Plate Up Some Protein

Contributed by Sue Moores, M.S., R.D., Kowalski's Nutritionist

High-Protein Foods, including fish, chicken, eggs, yogurt and beans

If better health is your New Year's plan, you're likely thinking "go pro," as in protein. According to headlines, all roads to weight loss, weight management and muscle strength have protein in the driver's seat. How much stock should you put in protein? Some...with a few footnotes.

Know Its Value

Protein is key to building and maintaining the cells that make up your muscles, bones, organs, skin and hair. It's needed for running all sorts of actions and reactions in your body and over the past several years has been coveted for its ability to help us feel full longer than carbohydrate-rich foods. It’s also aligned with muscle strength and retention. If you eat too little protein, you will lose muscle, but almost counterintuitively, the reverse doesn’t hold true: eating plenty of protein will not in itself give you muscles. You gain muscle and muscle strength when you challenge or activate muscles through exercise. Protein helps feed those gains.

Mediterranean Sea Bass En Papillote

Put It in Perspective

Contrary to popular opinion, most of us get plenty of protein without having to add powders and protein-infused products into the mix. How much protein should you eat? It depends on who you ask. The current recommendation is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight, but new/projected recommendations are trending up to 0.45-0.55 grams of protein per pound.

Best Practices

1. Parse out protein. Consume protein over the course of the day rather than loading up at dinnertime. Your body is constantly in build-and-repair mode. A steady, even infusion of "building material" (protein) will give you a ready supply to work with. Aim for 25-30 grams at each meal. If your interest is to build muscle, note that your body will not be able to utilize much more than 40 grams at any one time to fuel that end.

Lemony Lentil and Goat Cheese Salad

2. Mix it up. Beef, poultry, pork and fish are high-quality sources of protein, as are many dairy foods and eggs. But plenty of protein is in vegetables, too, including lentils and beans (such as garbanzo and kidney beans). Besides offering protein, they provide a treasure trove of health-helping fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. If protein powders are of interest, choose carefully. Recent tests found that a large proportion of powders contained metal or metalloid residues such as arsenic, mercury and lead.

3. Keep carbs in your life. They are the preferred source of energy for your brain and can be an important source of fiber, vitamins, mineral and phytonutrients. Long-term studies suggest a high-protein diet, at the expense of carbohydrates, results in an increased risk of death due to heart disease, stroke and cancer and can place undue stress on your kidneys. For the best carbs, pick minimally processed grains, beans and vegetables such as potatoes, squash and corn.

Good to Know:

Your body uses extra water to break down and use protein. Be sure to drink plenty of water to give your kidneys an assist.

Good Sources of Protein

Protein Sources Portion Protein (in grams)
Meat, fish, poultry 4 oz. cooked 28 g
Yogurt (Greek / regular) 6 oz. 17 g / 10 g
Cottage cheese ½ cup 12 g
Cheese 1 oz. 7 g
Eggs 1 7 g
Tempeh 4 oz. 20 g
Tofu 4 oz. 12 g
Seeds (chia, flax, hemp, pumpkin) 1 oz. 9-10 g
Quinoa 1 cup cooked 8 g
Beans (garbanzo, black, kidney, etc.) ½ cup cooked 6-8 g
Nuts 1 oz. (about ¼ cup) 5 g

References:

  1. Rodriguez, N. Miller. S.L. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. April 29, 2015. "Effective translation of current dietary guidance: Understanding and communicating the concepts of minimal and optimal levels of dietary protein."
  2. Reinagel, M. Scientific American. April 2014. "How Much Protein Can the Body Absorb?"
  3. Hirsch, J. Consumer Reports. March 2018. "Arsenic, Lead Found in Popular Protein Supplements."
  4. Beach, C. Food Safety News. February 28, 2018. "Heavy metals found in 40 percent of protein powders tested."