Across the country, more than 29 million Americans have diabetes and another 86 million have prediabetes, forecasting a future of higher rates. But new research presented at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes’ annual meeting may reverse that trend, as it’s found a protein-laden diet regimen may help type 2 diabetes patients improve their blood sugar levels.

Over the course of six weeks, 37 participants diagnosed with type 2 diabetes were fed either a diet high in animal protein or plant protein. While the animal diet consisted of a combination of meat and dairy foods, the plant diet was bereft of any animal product, although both diets included the same number of calories.

Researchers measured each participant’s blood sugar levels and liver fat before and after the experiment to see if there were any changes from the diet intervention. Both groups saw an improvement in their blood sugar (glucose) levels and liver fat, but only those who were part of the animal protein group experienced an improvement in insulin sensitivity.

Insulin is a hormone responsible for lowering blood sugar levels and allowing glucose to enter the cells of the body for storage. Diabetes is a disease that occurs when insulin doesn’t function properly and sugar accumulates in the blood, resulting in several problems ranging from high blood pressure to vision loss. Those who are insulin sensitive only need a small amount of insulin to keep their glucose within a normal range, while those who are insulin-resistant need more insulin to keep levels in check.

While animal protein dieters experienced improved insulin sensitivity, participants who ate plant-based protein saw an improvement in their kidney function. Normally, waste products from protein-rich foods are filtered in tiny blood vessels that lead to the kidneys. While these waste products can squeeze through holes into the kidneys, where they’re released with urine, protein and red blood cells are too large to pass through. In people with diabetes, however, high levels of blood sugar can overwhelm the kidneys. And after many years, these filters become damaged, allowing protein to flow into the urine. With the current study, researchers found plant protein was easier on the kidneys by helping the filtering process.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes is a serious disease, but it can be managed through diet, physical activity, and the proper management of insulin medications. A regular exercise routine involving three to four days of physical activity a week could lead to healthy glucose uptake, with maximum benefits coming from high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Eating foods that digest slowly and take longer to reach the bloodstream, like fiber and protein, cause insulin to release gradually, helping the body maintain healthy glucose levels.

Previous studies have revealed the good and bad effects of maintaining a high-protein diet, but this study reveals the positive impact both protein diets could have for a diabetic’s glucose levels and kidney function. Next, researchers want to expand the number of participants and replicate the study. In the meantime, they’re reviewing the data and looking for how genes involved in fat and glucose metabolism will work in a diabetic’s diet.

Source: Markova M. 49th Annual European Association for the Study of Diabetes Meeting. 2015.