The use of nutritional supplements in diabetes

Dietitian, Esteé van Lingen, educates us on nutritional supplements, what ingredients to look for and highlights the benefits of using Lifegain® Advanced Nutritional Supplement.

Before we can get into why nutritional supplements could be beneficial for people living with diabetes or not, we need to first understand the difference between meal replacements and nutritional supplements.

We also need to understand the ingredients nutritional supplements may contain and why each one is important. This will assist you in making an informed choice before buying a nutritional supplement.

Nutritional supplement vs meal replacement

A nutritional supplement is an extra supplement that you can take on top of your meals to add extra nutrients your body may be lacking. This can be taken with meals or in between meals to add extra nutrition where needed. Lifegain® is an example of a nutritional supplement.

Meal replacements, on the other hand, are as the words say, a replacement option instead of having a meal. You will have this instead of a meal. An example of this is a Meal Replace Shake like Replace® Diabetic.

Ingredients in nutritional supplements

When looking at the different ingredients that nutritional supplements contain, we start with protein then carbohydrates and lastly fats.


Protein is one of the most important macronutrients needed for the body to function. The word protein comes from a Greek word meaning primary or holding the first place and that’s why they say protein is seen as the building blocks of the body. Because it is an essential nutrient, you need to consume it daily whether it’s from an animal or plant source.

Protein helps stabilise blood glucose levels when eaten together with a carbohydrate so that the impact isn’t as high on blood glucose compared to eating carbohydrates alone.

As you get older, you quickly start to lose muscle and since most people cut their protein intake (due to various reasons), there is nothing to help sustain muscle mass. To then try and rebuild muscle when you are older is much harder compared to when you were young.

The average person needs at least 0,8g protein per kg of bodyweight per day to sustain basic functions. For example, a person who weighs 50kg will need at least 40g of protein per day.

If you are training a lot or want to build muscle, you would need at least 1,2 – 2g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day. For example, a person who weighs 50kg will need 60 – 100g of protein per day.

It’s interesting to know that many people don’t even reach 1g of protein per kg of their bodyweight per day through meals alone.

Note: This doesn’t mean 120g meat is equal to 120g protein. For example, 1 chicken breast of 120g contains 28g of protein. 


Out of the three macronutrient types, carbohydrates have the most marked effect on postprandial blood glucose response (blood glucose level after a meal).

Carbohydrates provide the body with energy and can be found in various foods, including bread, pasta, cereals, rice, potatoes, sweet potato, butternut, fruits and dairy products.

You should also then distinguish between healthy (unrefined) and unhealthy (refined) carbohydrates. Unrefined carbohydrates are minimally processed and eaten as close to their natural state with the grain and germ still intact.

Refined carbohydrates are processed to get a softer, more available carbohydrate. The end results: quicker absorption and release into the bloodstream, causing a spike in blood glucose levels.

One starch portion is equal to 15 grams of carbohydrates. So, depending on how well-controlled your glucose levels are, your gender and other chronic conditions, you don’t want to consume more than two starches in one meal.

The lower the carbohydrate content of a certain meal is and the less processed it is, the lower impact it will have on blood glucose levels. Therefore, it’s encouraged to rather eat a lower amount of carbohydrates in a meal and when consumed, choose the unrefined options instead.

You should also rather spread it out evenly throughout the day instead of eating no carbohydrates the whole day and then eating three servings at night.


Fat is the final macronutrient. It is also a source of energy but more importantly it assists in keeping the cell walls healthy as well as assists the body in making healthy hormones.

When consuming fats, you want to consume more healthy fats (omega-3) versus unhealthy fats (saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol).

Omega-3 helps reduce and prevent inflammation in the body as well as keep the cell walls healthy for the body to properly absorb nutrients and medication into the cells making blood glucose control more effective.

Lifegain® Advanced Nutritional Supplement

When looking at Lifegain®, it contains 4g of carbohydrates per serving and 15,3g of protein which makes it low in carbohydrates and higher in protein.

Furthermore, Lifegain® has a protein blend that contains three sources of protein (soy protein, whey protein isolate and milk protein isolate) that helps with muscle recovery. This is very helpful in the case of an active person living with diabetes or in the elderly to assist in maintaining muscle mass.

