By Cari Nierenberg
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Protein tends to play a starring role at mealtimes, but you might be better off if it moves out of the spotlight and becomes part of a supporting cast of foods on your plate.
Most Americans get more than enough protein each day, and may be getting too much of this nutrient from animal sources, like meat, poultry, and eggs.
Although important in the diet, extra protein will not help you build more muscle or make you stronger. When you're consuming too much of it, you're probably taking in more calories and fat than your body needs.
You need protein because "it has its hands in every critical function of the body," says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. But the truth about protein is that many people don't need as much as they are taking in.
How Much Protein Is Enough?
Adults in the U.S. are encouraged to get 10% to 35% of their day's calories from protein foods. That's about 46 grams of protein for women, and 56 grams of protein for men.
It's not hard to get this amount if you eat two to three servings of protein-rich foods a day, according to the CDC.
A small 3-ounce piece of meat has about 21 grams of protein. A typical 8-ounce piece of meat could have over 50 grams of protein.
One 8-ounce container of yogurt has about 11 grams of protein.
One cup of milk has 8 grams of protein.
One cup of dry beans has about 16 grams of protein.
People With Special Protein Needs
Not everyone needs the same amount of protein. Here are six groups who need to pay more attention to their protein requirements.
Pregnant and breastfeeding women. Lauren Antonucci, MS, RD, director of Nutrition Energy in New York City says pregnant women need about 10 more grams of protein than they did before. And "nursing women need 20 grams more protein a day than they did before pregnancy to support milk production," says Antonucci. You would get 10 grams in one Greek yogurt or a half-cup of cottage cheese, so it doesn't add up to a lot of food. She encourages pregnant women to get 20 to 30 grams of their protein a day from low-fat dairy products because calcium and vitamin D are crucial for the bone health of mother and baby.
Athletes. Most sports involve physically breaking down muscle during the activity and repairing it afterward. So the protein needs of active people are influenced by the length, frequency, and intensity of their workouts. Endurance athletes such as marathoners need about 50% more protein than a sedentary person, says sports dietitian Josephine Conolly-Schoonen, MS, RD, on Medscape Today. Body Builders might need twice as much protein as a sedentary person. But it's important to remember than most Americans, including athletes, get plenty of protein in their regular diet, and do not need protein supplements.
People With Special Protein Needs continued...
Dieters. When shedding pounds sensibly, the goal is to lose body fat but maintain lean muscle mass. Protein helps you do that. Protein foods tend to be more filling, so they delay hunger, making it easier to stick with your weight-loss program. Just keep an eye on the calories and portion sizes of your protein choices when including them in meals and snacks.
Vegetarians. When counseling vegetarians, Antonucci finds out which protein foods -- meat, fish, eggs, or dairy -- are being included or excluded from the diet. As long as vegetarians are eating a variety of healthy foods, they should be able to get the recommended amount of protein from sources other than meat.
Vegans. People who don't eat any animal products depend on beans, dried peas, and whole grains as their main sources of protein. Vegetables, nuts, and seeds also contain small amounts of it. Vegans can meet their protein needs, but it takes careful planning and may require more food to do so.
The Best Food Sources
"I encourage people to choose lean forms of protein, that way it has minimal extra baggage like fat," Bonci says. Lean animal sources include red meat with less marbling, poultry without skin, nonfat or low-fat dairy products, and fish.
She's also a fan of soy foods -- tofu, edamame (green soybeans), roasted soy nuts, and meat substitutes like veggie burgers or crumbles.
Most people benefit from eating less processed protein, such as bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meats, and are better off eating beans and fish a few times a week, suggests Antonucci. "Beans and whole grains are some of the healthiest foods on the planet and they're cheap, filling, and easy to make," she says.
From black beans and garbanzos to lentils and split peas, plant proteins can be used in soups, chili, spreads, and Mexican dishes. As for whole grains, three protein-rich grains are quinoa, spelt, and amaranth.
Unlike animal protein, most plant-based proteins are "incomplete," meaning they lack some amino acid building blocks. By combining plant proteins, such as rice and beans or hummus on pita bread, they become "complete" with all the essential amino acids found in animal protein. Soy protein is the only plant source that's complete.
Tips for Not Going Overboard With Protein
Protein servings of meat, poultry, or fish, should be the size and thickness of the palm of your hand, suggests Antonucci. That's about a 3-ounce portion. She suggests that meat eaters eat no more than two palm-sized servings of meat a day to get enough -- but not too much -- protein.
To look at it another way, protein should take up no more than one-third of your plate at meals, whether it's in a form you can drink or chew, suggests Bonci. She recommends including small amounts of protein foods at every meal to spread your intake evenly throughout the day.
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 28, 2011
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