If you’ve browsed the aisles of any grocery store or picked up a health magazine, you know that protein is currently a trend. From bars to powders, protein-laden products are everywhere. But it’s important to consider how the nutrient fits best into your individual diet.
For everyone, protein is a basic need. It is key to providing building blocks for bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood, as well as for hormones, enzymes and vitamins, according to registered dietitian Mary Aukes, who works with cardiology clinic patients for Sanford Health. It also helps maintain or increase metabolism.
Protein helps stave off hunger longer than other foods, she said, because animal-source and some plant-based protein and accompanying fat content digest slower.
How much protein is best?
The right quantity varies with each person, Aukes said.
“The amount of protein for an individual is specific to gender, age, height, activity level and possible medical indications. It is not a one size fits all,” she said.
Also, she added, protein itself can vary, depending whether it comes from animals or plants.
“Different types of protein have different bioavailability to an individual as well as provide different amounts and types of vitamins and minerals and fat content. Plant-based proteins will also help to provide fiber,” she said.
Some medical issues may require more protein; others may require limiting it, Aukes said.
General guidelines from the National Academy of Medicine suggest that the average sedentary woman should get about 46 grams of protein per day, and the average man should get 56 grams. Not sure how much you’re consuming? Most likely, you’re getting more than that.
It’s not hard to do. Just one small (3-ounce) hamburger has 21 grams. A cup of cooked beans such as pinto, black beans, or lentils has around 16 grams. A slice of American cheese has 5 grams.
Watch for excess
While protein offers a host of health benefits, too much may not be a good thing. Because we often choose fatty animal types (fried chicken wings or pork ribs, anyone?), it can even lead to weight gain and other health problems such as diabetes and cancer.
Quality over quantity
Instead of trying to work more protein into your diet, focus on improving the quality of your protein. Boost your intake of fish. Don’t forget to incorporate plant-based proteins. And when choosing meat, skip the processed stuff and opt for fresh, leaner cuts.
Quality sources include:
- Wild salmon
- Low-fat Greek yogurt
- Black or pinto beans
- Unsalted nuts, like cashews or almonds
- Sirloin or ground beef that is at least 92% lean
“In the heart world, we would recommend to include a variety of proteins with emphasis on lean meats, low-fat dairy and plant-based proteins, with a goal to balance your plate with other sources of foods from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, along with portion control based on individual needs,” Aukes said. “For the general population, these recommendations would also be true. Try to focus on a well-rounded diet of a variety of foods and adding color to every meal and every snack.”
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