Choosing Healthy Protein
When it comes to making protein choices in your diet, quality is just as important as quantity. Here’s all you need to know to keep your body and mind healthy.
Protein in your diet provides energy and supports your mood and cognitive function. It’s a vital nutrient required for building, maintaining, and repairing tissues, cells, and organs throughout the body. While it’s in many of the foods that we eat every day, for something so common it’s often a misunderstood part of our diets.
When you eat protein, it is broken down into the 20 amino acids that are the body’s basic building blocks for growth and energy. The amino acid tryptophan influences mood by producing serotonin, which can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve overall cognitive function.
Most animal sources of protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, deliver all the amino acids your body needs, while plant-based protein sources such as grains, beans, vegetables, and nuts often lack one or more of the essential amino acids. However, that doesn’t mean you have to eat animal products to get the right amino acids. By eating a variety of plant-based sources of protein each day you can ensure your body gets all the essential amino acids it needs.
Protein gives you the energy to get up and go—and keep going. While too much protein can be harmful to people with kidney disease, diabetes, and some other conditions, eating the right amount of high-quality protein:
As well as being imperative to feeling healthy and energetic, protein is also important to the way you look. Eating high-quality protein can help you maintain healthy skin, nails, and hair, build muscle, and maintain lean body mass while dieting.
While most people eating a Western diet get a sufficient quantity of protein each day, many of us are not getting the quality of protein we need.
Distinguishing between industrially raised meat and organic, grass-fed meat is only part of separating low- and high-quality sources of protein.
The key to ensuring you eat sufficient high-quality protein is to include different types in your diet, rather than relying on just red or processed meat.
Adults should eat at least 0.8g of protein per kilogram (2.2lb) of body weight per day. That means a 180lb man should eat at least 65 grams of high-quality protein per day. A higher intake may help to lower your risk for obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.
Source: Environmental Nutrition
Fish. Most seafood is high in protein and low in saturated fat. Fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, sablefish (black cod), and herring are also high in omega-3 fatty acids. Experts recommend eating seafood at least twice a week.
Poultry. Removing the skin from chicken and turkey can substantially reduce the saturated fat. In the U.S., non-organic poultry may also contain antibiotics and been raised on GMO feed grown with pesticides, so opt for organic and free-range if possible.
Dairy products. Products such as skim milk, cheese, and yoghurt offer lots of healthy protein. Beware of added sugar in low-fat yoghurts and flavored milk, though, and skip processed cheese that often contains non-dairy ingredients.
Beans. Beans and peas are packed full of both protein and fiber. Add them to salads, soups and stews to boost your protein intake.
Nuts and seeds. As well as being rich sources of protein, nuts and seeds are also high in fiber and “good” fats. Add to salads or keep handy for snacks.
Tofu and soy products. Non-GMO tofu and soy are excellent red meat alternatives, high in protein and low in fat. Try a “meatless Monday,” plant-based protein sources are often less expensive than meat so it can be as good for your wallet as it is for your health.
|Good sources of protein
|Nutrition values are approximate only; significant variations occur according to brand, cut of meat, cooking method, etc.
|Grams of protein
|Canned tuna – 3 ounces
|Salmon – 3 ounces
|Turkey breast – 3 ounces
|Chicken breast – 3 ounces
|Skirt steak – 3 ounces
|Ground beef (70% lean) – 3 ounces
|Kidney beans – 1/3 cup
|Black beans – 1/3 cup
|Non-fat milk – 1/2 cup
|Soy milk – 1/2 cup
|Eggs – 1 large
|Mozzarella cheese – 3 ounces
|Cheddar – 3 ounces
|Low-fat cottage cheese – 1/2 cup
|Peanut butter – 2 tbsp.
|Almonds – 1/4 cup (24 nuts)
|Walnuts – 1/4 cup (14 halves)
|Veggie burger – 1 patty
|Tofu – 1/2 cup
|Yogurt, plain – 1 cup
|Whey protein powder – 1/3 cup
|Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
To include more high-quality protein in your diet, try replacing processed carbs with high-quality protein. It can reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke, and you'll also feel full longer, which can help you maintain a healthy weight.
If you're not a fan of seafood, but want to include more in your diet, there are ways to make fish more palatable.
Increasing protein can also cause calcium loss so make sure to get plenty of calcium (1,000 to 1,200 mg per day).
In most cases, consuming the right balance of whole foods each day will provide you with all the nutrients you need, negating the need for protein supplements. However, you may benefit from supplementing your diet if you're:
Protein supplements come in various forms including powders you mix with milk or water, pre-mixed, ready-to-drink shakes, or in bars. The most common types of protein used are whey, casein, and soy. Whey and casein are milk-based proteins, while soy is the better choice for vegans or anyone with a dairy allergy.
Safety concerns. Protein supplements may not be safe for older people with renal disease or people who have recently undergone surgery on the digestive system. Some ingredients may even interact with prescription medication, so check with your doctor or pharmacist before using.
Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and make sure you're getting enough calcium in your diet.
Look out for extra ingredients. Many protein bars are packed with carbs and added sugar.Last updated or reviewed on March 1, 2023
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