Choose Healthier Protein Sources

Chicken Breast, Sage, Spinach
Chicken Breast with Sage and Spinach

The human body is made up of over ten thousand different proteins.  Protein’s building blocks are called amino acids.  Because our bodies are constantly making new proteins and because we do not store amino acids as we do fats, we need a daily supply of protein.

The Institute of Medicine determined that the daily protein intake be 10 – 35% of calories.  The Institute of Medicine also recommends 0.8 grams of dietary protein per kilogram of body weight or just over 7 grams per 20 pounds.  This translates to about 55 grams of dietary protein for a 150-pound person and 75 grams of dietary protein for a 200-pound person.  Many different foods contain protein.  These include fish, poultry, eggs, red meat, processed meat, nuts, seeds, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and dairy.  Because it is so easy to get protein, it is uncommon for western diets to have a protein deficiency.

Animal and Plant Proteins

Our bodies make protein in two different ways: Either from scratch or by modifying other amino acids.  A few amino acids must come from food.  These are called essential amino acids.

  • Animal protein contains all the amino acids we need, and they are called complete proteins.
  • Plant protein sources, such as fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, lack at least one essential amino acid.  These are called incomplete proteins.

The Protein Package

Some high-protein foods are healthier than others because of what comes along with the protein.  This could be healthy or harmful fats, beneficial fiber, or hidden salt.  It is this “protein package” that is likely to differentiate one protein source as healthier than another.  For example, a 6-ounce broiled porterhouse steak has 40 grams of protein, but it also has a whopping 12 grams of saturated fat. That is 60 percent of the recommended saturated fat intake for a person on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.  Also a 6-ounce ham steak has only 2.5 grams of saturated fat, but it has 2,000 milligrams of sodium.  That is 500 milligrams more than the recommended maximum sodium intake.

On the other hand, a 6-ounce serving of wild salmon has 34 grams of protein, is naturally low in sodium, and has only 1.7 grams of saturated fat.  Salmon and other oily fish are excellent sources of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.  A cup of cooked lentils provides 18 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber, and it has very little saturated fat and sodium.

If you like beef, choose the leanest cuts you can find.  Chicken, turkey, and fish are better choices.  Beans, nuts, whole grains and other plant sources are even better because they are generally low in saturated fat and high in fiber.  Also low-fat and non-fat dairy products are better than full-fat products.

So plant protein sources are healthier than animal sources because there protein package is healthier.  Because plant proteins are incomplete proteins, it is important to eat a variety of plant protein foods to get all of the amino acids needed to make new protein.

Putting it into Practice

  • Reel in Fish.  Seafood is important in a heart-healthy diet (particularly salmon, herring, and sardines).  Adding fish instead of red meat reduces saturated fat intake and increases omega-3 fats.  These marine omega-3 fats (EPA and DHA) improve blood cholesterol levels.  Aim for at least three servings per week.
  • Bulk up on Beans.  Beans contain soluble fiber which lowers the level of LDL (bad) cholesterol in your bloodstream.  LDL cholesterol causes plaque to build up in your arteries.  Beans also contain the minerals magnesium and potassium which help lower blood pressure.
  • Be a little Nutty.  Eat nuts and seeds to get plant protein along with unsaturated fats.  Try mixed nuts like walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pecans, and hazelnuts to get more nutrients.  Seeds like chia seeds and flaxseeds are also good sources of omega-3 fats.  Nuts and seeds are high in calories, so limit them to one to two ounces per day.
  • Go with Whole Grains.  In addition to protein, whole grains like brown rice, oats, quinoa, and whole wheat contain fiber which helps lower heart disease risk.
  • Choose Non-fat and Low-fat Dairy Products.  Full fat dairy is rich in saturated fat, which increases LDL cholesterol. Non-fat and low-fat dairy products are better choices.
  • Put that Steak Out to Pasture.  Like full fat dairy, red meat also contains a lot of saturated fat, which increases LDL cholesterol.  Limit red meat to a few servings per month.
  • Avoid Processed Meat.  Eating small amounts of processed red meat regularly has been linked to increased risk of heart disease.  They are also leaded with salt and added sugar.  Also the World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that processed meats probably cause cancer.
  • Choose Poultry.  Turkey and chicken have less saturated fat than beef.  They are both good sources of protein.  Eat these instead of red meat.
  • Nutrient-rich Eggs.  Eggs are rich in vitamins and minerals, so eating up to four eggs a week is a good idea.  People with heart disease or diabetes may want to limit egg consumption to three a week.

Hang Out In The Garden Of Eatin’

Healthy Berries
Healthy Berries at the Market

Fruits and vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet.  They contain an array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.  They are also low in calories and high in fiber.  A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can

  • decrease the chances of having a heart attack or stroke;
  • lower blood pressure;
  • help you avoid constipation and diverticulitis;
  • guard against two common aging-related eye disease: cataract, the clouding of the eye’s lens, and macular degeneration, the major cause of vision loss afflicting people over sixty-five;
  • delay or prevent memory loss and a decline in thinking skills;
  • help you feel full with fewer calories and so control your weight and waistline; and
  • add variety to your diet and enliven your palate.

