Ways to Get Quality Protein - Making Protein Choices to Boost Energy and Improve Health

Quality Protein
Protein is in many of the foods that we eat every day, but for something so common, it’s often a misunderstood part of our diets. Think of protein and you might think of a huge piece of steak sizzling on a grill, the latest energy bar touting to banish fatigue, or a protein shake promising to fuel amazing muscle growth. Yes, these foods are all packed with protein, but when it comes to making the best protein choices to keep your body and mind healthy, quality is just as important as quantity.

What is protein?

Protein is a vital nutrient required for building, maintaining, and repairing tissues, cells, and organs throughout the body. Every cell in your body contains protein and it is a major part of the skin, hair, and nails. Protein forms body chemicals, such as enzymes, that are responsible for the many metabolic processes that sustain life. When you eat protein in food, it is broken down into the 20 amino acids that are the body’s basic building blocks for growth and energy. The amino acid tryptophan influences mood by producing serotonin, which can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve overall cognitive function.

Most animal sources of protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, deliver all the amino acids your body needs, while plant-based protein sources such as grains, beans, vegetables, and nuts often lack one or more of the essential amino acids. However, that doesn’t mean you have to eat animal products to get the right amino acids. By eating a variety of plant-based sources of protein each day you can ensure your body gets all the protein and essential amino acids it needs.

The health benefits of protein

Protein gives you the energy to get up and go—and keep going. While too much protein can be harmful to people with kidney disease, diabetes, and some other chronic conditions, eating the right amount of high-quality protein keeps your immune system functioning properly, maintains heart health and your respiratory system, and speeds recovery after exercise.
  • Protein is vital to the growth and development of children and for maintaining health in your senior years.
  • Eating high-quality protein can help reduce your risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
  • A diet rich in high-quality proteins can help you think clearly and may improve recall. 
  • Protein is an essential element of a healthy, balanced diet that can improve your mood and boost your resistance to stress, anxiety, and depression.
As well as being imperative to feeling healthy and energetic, protein is also important to the way you look.
  • Eating high-quality protein can help maintain healthy skin, nails, and hair.
  • It can help you build muscle.
  • If you’re looking to lose weight, eating high-quality protein can help you maintain lean body mass while dieting.
While most people eating a Western diet get sufficient quantity of protein each day, many of us are not getting the quality of protein we need.

Not all protein is the same

When choosing protein-rich foods, it’s important to look at more than just the protein content. Red meat and whole milk dairy products, while rich in protein, tend to also contain saturated fat, the health consequences of which are debated in the nutrition world. While many health organizations maintain that eating saturated fat from any source can compromise your health, the latest studies suggest that the effect of saturated fats on blood cholesterol varies from person to person, depending on genetics and other health factors. People who eat lots of saturated fat do not experience more cardiovascular disease than those who eat less. In fact, consuming whole-fat dairy may even have beneficial effects for some people, including helping to control weight.

For some experts, it’s the quality of the red meat that is most important. In countries like the U.S., for example, industrially-raised animals are typically denied access to the outdoors, pumped full of antibiotics and growth hormones, and given GMO feed grown with pesticides. When these additives enter the food chain they are mainly stored in the fat of an animal—which can be a good reason for cutting down on fatty red meat.

However, proponents of the saturated fat movement believe that eating organic, grass-fed red meat from animals raised in a more natural environment doesn’t carry the same health risks, and that this type of red meat can still be considered high-quality protein.

High-quality vs. low-quality protein

Distinguishing between industrially raised meat and organic, grass-fed meat is only part of separating low- and high-quality sources of protein. While some processed or lunch meats, for example, can be a good source of protein, many are loaded with hidden salt, which can cause high blood pressure and lead to other health problems. Processed meats have also been linked with an increased risk of cancer, likely due to the substances used in the processing of the meat.

