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.
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4 thoughts on “Choose Healthier Protein Sources

  1. Wonderful post with clear explanations for the consumer to understand. The Mediterranean Diet has gained great acceptance as a healthy lifestyle diet by most authorities. Paleo practitioners have concerns with the grain and legume components, but most people will find this feeding style beneficial.
    Thank you for sharing this information.

    Like

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