What Everyone Gets Wrong About How Protein Affects Blood Sugar Balance

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There are many reasons people go plant-based. Whether you are doing it for health reasons, to better the environment, or both, not eating any type of animal products or limiting them is a huge lifestyle change. While there are many questions that arise: "Will I be able to go out to eat?" "What will my friends and family think?"; "What will I eat?" will be the most important one you need to answer and one that will determine just how beneficial this diet will be for your health.

As a functional medicine practitioner, I see many people become a vegan, vegetarian, or just more plant-centric as a way to be healthier and manage chronic health problems. However, after many years of clinical and personal experience, I have seen where conventional vegan diets go right and where they go wrong. After 10 years of being a staunch conventional higher-carb, lower-fat vegan, yet still battling ongoing health problems, I knew something had to change.

My diet consisted more or less of what I often see many vegans eating—sprouted grains, legumes, and other forms of carbs. I was overloading on foods that raised my blood sugar, perpetuated inflammation, and contributed to my digestive distress.

It was out of this that my book Ketotarian was born. By focusing on the ketogenic principle of a high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carb ratio of nutrients, but through plant-based sources, you can transition your body from a sugar burner to a fat burner while avoiding the often-inflammatory effects of dairy and conventionally processed meats. I also shifted what plant-based foods I was eating to consist of healthy plant-based fats such as avocados and coconuts, protein from nuts and seeds, and plenty of nutrient-rich vegetables.

In order to manage your blood sugar, it is essential to not overdo it on protein

One common criticism that vegan diets in particular get is centered around protein: Is it possible to get all of your protein while being completely plant-based? In reality, you actually need less protein than you think. In order to manage your blood sugar, it is essential to not overdo it on protein. Your body is incredibly smart, and when you starve it of glucose, it uses the process of gluconeogenesis to turn your protein intake into glucose for energy. But when you limit your protein, your body is able to use fat for fuel instead. You should be aiming for around 0.5 to 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body weight—the amount of weight on your body that isn't fat—per day. But not all protein is created equally.

The main issue when it comes to protein is about the specific kind more than the quantity. When you eat protein, it is broken down by your body into amino acids. Your body needs amino acids to function optimally. There are a total of 20 amino acids that your body needs; however, only nine are considered essential:

  1. Valine: A branched-chain amino acid responsible for energy production and muscle growth.
  2. Threonine: Plays a role in fat metabolism as well as collagen structure for skin and connective tissue health.
  3. Tryptophan: As a precursor to your neurotransmitter serotonin, it helps regulate your sleep and mood.
  4. Methionine: Essential for tissue growth.
  5. Isoleucine: Another branched-chain amino acid found in muscle tissue needed for muscle regeneration.
  6. Lysine: Plays roles in both energy production and protein synthesis.
  7. Histidine: Produces histamine, a compound involved in immune responses.
  8. Phenylalanine: A precursor to your neurotransmitters dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and tyrosine.
  9. Leucine: Another branched-chain amino acid involved with muscle health and protein synthesis.

Of all the amino acids, your body can't make these nine alone, so you must get them through your diet. Foods containing all nine essential amino acids are considered complete proteins and are found most abundantly in meat, dairy, eggs, and seafood—all of which are not options for vegans. 

The truth is, we really can get all of the amino acids we need from plants alone. Some of my favorite lesser-known plant-based sources of complete protein include:

  • Hempeh (tempeh made from hemp seeds): 22 grams protein per 4 ounces hempeh
  • Natto (organic non-GMO): 31 grams protein per 1 cup natto
  • Tempeh (organic non-GMO): 31 grams protein per 1 cup tempeh
  • Hemp protein powder: 12 grams protein per 4 tablespoons powder
  • Hemp hearts/seeds: 40 grams protein per 1 cup hemp
  • Nutritional yeast: 5 grams protein per 1 tablespoon yeast
  • Sacha inchi seed protein powder: 24 grams protein per 4 tablespoons powder
  • Spirulina: 4 grams protein per 1 tablespoon spirulina

These not only provide an excellent amount of protein per serving, but they are also easy to incorporate into your everyday meals as an addition to smoothies, on top of salads or other dishes, or alone as a snack (for plant-based protein options, check out my article on the subject).

Also, even though other vegetables don't contain all nine essential amino acids, if you are eating some of these complete protein sources along with a wide variety of different vegetables, you'll still end up getting all nine in, along with other vital nutrients your body needs to function optimally. The old concept of protein combining or pairing was centered around the idea that, because complete proteins are not always found in plant sources, that each meal had to include all essential amino acids. But when we chew meals, our stomach doesn't divide our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. All the meals for the day are inside our gastrointestinal system being digested, absorbed, and utilized. Because of this, we should just focus on getting all the essential amino acids on a regular basis—not necessarily at every meal. 

Ultimately, the amount of protein a person needs is going to vary for each individual; however, it's important to remember not to overdo it. By focusing on cleaner sources of complete protein and a variety of other plant-based sources instead, you'll not only be getting in the nutrients your body needs, you'll be providing it with a balanced, healthier nutrition profile as well.

Want to learn how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

Functional Medicine Practitioner
Dr. Will Cole, leading functional-medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam at www.drwillcole.com and locally in Pittsburgh. He specializes in clinically investigating underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing health programs for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal dysfunctions, digestive disorders, and brain problems.Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional-medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the author of Ketotarian in which he melds the powerful benefits of the ketogenic and plant-based diets.
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William Cole, D.C., IFMCP

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