The nutritional power of protein might surprise you. Most people are familiar with protein’s role in building and repairing muscle, but this essential nutrient does much more. For instance, the antibodies that fight infection, the enzymes that control thousands of chemical reactions inside cells, and the hormones that coordinate many bodily functions are all made of protein. In addition, protein’s staying power helps you feel full, which may aid weight-loss efforts.
Foods rich in protein include meat, fish, poultry, legumes (dried beans and peas), tofu, eggs, nuts and seeds, and milk and milk products. Grains and some vegetables provide smaller amounts.
Not all protein is the same. The building blocks of protein are called amino acids. Animal proteins are “complete” proteins because they contain all the amino acids we need. Plant proteins are “incomplete” proteins because they’re low in some amino acids. To get a balanced mix of amino acids, vegetarians should eat a variety of plant proteins each day.
Because cells are using and breaking down protein every day, the body constantly needs a new supply. The CDC recommends that women consume 46 grams of protein a day. Men should consume 56 grams of protein a day.
Although milk and milk products, grains, and vegetables provide some protein, we rely on foods in the protein group to meet much of our daily need. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that women have 5 to 5½ ounces of protein foods daily. Men should have 5½ to 6½ ounces daily. Here’s what counts as an ounce of protein food:
1 ounce of meat, poultry, or fish
1/4 cup of cooked dried beans or tofu
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1/2 ounce nuts or seeds
Here’s an example of how a woman could get 5 ounces of protein foods:
Breakfast: 1 tablespoon peanut butter on whole wheat toast
Lunch: 1/4 cup kidney beans on a salad
Dinner: 3 ounces broiled fish
Here’s an example of how a man could get 6½ ounces of protein foods:
Breakfast: 1 egg, scrambled
Lunch: Bowl of chili (containing ½ cup beans)
Dinner: 4-ounce grilled chicken breast
Be sure to include milk and milk products, grains, and vegetables in your meals to meet the rest of your protein needs.
Don’t get in a rut. For a healthy diet, go for a variety of protein foods:
If you’re not a vegetarian, have at least two servings of fish a week. Fish is low in saturated fat. It also contains omega-3 fatty acids, healthy fats that lower the risk for heart disease.
Include plant proteins in your diet. Legumes are low in saturated fat and a good source of fiber. Small portions of nuts and seeds can add flavor and protein to your diet, too.
Meat and poultry contain saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol. You can reduce fat by eating smaller portions of meat, choosing lean cuts, trimming visible fat, and removing the skin from poultry.
Make these smart food choices and put protein’s power to work.