The key to ensuring you eat sufficient high-quality protein is to include different types in your diet, rather than relying on just red meat or processed meat. Try these sources of high-quality protein as well:
  • Fish. Most seafood is high in protein and low in saturated fat. Fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, sablefish (black cod), and herring are also high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Experts recommend eating seafood at least twice a week as part of a balanced diet.
  • Poultry. Removing the skin from fresh chicken and turkey can substantially reduce the amount of saturated fat if that concerns you. In the U.S., though, non-organic poultry may also contain antibiotics and been raised on GMO feed grown with pesticides, so opt for organic and free-range if possible.
  • Dairy products. Whether you choose whole- or skim milk dairy, products such as cheese, milk, and yoghurt offer lots of healthy protein. Beware of added sugar in low-fat yoghurts and flavored milk, though, and skip processed cheese that often contains non-dairy ingredients.  
  • Beans. Beans and peas are packed full of both protein and fiber. Add them to salads, soups and stews to boost your protein intake.
  • Nuts and seeds. As well as being rich sources of protein, nuts and seeds are also high in fiber. Almonds, peanuts, walnuts, cashews, flaxseed, sesame and sunflower seeds are also full of “good” fats that can help lower cholesterol. Add to salads or keep handy for snacks.
  • Tofu and soy products. Tofu and soy are excellent red meat alternatives, high in protein and low in fat. However, in countries like the U.S., a lot of it has been genetically modified, so look for organic or non-GMO soy products. Try a “meatless Monday” each week—plant-based protein sources are often less expensive than meat so it can be as good for your wallet as it is for your health.

Choosing protein-rich foods

To include more high-quality protein in your diet, try replacing industrially raised red meat with fish, chicken, or plant-based protein. Reduce the amount of processed carbohydrates you consume—from foods such as pastries, cakes, pizza, cookies and chips—and replace them with organic, grass-fed meat, fish, beans, nuts, seeds, peas, chicken, dairy, and non-GMO soy and tofu products. Snack on nuts and seeds instead of chips, for example, replace a baked dessert with Greek yogurt, or swap out slices of pizza for a grilled chicken breast and a side of beans. Replacing processed carbs with high-quality protein can reduce your risk for heart disease and stroke. You’ll also feel full longer, which can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight.

Other tips for choosing protein-rich foods:
  • Choose unsalted nuts and seeds, to reduce your daily sodium intake.
  • When shopping for canned beans, choose the low sodium versions.
  • Adding more protein to your diet can increase urine output, so drink plenty of water to stay well hydrated.
  • Increasing protein can also cause calcium loss so make sure to get plenty of calcium (1,000 to 1,200 mg per day).

Good Sources of Protein *
The following is a sampling of high-protein foods—some may not be healthy for some people to eat in anything but moderation. In the U.S., non-organic meat and poultry may also contain antibiotics, hormones, or other additives.

Aim for sufficient protein intake at each meal—including breakfast—in the healthiest form.
Food Serving size Protein
Sat. fat (g)
FISH Ways to Get Quality Protein
Canned tuna 3.5 oz (100g) 19
Salmon 3.5 oz (100g) 21
Halibut 3.5 oz (100g) 23
Fresh tuna 3.5 oz (100g) 30

POULTRY (skinless)
Ways to Get Quality Protein
Turkey breast 3.5 oz (100g) 31
Chicken breast 3.5 oz (100g) 31
Chicken thigh 3.5 oz (100g) 25
Chicken leg 3.5 oz (100g) 24

Ways to Get Quality Protein
Pork chops 1 chop (145g) 39
Skirt steak 3.5 oz (100g) 27
Ground beef (70% lean) 3.5 oz (100g) 14
Leg of lamb 3.5 oz (100g) 26

Ways to Get Quality Protein
Soy beans 1/3 cup (100g) 17
Kidney beans 1/3 cup (100g) 10
Black beans 1/3 cup (100g) 9
Baked beans (canned) 1/3 cup (100g) 5
Peas 1/3 cup (100g) 8

Ways to Get Quality Protein
Whole milk 1/2 cup (100g) 3.4
Soy milk 1/2 cup (100g) 3.3
Eggs 2 boiled (100g) 13

