Protein is in many of the foods that we eat every day, but for something so common, it’s often a misunderstood part of our diets. Think of protein and you might think of a huge piece of steak sizzling on a grill, the latest energy bar touting to banish fatigue, or a protein shake promising to fuel amazing muscle growth.
Yes, these foods are all packed with protein, but when it comes to making the best protein choices to keep your body and mind healthy, quality is just as important as quantity.
Making Protein Choices to Boost Energy and Improve Your Health
What is protein?
Protein is a vital nutrient required for building, maintaining, and repairing tissues, cells, and organs throughout the body. Every cell in your body contains protein and it is a major part of the skin, hair, and nails. Protein forms body chemicals, such as enzymes, that are responsible for the many metabolic processes that sustain life. When you eat protein in food, 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 protein and essential amino acids it needs.
The health benefits of protein
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 chronic conditions, eating the right amount of high-quality protein keeps your immune system functioning properly, maintains heart health and your respiratory system, and speeds recovery after exercise.
- Protein is vital to the growth and development of children.
- Eating lean, high-quality protein can help reduce your risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
- A diet rich in high-quality proteins can help you think clearly and may improve recall.
- Protein is an essential element of a healthy, balanced diet that can improve your mood and boost your resistance to stress, anxiety, and depression.
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 maintain healthy skin, nails, and hair.
- If you’re looking to lose weight, eating high-quality protein can help you maintain lean body mass while dieting.
While most people eating a Western diet get sufficient quantity of protein each day, many of us are not getting the quality of protein we need.
Not all protein is the same
The dangers of eating too much red meat
Eating large amounts of low-quality protein from red meat and processed meat products can increase your risk of dying at an early age from heart disease, cancer, or other diseases.
According to one long-term study, each additional daily serving of red meat was associated with a 13% higher risk of dying; each additional daily serving of processed meat products, such as salami, bacon, or hotdogs, increased the risk by 20%.
Replacing the red meat you eat with high-quality protein for just a few meals a week could have a real beneficial impact on your overall health.
Source: Harvard School of Public Health
When choosing protein-rich foods, it’s important to look at more than just the protein content. Some foods, such as red meat, are a great source of protein but also contain high levels of saturated fat. Despite misleading claims to the contrary that have garnered headlines recently, eating a diet high in saturated fat can increase cholesterol and heighten your risk for serious disease, such as diabetes, stroke, and heart disease.
Keeping an eye out for the fat content is only part of differentiating between low- and high-quality sources of protein. While some processed or lunch meats, for example, can be a good source of protein and contain only limited amounts of saturated fat, many are loaded with hidden salt. Eating too much salt can cause high blood pressure and lead to other health problems.
The key to ensuring you eat sufficient high-quality protein is to include different types in your diet. Rather than relying on red meat, processed meat, and whole milk dairy products, which are also high in saturated fat, nutrition experts suggest you opt for these sources of high-quality protein:
- Fish. Most seafood is high in protein and low in saturated fat. Fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, and herring are also high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Experts recommend eating seafood at least twice a week as part of a balanced diet.
- Poultry. Removing the skin from fresh chicken and turkey can substantially reduce the amount of saturated fat. In the U.S., though, non-organic poultry may also contain antibiotics and hormones.
- 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. Almonds, peanuts, walnuts, cashews, flaxseed, sesame and sunflower seeds are also full of “good” fats that can help lower cholesterol. Add to salads or keep handy for snacks.
- Low-fat dairy. Fat-free cheeses, skim milk, and Greek yoghurt all pack a lean protein punch.
- Tofu and soy products. Tofu and soy are excellent red meat alternatives, high in protein and low in fat. Try a “meatless Monday” each week—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.
Not a seafood fan? Learn how to make fish more palatable
If you’re not a fan of seafood, but want to include more healthy, lean protein in your diet, there are ways to make fish more palatable.
- Always buy fresh fish. Some people say tilapia, cod, or salmon have the least “fishy” taste.
- Disguise the taste of seafood by adding a flavorful sauce, such as parsley-caper. See Resources & References section below for recipes.