Family Nutrition

Fruits and vegetables can be classified by “family.”  These plant families you usually find at the market include the following:

  • The crucifer family: Includes broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, radishes, turnips, and watercress.  They contain chemicals that may protect against some cancers.
  • The melon/squash family: Includes cucumbers, zucchini, pumpkin, acorn and butternut squashes, cantaloupes, and honeydew melons.
  • The legume family: Includes alfalfa sprouts, beans, peas, and soybeans.  They contain substances that may protect against heart disease and cancer.
  • The lily family: Includes asparagus, chives, garlic, leeks, onions, and shallots.  They contain sulfur-containing compounds that may fight cancer.
  • The citrus family: Includes grapefruits, lemons, limes, oranges, and tangerines.  Citrus fruits are high in vitamin C.
  • The solanum family: Includes eggplant, peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes.  Tomatoes contain the powerful antioxidant lycopene, which may protect against prostate and other cancers.
  • The umbel family: Includes carrots, celery, parsley, and parsnips.  Carrots are an excellent source of beta-carotene, which the body uses to make vitamin A.  Beta-carotene and other related compounds called carotenoids help prevent cancers, heart disease, and memory loss.

No single fruit or vegetable contains all the substances you need, therefore it is a good idea to get a few servings a week from each of these major groups.  It’s also a good idea to eat for color variety to ensure you get a variety of beneficial phytonutrients.  Include the bold colors of ripe red tomatoes, crisp orange carrots, creamy yellow squash, emerald-green spinach, juicy blueberries, indigo plums, violet eggplants, and all shades in between.  You should also eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

Putting It Into Practice

  • Aim high.  Use 5 servings a day as a minimum goal and aim for more.  A serving of fruits and vegetables is 1/2 cup except raw leafy greens, which is 1 cup.
  • Eat for variety and for color.  On most days try to eat from the following fruit and vegetable groups: dark green leafy vegetables, yellow or orange fruits and vegetables, red fruits and vegetables, legumes, and citrus fruits.
  • Cook your tomatoes.  Try tomatoes, processed tomatoes, or tomato products cooked in oil on most days.   Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a powerful, fat-soluble antioxidant that has been linked to lower rates of a variety of cancers.  Because lycopene is tightly bound within cell walls, your body has a hard time extracting it from raw tomatoes.  Cooking breaks down the cell walls, and the oil dissolves lycopene so that it can enter the bloodstream.
  • Fresh is better.  Eat several servings of fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables each week because cooking destroys some important phytonutrients (like vitamin C and folic acid).  Frozen fruits and vegetables are nearly as good as fresh ones and may be better than “fresh” fruits and vegetables that have been stored for weeks under conditions that prevent ripening.  Canned fruits and vegetables are also fine, though many come loaded with salt and added sugar.


Go With The (Whole) Grains

Whole Grain Bread
Whole Grain Bread

Grains are seeds of grasses cultivated for food.  They basically come in two varieties – whole grains and refined grains.  Whole grains are intact seeds with their bran, germ, and endosperm.  Click here to see a whole grain.  The bran is the outer layer of the seed and contains mostly fiber.  The endosperm is the largest part of the seed and contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals.  The germ is the part of the seed from which a new plant sprouts and is a concentrated source of nutrients.   Examples of whole grains (and foods made from them) are wheat berries, whole wheat bread, rolled oats, steel-cut oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, bulgur, millet, barley, cornmeal, and rye.

Refined grains, on the other hand, usually have their bran and germ removed in the milling process leaving only the endosperm.  This is done to give the grain a finer texture and a longer shelf-life.  Examples of refined grains are white rice, white flour, de-germed cornmeal, and white bread.  Most refined grains are enriched, which means certain B vitamins and iron are added back after milling.  However fiber is not added back to enriched grains.  Whole grains are healthier choices than refined grains.

Why Are Whole Grains Healthier?

  • Whole grains are healthier because they contain more fiber than refined grains.  High fiber diets are associated with lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • The fiber in whole grains also helps prevent constipation and diverticular disease (diverticulosis).
  • Whole grains contain more nutrients than refined grains.  Some or these nutrients are magnesium, selenium, iron, vitamin E, and some B vitamins (riboflavin, folate, thiamin, niacin).  These nutrients are important in many biological functions like metabolism, a healthy nervous system, a healthy immune system, carrying oxygen in the blood, helping the body form red blood cells, and building bones.
  • The body also digests whole grains slower than refined grains preventing blood sugar and insulin levels from rising and falling too quickly.  This better control of blood sugar and insulin can delay hunger and prevent the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A Word of Caution

If you are a woman who is pregnant or could become pregnant, you need to make sure you get enough folic acid.  Folic acid is a B vitamin that is important in preventing certain types of birth defects.  You can get folic acid from taking a multivitamin pill everyday and also from using enriched grains that have been fortified with folic acid.  You should talk to your doctor about how much folic acid you need, and how you should get it.