This makes it a good substitute for a person with diabetes that needs to consume a small amount of carbohydrates and still keep blood glucose levels stable without it dropping too low or going too high. Provided it fits within your nutrient requirements and/or consulting with your healthcare provider or dietitian first before starting on anything.


Lifegain® also contains glutamine that assists with immune function and gut health which is important. Uncontrolled blood glucose levels reduce immune function and makes a person with diabetes more susceptible to infections. If your gut health is not great, you can’t absorb the nutrients that you do consume properly.

Glutamine improves gut health to assist with digestion and absorption of nutrients. With the improvement in absorption, it may then in the long run assist with weight loss when combined with a balanced lifestyle and consumption of the correct amounts of healthy foods.

Vitamins and minerals

Vitamins and minerals are essential to assist with muscle functions as well as boost your immune system and provide you with energy. The combination of the vitamins and minerals found in Lifegain® includes calcium, magnesium, vitamin D3, zinc, iron and vitamin C. Again, these help protect your muscles, bones and boost immunity.

Free from intolerant ingredients

Lifegain® is free of gluten, lactose, cholesterol, trans fat and preservatives which makes it ideal for someone suffering from gluten or lactose intolerance or anyone with sensitivities to preservatives. This also means that there is no added sugar and no refined carbohydrates.

How to make a nutritional supplement part of a healthy balanced diet

If you are a very busy individual (especially someone living with diabetes) that tends to miss meals as you don’t have time to eat a proper cooked meal, have certain food preferences, or you don’t have a big appetite to eat a large meal, a nutritional supplement will then be an ideal option for you.

Lifegain® only has 507kJ per serving so it will work well as a snack in between meals or used as a base of a light meal. If you want to increase the nutrients, you can do so by mixing it with low-fat milk instead of water or eating a fruit and/or raw vegetables on the side. Or you can make a smoothie out of it with unsweetened plain yoghurt or low-fat milk, one fruit serving, raw vegetables and a fat, such as almonds and chia seeds.

Since Lifegain® has 15g of protein per serving, it has about the protein content of half a chicken breast making it an ideal nutritional supplement even for someone that has kidney issues. This only counts as long as it is made with water and the protein intake for the rest of the day is restricted. Any additions or changes should of course only be made under the guidance of your healthcare professional.

A nutritional supplement is recommended for the elderly who might have a poor nutritional status due to not cooking nutritious meals as often and especially for the elderly who also have diabetes. For example, instead of eating two slices of bread, they can have one serving of Lifegain® once or twice per day and then add fresh vegetables and protein as needed. Thus, making it more balanced and sustainable in the long term.

Kidney problems and protein

A low protein diet is recommended for people with kidney problems and renal disease. The protein requirements for people with renal disease is 0,6 – 0,8g per kilogram of bodyweight but this depends on the stage of kidney disease.

Protein increases the pressure in the kidney tubes by attracting more water as it passes through them, thus leading to increased strain on the kidneys and increased loss of renal function. People on dialysis have higher protein requirements due to the protein loss during the dialysis process.

The function of the kidneys includes: removing waste products from the blood, maintaining fluid balance in the body as well as controlling blood pressure. When the kidneys are failing, damaged or only one of them is functioning, they can’t perform these essential tasks.

Seek professional guidance

Before taking any nutritional supplement or meal replacement, please consult your dietitian first to see if it would be suitable for you and how it can be worked in as part of a healthy balanced diet and lifestyle.

For people with kidney problems (a complication of diabetes), protein does need to be restricted depending on kidney function and you should contact your dietitian to calculate your specific needs and work it into a balanced and sustainable diet.


Estée van Lingen is a registered dietitian practicing in Randburg and Fourways, Gauteng. She has been in private practice since 2014 and is registered with the HPCSA as well as ADSA and served on the ADSA Gauteng South Committee for 2020 – 2022.


Estée van Lingen is a registered dietitian and has been in private practice since 2014. She is registered with the HPCSA as well as ADSA and served on the ADSA Gauteng South Committee for 2020 – 2022.

Header image by Adobe Stock

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