- Marinate fish with Creole or Cajun seasoning.
- Add shell fish or white fish, such as cod or tilapia, to a curry.
- Combine grilled fish with fresh salsa or a top with your favorite chutney.
- Mix canned salmon or tuna with low-fat mayonnaise and chopped onion for a tasty sandwich filling.
Choosing protein-rich foods
To include more high-quality protein in your diet, try replacing red meat with fish, chicken, or plant-based protein. Reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates you consume—from foods such as pastries, cakes, pizza, cookies and chips—and replace them with fish, beans, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu, chicken, low-fat dairy, and soy products. Snack on nuts and seeds instead of chips, for example, replace a baked dessert with Greek yogurt, or swap out slices of pizza for a grilled chicken breast and a side of beans. Replacing processed carbs with high-quality protein can improve your good cholesterol and reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke. You’ll also feel full longer, which can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.
Other tips for choosing protein-rich foods:
- Choose lean or low-fat meat, poultry, and dairy products to limit your saturated fat intake.
- Remove the skin from chicken and turkey.
- Choose unsalted nuts and seeds, to reduce your daily sodium intake.
- When shopping for canned beans, choose the low sodium versions.
- Adding more protein to your diet can increase urine output, so drink plenty of water to stay well hydrated.
- Increasing protein can also cause calcium loss so make sure to get plenty of calcium (1,000 to 1,200 mg per day).
How much high-quality protein do you need?
Protein needs are based on weight rather than calorie intake. 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.
- Nursing women need about 20 grams more high-quality protein a day than they did before pregnancy to support milk production.
- Older adults should aim for 1 to 1.5 grams of lean protein for each kilogram of weight. This translates to 68 to 102g of protein per day for a person weighing 150 lbs. (think 0.5g of protein per lb. of body weight if that’s easier).
- Try to divide your protein intake equally among meals.
Source: Environmental Nutrition
Good Sources of Protein *
|The following is a sampling of high-protein foods—some may not be healthy to eat in anything but moderation. Most red meat is very high in fat, as are whole-milk cheeses and the skin on chicken or turkey. In the U.S., non-organic meat and poultry may also contain antibiotics and hormones.Aim for sufficient protein intake at each meal—including breakfast—in the leanest and healthiest form.|
Sat. fat (g)
|Canned tuna||3.5 oz (100g)||19||
|Salmon||3.5 oz (100g)||21||
|Halibut||3.5 oz (100g)||23||
|Fresh tuna||3.5 oz (100g)||30||
|Turkey breast||3.5 oz (100g)||31||
|Chicken breast||3.5 oz (100g)||31||
|Chicken thigh||3.5 oz (100g)||25||
|Chicken leg||3.5 oz (100g)||24||
|Pork chops||1 chop (145g)||39||
|Skirt steak||3.5 oz (100g)||27||
|Ground beef (70% lean)||3.5 oz (100g)||14||
|Leg of lamb||3.5 oz (100g)||26||
|Cured ham||3.5 oz (100g)||23||
|Soy beans||1/3 cup (100g)||17||
|Kidney beans||1/3 cup (100g)||10||
|Black beans||1/3 cup (100g)||9||
|Baked beans (canned)||1/3 cup (100g)||5||
|Peas||1/3 cup (100g)||8||
|MILK & EGGS|
|Skim milk||1/2 cup (100g)||3.4||
|Soy milk||1/2 cup (100g)||3.3||
|Eggs||2 boiled (100g)||13||
|Egg white||3 eggs (100g)||11||
|Non-fat mozzarella||3.5 oz (100g)||32||
|Non-fat cottage cheese||3.5 oz (100g)||10||
|Low-fat cheddar||3.5 oz (100g)||24||
|Low-fat Swiss cheese||3.5 oz (100g)||28||
|NUTS & SEEDS|
|Peanuts||1/4 cup (28g)||7||
|Almonds||1/4 cup (28g)||6||
|Pistachios||1/4 cup (28g)||6||
|Sunflower seeds||1/4 cup (28g)||6||
|Flaxseed||1/4 cup (28g)||5||
|OTHER PROTEIN OPTIONS|
|Veggie burger||1 patty (100g)||23||
|Tofu||3.5 oz (100g)||7||
|High-protein cereal||1 cup (50g)||13||
|Greek yogurt (non-fat)||1/2 cup (100g)||10||
|Whey protein powder||1/3 cup (32g)||19||
|* Nutrition values are approximate only; significant variations occur according to brand, cut of meat, cooking method, etc.|
Protein as part of a balanced diet
Eating a diet rich in lean, quality protein may help you maintain a healthy weight by curbing appetite, making you feel full longer, and fueling you with extra energy for exercising. As you age, it’s important to increase high-quality protein intake to maintain health, energy levels, and possibly even reduce some muscle loss. However, following one of the popular, restrictive high-protein diets can have negative consequences for your health.