Tips To Help You Eat Whole Grains

  • Eat whole grains for breakfast.  Start the day with a bowl of whole-grain cereal.  If you like hot cereals, try old-fashioned or steel-cut oats.  You can also cook whole grains to make a hot breakfast cereal or porridge.  If you prefer cold cereal, look at the ingredients list to make sure the first ingredient is a whole grain.  Shredded wheat is a good whole grain cereal.
  • Try whole-grain breads.  Choose breads made from whole grains instead of from refined grains.  Check the label to make sure the first ingredient has the word “whole.”  Breads are often high in sodium so do not eat too much.
  • Try whole-grain bagels.  Instead of plain bagels, try whole-grain bagels.
  • Try brown rice.  Cook up some brown rice instead of white rice to accompany a meal.  You could also cook other whole grains like bulgur, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, or hulled barley as tasty side dishes.
  • Try whole-wheat pasta.  Whole wheat pasta can be a delicious alternative to plain pasta.
  • Try whole grains in soups.  Feature whole grains like wild rice and barley in soups, stews, casseroles, and salads.
  • Snack on popcorn.  Popcorn is a whole grain and is a healthy snack when made with little or no  added salt or butter.
  • Bake with whole-wheat flour.  If you bake, try whole-wheat flour instead of white flour.

Eating a variety of whole grains ensures you get more nutrients and also makes your meals and snacks more interesting.

Say Yes To Healthy Fats

Oatmeal with Chia Seeds, Banana, and Walnuts
Oatmeal with Chia Seeds, Banana, and Walnuts

The fat in your diet (dietary fat) is needed for your body to function properly.  Certain vitamins (A, D, E, and K) and nutrients (like carotenoids) are fat-soluble, which means they need to be consumed with fat to enter your bloodstream.  It is recommended to consume some fat at each meal to ensure the absorption of these vitamins and nutrients.  There are four main types of dietary fat: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and trans fats.

The Bad Fats

Saturated fat:  These fats are abundant in meat and animal fat, dairy products, and in tropical oils like palm and coconut oil.  They are solid at room temperature.  Too much saturated fat increses both your blood cholesterol and atherosclerosis (plaque build-up in your arteries).  It is best to limit saturated fat intake to 7% of calories.  That amounts to about 16 grams on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Trans fat: These fats are solidified vegetable oils created to increase shelf life.  They are present in deep-fried fast foods, commercial baked goods.  Trans fats increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and triglycerides and lower HDL (good) cholesterol.  It is best to avoid trans fats, and you can spot them in food labels and ingredient lists.  Just look for the term “hydrogenated,” or “partially hydrogenated.”

The Healthy Fats

Monounsaturated fat: These fats are liquid at room temperature and are basically oils.  Excellent sources are olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, avocados and most nuts.  These fats improve your blood cholesterol levels by lowering bad cholesterol and raising good cholesterol.  The Mediterranean diet is rich in monounsaturated fats.

Polyunsaturated fat: These fats are also liquid at room temperature.  Your body does not make these fats, so it is important to get these essential fats from your diet.  Good sources are corn oil, soybean oil, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and fatty fish like salmon, herring, and sardines.  Polyunsaturated fats improve blood cholesterol levels, and they can be subdivided into the omega-3 and omega-6 groups.  Omega-3 fats need special attention because they are especially beneficial and are not prevalent in most Western diets.  Therefore we need to make sure we consume enough of them.  There are three main types of omega-3 fats in our diet.  They are ALA, EPA, and DHA.  ALA is the main omega-3 fatty acid in most Western diets.  It is found mostly in nuts, vegetable oils, and leafy vegetables.  Both EPA and DHA are found mostly in fish and are often called marine omega-3s.  Your body uses ALA mainly for energy and can convert this omega-3 fat into EPA and DHA.  Omega-3 fats make up part of our cells, and they are important in how our hormones are made.  There is also strong scientific evidence that omega-3 fatty acids are especially important in protecting us from cardiovascular disease.

Selecting Healthy Fats

  • Avoid trans fats as much as possible and limit your intake of saturated fats.
  • Instead of trans fats and saturated fats, consume unsaturated fats.

Putting It Into Practice

  • Limit the amount of full-fat dairy products you eat.
  • Instead of red meat, choose nuts, seeds, poultry, and fish.
  • Use liquid vegetable oils, like extra virgin olive oil, in cooking and at the table.
  • Eat at least one source of omega-3 fatty acids everyday.  Good examples are fish (salmon, sardines, herring), walnuts, canola oil, chia seeds, ground flaxseeds or flaxseed oil.