What effect does excess protein have on blood sugar?

Published on January 1, 2018

I have had type 1 diabetes for 43 years and I still do not understand the effect that excess protein has on blood sugar. Once in awhile I will overindulge on a steak. Can you please help me get this straight in my head? I would greatly appreciate your assistance.

A: I have had type 1 diabetes for 43 years and I still do not understand the effect that excess protein has on blood sugar. Once in awhile I will overindulge on a steak. Can you please help me get this straight in my head? I would greatly appreciate your assistance.

During digestion, your body breaks down protein into individual amino acids, which are absorbed into your bloodstream.  In people who don't have diabetes, higher levels of amino acids signal the pancreas to produce the hormones glucagon and insulin. Insulin stimulates your muscle cells to take up amino acids, and glucagon causes your liver to release stored sugar. As a result, blood sugar levels remain stable after protein consumption.

However, people with type 1 diabetes don't produce insulin, yet the pancreas still secretes glucagon when amino acids appear in the blood. When there is no insulin to balance the glucagon, blood sugar levels rise as the liver releases stored sugar.

Importantly, this rise in blood sugar occurs gradually over several hours and increases much less than it would if you ate an equivalent amount of carbohydrates. On the other hand, if you eat a large steak, you will likely require additional insulin to prevent high blood sugar.

Most people with type 1 diabetes find that dividing their carb-to-insulin ratio in half works best. For example, if you ate a steak containing 45 grams of protein and your carb-to-insulin ratio is 15:1, you would use a 30:1 ratio to cover the protein, or 1.5 units of insulin. However, everyone is different, and it may be safest to start by taking a slightly smaller amount of insulin for protein coverage, such as 1 unit, and adjusting the amount based on your personal blood sugar response.

Answered By dLife Expert: Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Certified diabetes educator and registered dietitian living in Southern California.

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