High-protein diets such as the Atkins or Zone aren't balanced in terms of the essential nutrients, vitamins, and fiber your body needs. They also emphasize animal-based proteins that are high in saturated fats while restricting healthy carbohydrates such as cereals, grains, fruits, and vegetables. A diet that is high in animal protein can contribute to serious health problems, and actually lead to weight gain over time. A 20-year study from Harvard School of Public Health found that those who ate more red and processed meat gained more weight, about one extra pound every four years, while those who ate more nuts over the course of the study gained only half as much weight.
Some people are able to lose weight on high-protein diets in the short-term but this weight loss is not due to eating more animal protein, but simply due to consuming fewer calories. In the long term it’s difficult to maintain any weight loss because of all the negative effects such a diet has on overall health. A safer way to lose weight is to reduce portion size, sugar intake, and calories, while maintaining a nutritionally balanced diet that is rich in plant-based proteins.
Other downsides to high-protein diets
Some high-protein diets de-emphasize high-carbohydrate, high-fiber plant foods. These foods help lower cholesterol when eaten as part of a nutritionally balanced diet. Reducing consumption of these foods usually means other, higher-fat foods are eaten instead. This raises cholesterol levels even more and increases cardiovascular risk.
High-protein diets don't provide some essential vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutritional elements. Adults who are trying to lose weight and keep it off, should eat no more than 35 percent of total daily calories from fat and less than 7 percent of total daily calories from saturated fat and less than 1 percent of total daily calories from trans fat. On most high-protein diets, meeting these goals isn't possible.
Source: American Heart Association
Protein powders, shakes, and bars
For most of us, consuming the right balance of whole foods each day will provide us with all the nutrients we need, negating the need for protein supplements. There is also no evidence that protein from a powder or bar can enhance athletic performance any more than protein from food. However, you may benefit from supplementing your diet with protein powders, shakes, or bars if you’re:
- A teenager who is growing and exercising a lot.
- An adult switching to a vegan diet—eliminating meat, chicken, fish, and even dairy and eggs from your diet.
- An older adult with a slight appetite who finds it difficult to eat your protein requirements in whole foods.
- Starting or increasing a regular workout program, trying to add muscle, or recovering from a sports injury. If you feel weak while exercising or lifting weights you may benefit from adding a protein supplement.
Protein supplements come in various forms, either as powders you mix with milk or water, in pre-mixed, ready-to-drink shakes, or in bars. The most common types of protein used are whey, casein, and soy. Whey is popular as it is a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids your body needs. Whey and casein are milk-based proteins, while soy is the better choice for vegans or anyone with a dairy allergy. Soy may also be the best choice for your heart.
Using protein supplements
- Dosing. These products are not meant to replace real food in the diet so aim for 25 to 40 grams of protein per serving. If you’re looking to build muscle from extensive workouts, aim to consume 0.7 grams of lean protein per pound of body weight. Calculate how much you already get from food and then top up with a protein shake.
- Safety concerns. Protein supplements may not be safe for older people with renal disease or people who have recently undergone surgery on the digestive organs. 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 especially are packed with carbs, excess sugar, and saturated fat.