All About Protein
All bodies need protein—and there are smart, calorie-conscious ways to include it in your daily diet
We hear about protein all the time. What is the fuss about? Why is protein important?
Proteins are the building blocks of life. After water, protein is the most common substance in your body and is found in all cells of the body. Proteins have many functions, such as:
- Building muscle and other body tissues
- Carrying oxygen in the blood
- Regulating blood sugar levels
SOURCES OF PROTEIN
Proteins are made of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are called the essential amino acids. The body cannot make protein unless it gets the essential amino acids from food.
You may have heard about high-quality and low-quality proteins. High-quality proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, low-quality proteins are missing one or more essential amino acids. Meat and dairy products have high-quality protein and contain all 9 of the essential amino acids. Most plant proteins are missing one or more essential amino acids—still, the right mix of plant sources can give you all the protein you need.
Eating a variety of legumes and grains provides high-quality protein. Legumes include dried peas and beans (such as black-eyed peas), chick peas (garbanzo beans), kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, navy beans, and soybeans. Soy protein has the same nutritional value as meat and dairy protein. Nuts also are in this category, but are high in fat and may trigger allergic reactions. Consult with your healthcare provider, and eat nuts in moderation.
Protein rarely exists alone (except in egg whites); protein-rich foods often contain fat. Protein contains 4 calories per gram. For example, 1 oz (28 g) of lean meat contains about 7 grams of protein and 3 grams of fat (a total of 55 calories). Protein-rich foods with higher fat content may have 70 to 120 calories and 5 to 10 grams of fat per ounce.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO YOU NEED?
Protein is very important. Most people get the majority of their protein from the meat and beans group, which includes meat, poultry, fish, dry beans, eggs, and nuts. Meat, poultry, and fish are good sources of protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc. Dry beans, eggs, and nuts also provide most vitamins and minerals.
It is recommended that 10% to 35% of the calories you eat come from protein; this adds up to around 50 to 175 grams of protein per day for adults. Women are recommended to eat 5 to 5½ oz of meat or the equivalent each day; men are recommended to eat 5½ to 6½ oz daily. In the Protein Foods Group, 1 oz of meat counts as equivalent to 1 oz of poultry or fish, 1/4 cup of cooked beans, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, or 1/2 oz of nuts or seeds.
CHOOSING AND COOKING FOODS WITH PROTEIN
Most people get their protein from animal products, such as dairy, meat, poultry, fish, and eggs. However, these foods may be high in saturated fat and cholesterol. These tips may help reduce fat in your diet:
- Choose lean meat, fish, poultry without skin, and dried beans and peas. These food choices are low in dietary fat
- Prepare meats in low-fat ways: trim away the fat and avoid frying
- Eat eggs in moderation. Egg yolks are high in cholesterol. You may want to use one yolk per person in egg dishes and add extra egg whites to make larger portions
- When cooking beef or steak, choose round, loin, sirloin, or chuck
- For pork, choose tenderloin, center loin, or ham
- For veal, all cuts are lean except ground veal
- For lamb, choose leg, loin, or foreshank
- Fish and shellfish are low in fat. Avoid those that are canned or marinated in oil
- For chicken and turkey, both light and dark meats are lean choices if you remove the skin
PROTEIN FOR VEGETARIANS AND VEGANS
Vegetarian and vegan diets can provide plenty of protein, but may require more planning.
Nuts, beans, and soy are good sources of protein. Tofu, tempeh, soy milk, and meat-replacements can be substituted for meat, poultry, and fish. Nearly all vegetables, beans, grains, nuts, and seeds contain protein.
If you are a vegetarian or vegan and have trouble getting enough protein, we suggest consulting with a registered dietitian who can help you plan your diet to meet your nutritional needs.
NUTS: A RICH SOURCE OF PROTEIN
Nuts are rich in many nutrients, such as protein and dietary fiber. Eating nuts may help you feel full and bring you closer to your weight-loss goal.
Nuts also have many health benefits, such as:
- Decreasing the risk of heart disease
- Improving the health of your arteries
- Lowering your LDL (low-density lipoprotein or "bad," cholesterol)
Nuts can be an important part of a healthy diet and can also make a great portable snack! However, don’t go nuts over nuts—they are high in calories and fat. So, eat nuts in moderation.