Jenilee Matz has a master’s degree in public health and worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a health communications specialist. She writes for several health publications including Everyday Health, HealthDay, and Diabetic Connect.

When most people hear the phrase “diabetes diet,” they think of carbohydrates. If you have diabetes, you may need to count carbs, carefully time when you eat carbs, and avoid foods high in carbs.

But there's another nutrient that's just as critical for your health: protein.

Protein basics

Protein is essential for our bodies to function. Our muscles, organs, and immune systems are made up mostly of protein.

When protein is digested, it’s broken down into units called “amino acids.” There are 22 different amino acids that the body needs. We make 13 of these amino acids on our own, and the other nine need to be taken in through food.

Animal sources of protein—such as meat, eggs, and dairy products—are considered complete proteins because they contain all nine amino acids. Plant-based or vegetable sources of protein—like beans, nuts, and soy products—are usually missing one amino acid.

Healthy sources of protein

While protein is nutritious, know that not all sources of it are created equal. Animal sources of protein can be high in saturated fat and calories. So, it’s best to eat lean types of protein.

Animal sources of protein:

● Chicken or turkey without the skin

● 95 percent lean cuts of red meat

● Pork tenderloin or a lean pork chop

● Fish and seafood

● Low-fat and nonfat dairy products

● Eggs

Vegetable sources of protein:

● Soy foods, such as tofu, edamame, and meat-substitute products

● Some egg substitutes

● Beans, including black, lima, or pinto beans

● Peas, black-eyed or split

● Lentils

● Nuts and nut butters

● Whole grains, such as quinoa or spelt

Note that meats don’t have any carbohydrates (unless they’re breaded or in a sauce), which means they won’t raise your blood sugar levels. However, all plant-based sources of protein contain carbs, so it’s important to read food labels carefully.

How much protein do you need?

Each person’s individual protein needs vary. About 10 to 35 percent of an adult’s diet should come from protein-rich foods. This is about 46 grams of protein per day for women and 56 grams of protein for men. Certain groups of people—including athletes, pregnant women, and nursing mothers—have higher protein needs. Your doctor or dietitian can help you figure out how much protein you should eat.

When to eat protein

Include a lean source of protein with every meal and snack you eat. This will help you meet your body’s protein needs more easily. The American Diabetes Association recommends that one-fourth of your plate be filled with a high-protein food at each meal.

Eating protein throughout the day will help control blood sugar levels and improve satiety. This means you’ll feel full for longer, which can keep you from overeating. What's your favorite source of protein?