Protein, a macronutrient, is one of the three health-supportive building blocks (alongside carbohydrates and fat) necessary for constructing an optimally balanced body. Whether you are a body builder or training for a marathon, experimented with the fad protein-rich diets of the 1980s and 1990s or those of today, or just love a classic American meal of meat and potatoes, protein is widely considered to be the superhero of macronutrients. Yes, protein is a necessary addition to your diet, but as with all macronutrients, you can abuse the health-generating power of protein by eating the wrong type and/or simply eating too much. When it comes to balancing your diet for the most nutritionally sound and health-happy life, an understanding of protein, including how much your body needs and the differences in quality, is a must.
Outside of water, protein is the most plentiful substance in the body. It is primarily responsible for contributing to the growth and development of bone, muscle, cartilage, body organs, skin, hair, and blood. In short, there is no life without protein. Each protein in the body is composed of its own individual collection of twenty common amino acids, linked together in different patterns and combinations to form proteins with different characteristics. The body is able to produce nearly all of the twenty amino acids. However, there are nine amino acids that must come from a food source. These are the essential amino acids.
Just as with carbohydrates and fats, not all sources of protein are considered equal. The adequate amount of the nine essential amino acids in the food source determines the value of a protein. A complete protein, one in which all nine amino acids are present in adequate amounts, is considered of high quality, while an incomplete protein is considered of lesser quality. Meat, for example, contains all nine essential amino acids in adequate amounts, making it a high-quality protein. Conversely, plant protein sources like beans and vegetables that may contain all nine essential amino acids in less than sufficient amounts are of lesser nutritive value and therefore considered incomplete proteins. The good news, especially for vegetarians, is that to achieve optimal protein in your diet, the nine amino acids in adequate amounts can be but do not have to be eaten at one meal and instead can be eaten throughout the day. For example, one protein source eaten at lunch may contain an excess of one or more amino acids while being short of an adequate amount of another amino acid, and another animal or plant protein source eaten at dinner may complement the other, to make a complete protein. The best and most popular example of foods combining to create a complete protein (in the same meal, in this case) is the combination of rice and beans.
There is considerable debate over the amount of protein a person needs to consume per day. If protein intake is greater than what is needed to complete the body’s primary functions, it is either converted to energy for immediate use or stored as fat. However, energy sourced from protein will only be used once energy sourced from carbohydrates and fat is exhausted. I recommend following a simple equation that takes into consideration your body weight and activity level.
1. Choose your protein activity level
- Recreational or sedentary: 0.4 grams/pound of body weight
- Light daily muscle use due to exercise or occupation: 0.5 grams/pound of body weight
- Heavy use due to sports, exercise, or occupation: 0.6 grams/pound of body weight
2. Calculate grams of protein needed each day
(Body weight) x (Protein activity level) =
Learn more about the best sources of meat and plant protein in the breakdown below.
Eating meat can be a health-supportive protein choice. But meat choices high in saturated fat can raise your “bad” cholesterol, which can increase your risk of heart disease. Generally speaking, limit meats like fatty cuts of beef, pork, and lamb, regular ground meat (as opposed to lean), sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and some luncheon meats such as bologna and salami. Follow the lists below for more specific information on lean meats.
Round steaks, and roasts (eye of round, top round, bottom round, and tip round), top loin, top sirloin, and chuck shoulder and arm roasts are the best lean beef choices. Ground beef should be at least 90 percent lean. Read the label or ask your butcher for specific information on your ground-beef choices.
Pork loin, tenderloin, center loin, and ham are the best lean pork choices.
Boneless, skinless chicken breasts and turkey cutlets are the best lean poultry choices. At the very least, buy skinless or take off the skin of your turkey or chicken to ensure a protein that is low in saturated fat.
- Luncheon Meat
Stay away from processed luncheon meats with added fat, such as bologna and salami. Instead, choose lean turkey, roast beef, ham, or low-fat luncheon meats for sandwiches.
Seafood is a great protein source due to high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. The healthiest and most nutrient-dense seafood choices include salmon, anchovies, herring, sardines, Pacific oysters, trout, and Atlantic and Pacific mackerel. Try salmon steak or filet, salmon loaf, or grilled or baked trout.
- Eggs and Dairy
Both eggs and dairy, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt are excellent sources of protein. Choose low-fat dairy for the best health benefits. Eggs, the cheapest source of protein available, are quick and easy-to-prepare protein sources. The American Heart Association recommends eating no more than a whole egg a day. If cholesterol is a consideration or concern, choose egg whites.
The most health-affirming beans are pinto beans, black beans, kidney beans, lentils, split peas, and garbanzo beans. Prepare them simply, without added fat, to obtain the best nutrient value.
Try lentil or white bean soups. Add beans like chickpeas or black beans on top of a salad to serve as the protein instead of meat or poultry. A winning combination, and a compete protein, is the combination of rice and beans.
- Nuts and Seeds
Walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, and pistachios are especially great nut and seed choices, as they are not only an excellent source of protein but also reduce the risk of heart disease. Eat raw nuts and seeds (unsalted and not roasted) for optimal health benefits, as salted or roasted nuts may be high in sodium.
Nuts and seeds are best eaten as a snack, on a salad, or in a main dish as a replacement for meat or poultry, not in addition to these items. Sprinkle a handful of nuts atop a salad instead of cheese or meat, atop yogurt instead of granola, or atop steamed vegetables for added texture.
- Keep animal protein lean. Cut away all visible fat from meat and poultry before cooking, drain any fat that appears during cooking, and avoid breading and/or frying any animal protein. To prepare meat, poultry, or fish, consider broiling, grilling, roasting, poaching, or boiling.
- Vary protein choices. Studies show that Americans eat almost twice as much protein as is necessary for the average body. The assumption is that this directly relates to the excessive amount of animal protein in the American diet. It is necessary to source protein from both animals and plants, or for vegetarians or vegans, a variety of plants. Variety in choice will best serve your health and well-being.
- Read food labels. Review the saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium content of any packaged foods. Expect added sodium in processed meats like ham, sausage, hot dogs, and luncheon meats like bologna and salami. Lower-fat versions of processed meats are available. Look for low-fat stickers or labels on packaging, or simply compare and contrast saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium numbers on labels.