long as they follow their doctor’s dietary protocol.
The Role of Insulin in Protein Synthesis
Aside from regulating the absorption and breakdown of ingested proteins, insulin also plays a part in protein synthesis. The hormone encourages cells to take in alanine, arginine, and glutamine. Note that the process will only happen when the above-mentioned amino acids are present in sufficient quantities in your body. The rate of protein synthesis only increases when amino acid delivery to the muscle cells speeds up (the exact mechanism is still unclear).
An interesting thing to note is that BCAAs, being essential amino acids, were once thought to influence muscle protein synthesis. But scientific evidence says otherwise.
According to the American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, insulin does not stimulate muscle protein synthesis when more BCAAs are present than usual. This suggests that other non-BCAA essential amino acids, for example, tryptophan and threonine, may be the triggers for insulin-induced protein synthesis. Another possible reason may be that insulin also stimulates protein absorption after eating. This lowers the concentration of non-BCAA amino acids, making it more unlikely for protein synthesis to occur. Further findings also confirm that when there are enough non-BCAA essential amino acids, insulin will initiate muscle protein synthesis in the presence of increased BCAAs.
In other words, if you want to take advantage of insulin for muscle growth, you need to consume the correct EAAs. Even though BCAAs supplementation doesn’t promote muscle protein synthesis, these amino acids are still beneficial for post-workout muscle recovery.
The Type of Protein Does Matter
If you want to reap the benefits of protein consumption, with regards to your blood sugar and overall health, the type of protein matters a lot.
Research shows that the risk of Type 2 diabetes is lower when consuming plant protein — think beans, nuts, and vegan protein powders — than animal protein sources. The reason being, many animal proteins, such as red meats and hot dogs, are either processed and/or high in fats. This is why even though a meal rich in animal protein may reduce blood glucose levels in the short term, it will likely increase the possibility of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases in the long term. On the contrary, vegetable protein sources temporarily decrease blood glucose levels without incurring the risk of diabetes in the future.
The bottom line is, when choosing protein sources, it’s best to go vegan if you can. Aside from whole foods, you can also opt for plant protein supplements to get your daily dose of protein in the healthiest way possible.
Zen Principle® offers two types of high-quality, vegan-based protein powders:
- Organic Brown Rice Protein Powder: Purely organic brown rice protein, this protein powder isolate gives you a high protein content of 26 grams per serving. For more details, check out our ultimate guide to brown rice protein.
- Organic Pea Protein Powder: Made of 100% pure organic yellow peas that are USDA-certified, this protein powder isolate is sustainably sourced from small organic farms in the U.S. and Canada. To learn more about its goodness, read our post on pea protein powder benefits.
Our protein powders are jam-packed with numerous essential ingredients including 15+ types of amino acids, anti-inflammatory compounds, and iron. These hypoallergenic supplements are also free of soy, dairy, gluten, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
With more protein per serving than whey and easily dissolvable in liquids (thanks to a custom-milled consistency), these vegan protein powders will meet your everyday nutritional needs and more.