Ways to Get Quality Protein
Mozzarella 3.5 oz (100g) 32
Low-fat cottage cheese 3.5 oz (100g) 12
Cheddar 3.5 oz (100g) 25
Swiss 3.5 oz (100g) 28

Ways to Get Quality Protein
Peanuts 1/4 cup (28g) 7
Almonds 1/4 cup (28g) 6
Pistachios 1/4 cup (28g) 6
Sunflower seeds 1/4 cup (28g) 6
Flaxseed 1/4 cup (28g) 5

Ways to Get Quality Protein
Veggie burger 1 patty (100g) 23
Tofu 3.5 oz (100g) 7
High-protein cereal 1 cup (50g) 13
Greek yogurt 1/2 cup (100g) 10
Whey protein powder 1/3 cup (32g) 19

* Nutrition values are approximate only; significant variations occur according to brand, cut of meat, cooking method, etc.

Protein as part of a balanced diet

Eating a diet rich in high-quality protein may help you maintain a healthy weight by curbing appetite, making you feel full longer, and fueling you with extra energy for exercising. As you age, it’s important to increase high-quality protein intake to maintain health, energy levels, and possibly even reduce some muscle loss. However, following one of the popular, restrictive high-protein diets can have negative consequences for your health.

High-protein diets such as the Atkins or Zone aren't balanced in terms of the essential nutrients, vitamins, and fiber your body needs. They also emphasize animal-based proteins while restricting healthy carbohydrates such as cereals, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Aside from the damaging environmental impact of raising cattle and the treatment of industrially-raised animals, a diet that is too high in animal protein can actually lead to weight gain over time. A 20-year study from Harvard School of Public Health found that those who ate more red and processed meat gained more weight, about one extra pound every four years, while those who ate more nuts over the course of the study gained only half as much weight.

Some people are able to lose weight on high-protein diets in the short-term but this weight loss is not due to eating more animal protein, but simply due to consuming fewer calories. In the long term it may be difficult to maintain any weight loss because of all the negative effects such a diet has on overall health. A safer way to lose weight is to reduce portion size, sugar intake (simple carbs), and calories, while maintaining a nutritionally balanced diet that is rich in plant-based proteins.

Protein powders, shakes, and bars

For most of us, consuming the right balance of whole foods each day will provide us with all the nutrients we need, negating the need for protein supplements. There is also no evidence that protein from a powder or bar can enhance athletic performance any more than protein from food. However, you may benefit from supplementing your diet with protein powders, shakes, or bars if you’re:
  • A teenager who is growing and exercising a lot.
  • An adult switching to a vegan diet—eliminating meat, chicken, fish, and even dairy and eggs from your diet.
  • An older adult with a small appetite who finds it difficult to eat your protein requirements in whole foods.
  • Starting or increasing a regular workout program, trying to add muscle, or recovering from a sports injury. If you feel weak while exercising or lifting weights you may benefit from adding a protein supplement.
Protein supplements come in various forms, either as powders you mix with milk or water, in pre-mixed, ready-to-drink shakes, or in bars. The most common types of protein used are whey, casein, and soy. Whey is popular as it is a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids your body needs. Whey and casein are milk-based proteins, while soy is the better choice for vegans or anyone with a dairy allergy. Soy may also be the best choice for your heart, although much of it in the U.S. may be GMO.

Using protein supplements

  • Dosing. These products are not meant to replace real food in the diet so aim for 25 to 40 grams of protein per serving. If you’re looking to build muscle from extensive workouts, aim to consume 0.7 grams of lean protein per pound of body weight. Calculate how much you already get from food and then top up with a protein shake.
  • Safety concerns. Protein supplements may not be safe for older people with renal disease or people who have recently undergone surgery on the digestive organs. Some ingredients may even interact with prescription medication, so check with your doctor or pharmacist before using.
  • Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and make sure you’re getting enough calcium in your diet.
  • Look out for extra ingredients. Many protein bars especially are packed with carbs, excess sugar, and saturated fat.

Credit: HelpGuide

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