It’s no wonder people are confused about what they should be eating. Food science seems to be ever-changing and the press is always reporting on some new study that contradicts the findings of some other study. The current trend for ideal health is less carbohydrates and more protein. The concept of consuming fewer and better quality carbohydrates (i.e., whole grains instead of white bread, bagels and pasta) seems fairly straightforward. However, after researching protein requirements, what “more” protein means seems to depend on who you ask. In addition, many articles are warning of the risks of consuming too much protein. The fact that there are also many different kinds of protein that you can choose from adds to the lack of clarity. Is one kind better than another?
Even with the lack of consensus on quantity, experts agree that protein is a necessity for optimal health. Protein is essential for building and repairing muscles, bone, skin and tissue in your body. For the purposes of this article I am going to focus on the many different kinds of protein that are available. Proteins are often grouped together in two families: animal-based and plant-based. In the U.S. animal-based proteins (including red meat, poultry, seafood, dairy and eggs) are the most commonly consumed, while plant-based proteins (including legumes, soy products, nuts, and seeds) are generally consumed in smaller amounts.
Consumption of a balanced variety of protein foods can contribute to improved nutrient intake and other health benefits. You don’t have to be a vegetarian to consider replacing some of your animal-based proteins with plant-based proteins. The Meatless Monday movement touts many significant health and environmental benefits on their website (www.meatlessmonday.com) by making this easy change in your weekly meal planning. Meatless Monday is a non-profit initiative operated in association with the Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health. According to the Meatless Monday website “Going meatless once a week may reduce your risk of chronic preventable conditions like cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity. It can also help reduce your carbon footprint and save precious resources like fresh water and fossil fuel.” Fun fact: Did you know that Presidents Wilson, Truman and Roosevelt all advised voluntary meatless days during both world wars? While the primary objective of this initiative many decades ago was to conserve food in support of the war efforts, another result was an increased focus on both the amount and type of food people were consuming.
If you would like to expand your protein horizons, here is some information about the wide variety of foods you can choose from:
Red Meat – This category includes cow, bison, lamb and pork. Depending on the cut, a serving of 4-6 oz. can provide anywhere from 28 to 42 grams of protein. Some cuts of these meats can be high in saturated fats. Purchase leaner cuts that have the excess fat removed. Depending on where you purchase your meat they can also be high in hormones and antibiotics due to accepted farming methods today. If possible, buy organic, grass-fed meat and limit consumption to 1-3 days per week.
Eggs – One large egg contains about 6 grams of protein. They are inexpensive and have the highest quality of protein available.
Poultry – A 4 oz. serving of chicken breast can offer approximately 30 grams of protein. Ideally, eat lean white meat rather than the dark meat which is higher in saturated fat. As with red meat, to avoid hormone and antibiotic consumption, purchase organic, cage-free or pastured poultry.
Nuts & Seeds – A ¼ cup of almonds or a ¼ cup of sunflower, pumpkin or flax seeds contains 6-8 grams of protein. Nuts and seeds are packed with healthy monosaturated fats, fiber and antioxidants. However, because they are also high in calories, watch your portion sizes.
Legumes & Beans – Most ½ cup servings of beans like black, pinto and lentil contain 7-10 grams of protein. In addition to being a great plant-based protein source, they are also an excellent source of fiber at 11 grams per cup. Because of their high nutrient content, beans may be considered both as a vegetable and as a protein food.
Soy – Soy is available in many different forms. Edamame (soy beans) has 14 grams of protein in a ½ cup serving. A ½ cup of tofu contains 20 grams of protein. You can also buy soy milk which has 6-10 grams of protein per cup.
Dairy – Protein content varies by the type of dairy consumed. An 8 oz. glass of milk contains about 8 grams of protein, while a ½ cup of cottage cheese contains 15 grams. To avoid unnecessary saturated fat and calories, adults should consume 1% or skim milk products.
Fish – Most 6 oz. fish fillets contain around 40 grams of protein. In addition, most fish is high in heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acids. Be careful of the types and frequency of fish you consume to avoid those that carry high levels of mercury such as swordfish and tuna.
Protein powder – This includes products like Whey or Casein. These proteins are available in powdered forms and can be added to the liquid of your choice for a protein packed smoothie. Generally one scoop includes 20-25 grams of protein which is nearly the equivalent of a 4 oz. serving of chicken breast.
Vegetables and Grains – Yes, some vegetables and grains contain protein too! A head of cauliflower or a serving of brown rice contains 5 grams of protein and a cup of quinoa contains 8 grams (which is the same as a glass of milk).
While the exact quantity of protein recommended for a healthy diet seems to vary, no one is disputing that protein is a critical part of a healthy diet. Similar to the idea of “eating the rainbow” when it comes to fruits and vegetables and ensuring you are getting a variety of the abundant nutrients they offer, I suggest varying the types of protein you eat each day and over the course of the week. For example, if you have an animal-based protein with lunch, then have a plant-based protein with dinner. If you had beans today, have seeds tomorrow. As they say “Variety is the spice of life!”