Protein Foods

Foods high in protein foods such as fish, chicken, meats, soy products and cheese, are all called “protein foods.” You may also hear them generically referred to as ‘meats or meat substitutes.”

The biggest difference among foods in this group is how much saturated and fat they contain and for the meat substitutes, whether they have carbohydrate.

The best choices of protein foods are those that are lower in saturated fat like chicken breast or beans or higher in omega 3 fats — like tuna and salmon.

Best Protein Choices

Dried Beans, Legumes, Peas and Lentils

Try to include dried beans into several meals per week. They are a great source of protein and are loaded with fiber. (Dried beans also count as a starch serving, so don't forget to count the carbohydrate.)

  • Dried beans such as black, lima, and pinto
  • Lentils
  • Dried peas such as black-eyed and split
  • Fat-free refried beans
  • Vegetarian baked beans
  • Soy-based “meat” products like meatless "burger" and "chicken nuggets"


Nuts, seeds and nut and seed butters provide protein and healthy fats. Don’t be afraid to add peanut or almond butter to your toast, apple, or celery sticks.

Fish and Seafood

Try to include fish 2-3 times per week.

  • Fish high in omega 3 fatty acids like Albacore tuna , herring, mackerel, rainbow trout, sardines, and salmon
  • Other fish including catfish, cod, flounder, haddock, halibut, orange roughy, and tilapia
  • Shellfish including clams, crab, imitation shellfish, lobster, scallops, shrimp, oysters.

Poultry and Eggs

Choose poultry without the skin for less saturated fat.

  • Chicken, turkey, cornish hen
  • Eggs – egg whites or whole eggs

Beef, Pork, Veal, Lamb

  • Select or Choice grades of beef trimmed of fat including: chuck, rib, rump roast, round, sirloin, cubed, flank, porterhouse, T-bone steak, tenderloin
  • Lamb chop, leg, or roast
  • Organ meats: heart, kidney, liver
  • Veal loin chop or roast
  • Pork: center loin chop, tenderloin

Tips for Carbohydrate Counters

Meats do not contain carbohydrate so they do not raise blood glucose levels. A balanced meal plan usually has about 2-5 ounces of meat.

All of the plant-based protein foods, like beans and soy products, and any breaded meats contain carbohydrate. It's best to read food labels carefully for these foods.

In general there is about 15 grams of carbohydrate in ½ cup beans, and between 5 to 15 grams in soy based products like veggie burgers and "chicken" nuggets.

For the Plate Method

About ¼ of your plate should come from high protein foods. So 1 chicken breast or about 3-4 ounces of pork loin fits.

If you are having a casserole type entrée like lasagna, about 1 cup will count as your meat and the starch for your meal. Fill the other ½ of your plate with nonstarchy vegetables.

For Using the Glycemic Index

Meats do not have a glycemic index because they do not raise blood glucose levels. Vegetarian sources, like beans, lentils and nuts have a low GI. As with all the meal planning options, include a source of lean protein at each meal.

  • Last Reviewed: August 1, 2013
  • Last Edited: December 19, 2013

Articles from Diabetes Forecast® magazine:

Diabetes Forecast