Why it’s Important
Protein is a versatile nutrient and is imperative to our health. Each and every process in our bodies require protein in some way, shape, or form. Proteins provide the following functions in our body:
· Growth and structure: our cells and tissues are composed of varying amounts of protein.
· Enzymes: chemical substances that aid in energy consumption and other chemical pathways crucial to our health and wellness.
· Hormones: substances that spread messages and information to target areas in our bodies
· Tissue repair: following exercise, injury, or the day-to-day “wear and tear”
· Immune function: antibodies that fight infections
Amino acids are often referred to as the “building blocks” of proteins. There are 20 different amino acids total, and for our bodies to make any type of protein, all 20 amino acids must be present. The problem is that our bodies can only make 11 of these amino acids. The other nine amino acids must be attained through our diet. We call these the 9 essential amino acids. If someone does not eat sources of these nine amino acids they will eventually develop an amino acid deficiency, in which no proteins can be made by the body. This is very rare in the United States. Most protein from animal sources can be called “complete” protein, meaning that it contains all 9 essential amino acids. Plant sources of protein tend to lack a few of the essential amino acids, but pairing foods that are missing different amino acids can make two or more different protein sources complete. Examples of these complimentary proteins are listed below.
Believe it or not, protein is one nutrient that most people in America over-consume. You’d be surprised at the amount of protein in some food items if you look at the Nutrition Facts label. What most people don’t know is that the protein consumed above what your body needs is stored as fat. The breakdown products of protein are excreted in urine, and therefore, if you consume extra protein you can become dehydrated if you don’t drink extra water. Again I recommend looking at your actual intake journal and adjust your protein consumption accordingly.
Each person has a different protein requirement, which is dependent on variables such as age, sex, weight, height, general health condition, and the type, intensity, and duration of exercise the individual partakes in. Individuals who are growing, such as children and pregnant women, have a high protein requirement. Males have a greater requirement than non-pregnant and non-lactating females because men usually have more muscle mass then females. Exercise can affect one’s protein intake based on how much muscle breakdown occurs during the given exercise. Weight lifting, for example, causes much more muscle breakdown than running, and so individuals who weight lift will have a slightly higher protein requirement than those who run short distances.
There are a couple ways we can figure out our individual protein needs. The usual recommended intake is 0.8 grams/kilogram of body weight/day (0.364 grams/pound of body weight/day). According to Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, the easiest way to find your protein requirement relative to physical activity level is to simply multiply your weight (in pounds) by the appropriate activity numbers below.
· Sedentary adult: 0.4 grams/pound body weight
· Active adult: 0.4-0.6grams/pound body weight
· Growing athlete: 0.6-0.9 grams/pound body weight
· Adult building muscle mass: 0.6-0.9 grams/pound body weight
The number you get will be the number of grams of protein you should eat in one day. Another valuable source for finding your protein requirement is www.mypyramid.gov. Any way you figure, your protein intake should amount to 10-20% of your total caloric intake.
When considering sources of protein that you would like to include in your diet, try to choose lean protein sources. Animal proteins, although they offer complete proteins, can bring high amounts of saturated fat with them, which is something we don’t want. Therefore, if you acquire most of your protein through animal sources go for the low-fat sources: skim milk, lean meats, and eggs.
There are many nutritious plant sources of protein available as well. Soy products such as tofu are low fat, complete proteins that can serve as substitutes to meat in many dishes. Although there are fewer complete protein sources offered by plants, certain plant foods have complimentary protein profiles. One plant source is missing one amino acid that the other has, and vice versa. When these foods are eaten together a complete protein profile is achieved. These sources are called complimentary proteins. See the chart below offering sources of complimentary proteins.
COMPLIMENTARY PROTEIN SOURCE
Legumes, lentils, peas, beans
Grains, nuts, and seeds
Grains; wheat, corn, rice
Legumes and dairy
Nuts and seeds
If you are vegan or vegetarian, it is more important for you to consider complimentary proteins, and plant sources that offer complete proteins at most meals.
Lean Protein Ideas
Here are some lean protein sources for those of you who may feel stuck in a ground chuck rut:
- Use lean turkey products like turkey pepperoni, turkey bacon, turkey brats, and ground turkey.
- Substitute tofu for meat in some dishes like stir fries and lasagna.
- Use beans (black, kidney, and pinto) instead of meat in tacos, burritos, or salads.
- Seafood makes for a great lean protein in many dishes, as an entrée, or on salads.
- Check out other meat substitutes in your local grocery store. Many meat substitutes have been developed in the recent years, and you’d be surprised how well they mimic the texture and taste of real meat! Examples include Quorn and Morning Star products.
- Use low-fat dairy products like skim milk, low-fat yogurt, and skim cheese.
By using some of the ideas above you will limit the fat intake that can come with beef and other animal products. Next we will discuss the role of fat in your diet and you will see why you want to limit fat that comes from animal sources.
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