"Is taking whey protein powder good or bad for people with type 2 diabetes?" a reader once asked. I told him that this is such a good question that I would answer him here.
Many people supplement their protein intake with a daily scoop or two of protein powder. Years ago I did that myself.
We have a wide variety of types and brands of protein powder to chose from. Besides whey protein, we can get casein, soy, pea, and egg white protein powder from many vendors.
Some years ago I decided that using the most complete protein was the best idea. I discovered that egg protein powder was the most complete. That means it has the best balance of the nine essential amino acids that comprise protein.
One way to check this is to consult NutritionData.com. This comprehensive nutrition website rates foods in many respects, including "protein quality." An amino acid score of 100 or more indicates a complete or high-quality protein, based on the recommendations of the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine.
NutritionData's report for whole dried eggs awards it an amino acid score of 131, the highest such score I can find for any food. Its amino acid report for dried egg whites is also high, 125.
Whey is also a high quality protein, scoring 102 for sweet dried whey and 109 for acid dried whey. But a separate NutritionData score for a food's inflammation factor indicates that whey and whole dried egg is inflammatory, while dried egg whites are anti-inflammatory.
So, for several years I would make an egg white protein powder drink every day. Until I realized that I was already getting too much protein in my diet.
Like other men, I need just 56 grams of complete protein per day, according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine. Most adult women need 46 grams, according to the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine. Pregnant women and nursing mothers need 71 grams. The Food and Nutrition Board defines complete protein as "Protein from animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt provide all nine indispensable amino acids, and for this reason are referred to as 'complete protein." It’s important to note, however, that these are just general recommendations and vary for each individual depending on height, weight, age, and other factors.
Do you know how much complete protein you get in your daily diet? For a long time I didn't. But with the help of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Nutrient Database it's easy to figure out. From just the eggs, fish, and yogurt that I eat almost every day I already get a bit more than the 71 grams of complete protein that I would need if I were pregnant. So I certainly don't supplement it with a protein shake any more.
What's wrong with getting more protein than that? Unless you have kidneys that are already damaged, I am not one of those who think that a high-protein diet would be hard on them. But we do have some evidence that a surplus of protein turns into glucose. Two studies are "Protein Controversies in Diabetes" and "Effect of Protein Ingestion on the Glucose Appearance Rate in People with Type 2 Diabetes."
How much protein turns into glucose remains in question. Our bodies can convert protein into glucose, "but very slowly and inefficiently," writes Dr. Richard K. Bernstein in Dr. Bernstein's Diabetes Solution.
I for one am cutting back on the amount of protein that I eat so that I can bring my hemoglobin A1C level lower. I would like to bring it down to the 4.5 level that Dr. Bernstein recommends, but it stubbornly remains at about 5.2. My best guess is that even with my very low-carb diet the problem is that I get too much protein, some of which gets converted to glucose.
Consequently, I couldn't answer my correspondent's question in a few words. I can't make a general recommendation that those of us who have diabetes should use a protein powder supplement whether from whey, egg whites, or anything else.
But some people, however, might need more protein than they usually get. Especially those who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, because they are not likely to get enough of what the Food and Nutrition Board calls complete protein, all of which comes from animals.