What is it about protein that intrigues us? Do we think we need more to build muscle? To lose weight? Or are we just looking for an excuse to order a double bacon cheeseburger?
Protein. It’s being talked about and sought after by consumers more than ever these days. In fact, market research shows that the U.S. is leading the way in introducing high protein products to the consumer market in order to meet rising demands. But what is it about protein that intrigues us? Do we think we need more to build muscle? To lose weight? Or are we just looking for an excuse to order a double bacon cheeseburger?
The fact is that protein is an essential macronutrient—meaning it is a substantial part of the human diet, needed for normal functioning. Each of us requires a certain amount of protein to maintain our cells and organs, grow our hair, and sustain our muscles—allowing us to walk, talk, and function in our everyday lives. Certain groups of people require a little more protein than the rest of us. Children require more to support their growth; athletes require more to maintain their larger muscles and rapid muscle cell turnover; and the elderly require more to slow the cell, muscle, and tissue breakdown that is inevitable with aging.
For the average adult, 5-6 ounces per day of protein are enough to meet your needs. This is equivalent to one egg with breakfast, half a can of tuna as part of your lunch, 24 pistachios as an afternoon snack, and a lean hamburger for dinner. Seems pretty easy to meet your daily protein needs, right? That is exactly right. In fact, most Americans easily meet—and often exceed—their daily protein needs. This means that we really do not need to rely on protein-fortified foods to meet our needs—we can get all the protein we need from basic foods! (It’s important to note that too much protein can be harmful over time, causing damage to your liver and kidneys as they try to process the excess protein.)
Many basic, protein-rich foods can be a part of a healthy, well-balanced diet:
- Meats (beef, pork, lamb, game meats, luncheon meats)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)
- Seafood (shellfish and finfish)
- Beans, Peas and Lentils (black beans, chickpeas, red lentils, pinto beans, soybeans, etc.)
- Nuts and Seeds (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, nut butters, etc.)
- Processed Soy Products (tofu, tempeh, texturized vegetable protein, etc.)
As you can see, the several protein-rich options can appeal to all tastes and preferences—including vegetarians and vegans. To learn what amounts of these foods you need to meet your daily requirements, visit MyPlate.
Now that we know we are likely meeting our protein needs, let’s talk about the ‘tricks of the trade’ in making these protein choices the most healthful—and delicious—that they can be.
First, let’s talk about fat. Several of the protein foods—like meats, poultry, and nuts—are often considered high fat foods. Here is how you can make them lower-fat, healthful options:
- Choose lean cuts of meat and trim excess fat off of steaks and chops at home and when eating out.
- Choose leaner deli meats, like roast beef, turkey, and chicken—and avoid higher fat meats, like salami, bologna, and pepperoni.
- Select >90% lean ground meat and drain off excess fat when cooking.
- Remove skin from poultry.
- Cook meats with minimal added fats. Bake, broil, and grill often; limit frying.
- Nuts are filled with healthy fats! You can avoid overdoing the calories by watching your portion sizes. Learn how many nuts are equivalent to one ounce.
- Choose eggs whites more often than whole eggs.
- Beans, peas, and soy products are naturally low in fat. Try replacing some of your meat-based meals with meatless options to easily reduce fat intake.
- *Note that dairy products are also good sources of protein. As we have discussed, choose skim and low-fat dairy products to reduce fat and saturated fat consumption.
Second, we need to address sodium. Many processed food products contain added salt to increase their shelf life and/or enhance taste. With the recommendation for most Americans to consume <2300 mg/day of sodium for heart health, the majority of us are exceeding this amount on a daily basis. To decrease sodium coming from protein foods, make these adjustments:
- Avoid pre-seasoned and pre-marinated meats, instead choosing unseasoned cuts and flavoring at home with salt-free seasonings and marinades.
- Limit your intake of cured meats (i.e., hot dogs, ham, bacon, etc.) and deli meats. Choose low-sodium versions when purchasing these foods.
- Look at poultry product labels, as several products contain added salt. Compare two or three brands and select the one with the lowest sodium content.
- Snack on unsalted nuts. If looking for a little more flavor, sprinkle them with some cinnamon or cayenne!
- Rinse canned beans to wash away some of the excess sodium.
Including low-fat, low-sodium, and protein-rich foods in your diet—and in the right amounts—can be easy and delicious. You can continue to focus on choosing healthy protein options when eating out. Try:
- Adding grilled chicken, shrimp, or fish to salads.
- Starting your meal with a cup of chili or minestrone, as both generally include beans.
- Choosing dishes with grilled or broiled fish to get both protein and essential healthy fats.
- Trying grilled chicken sandwiches in place of hamburgers.