Protein is all over the news these days. Cereals like Special K and Cheerios are adding protein powder to their ingredient lists. So what’s the big deal? Read below to get the scoop. Oh, and if you're wondering, "hey, Lindsey, didn't you already blog about protein?" That post (dated 9/4/16) focused on micronutrients and protein. This focuses more on the bigger picture. Let's get to it!
Protein is one of the 3 main compounds (a.k.a. “macronutrients”) in food that supply the body with energy. At least some protein is found in almost every food, but there are a few foods that contain a significant enough amount to call them "high protein foods." These foods include meat (beef, chicken, turkey, pork, etc.), eggs, dairy products such as cheese and milk, beans, nuts, and seeds. Many soy products contain a significant amount of protein as well. While grains such as wheat and quinoa contain some protein, the percent of Calories from protein pales in comparison to animal-based protein-rich foods and some other vegetable-based foods. Ideally, our diets would include plenty of protein from a variety of quality food sources.
Proteins are made out of individual amino acids, which are building blocks used to repair tissues and make new structures like hair, skin, red blood cells, and immune cells. So it's important to eat enough protein to supply your body with these important components. Also, when a meal or snack contains protein, we tend to feel satisfied for longer and not get as hungry later. This is why eating enough protein can help some people lose weight – it helps them not to get as hungry after eating. Protein has a lot of benefits and it is essential to human health. But more is not necessarily better. If you eat more protein than you need, then the body will store the extra energy from the protein as fat.
In general, for a healthy, moderately active adult I recommend around 75-100 grams of protein per day. Very active people or those who have a muscular build may need more. When you subtract the 35-40 grams protein most people get from grains and milk products, that leaves 40-60 grams protein per day from meat or meat alternatives, which is roughly 6-8 ounces. To give you an idea of how much that is in terms of food, 4 ounces of meat (chicken/beef/fish etc.) has about 30 grams protein. Half a cup of black beans has about 7 grams of protein, peanut butter has 7 grams protein per 2 Tablespoons, and two scrambled eggs give you 12 grams. One cup of Honey Nut Cheerios + 1/2 cup milk provides 7 g protein. This information is helpful when deciding whether to shell out extra cash for Cheerios with added protein. One cup Cheerios with protein + 1/2 cup milk has 11 grams protein. You can see how the difference of 4 grams is barely significant now that you understand how much protein people need in a day. In my opinion, the added protein is a marketing gimmick that doesn't deliver enough protein to be worth the extra cost (Walmart lists $3.68 for 18 cups of regular Cheerios, and $3.49 for only 7 cups of the kind with protein). I will admit that when I discovered through my label research that the protein clusters in Cheerios protein contain lentils, I was pretty impressed. I figured it would all be highly processed soy protein made from soybeans that were grown using Roundup. It does contain the soy, but also lentils!
Protein should be one part of a balanced meal plan that also contains healthy fat and fiber-rich carbohydrate. Next time you’re writing a grocery list, I recommend that you avoid those new pricy cereals with added protein and instead spring for some high quality eggs, fiber and protein-rich beans, or free range chicken. Plus you can pick up some inexpensive, protein and omega-3 fatty acid-rich sardines*! If you plan balanced, healthful meals, you and your family will get the protein you need to stay healthy. For best results, spread your protein intake throughout the day - don't get it all in one meal. For more information and to find out how much protein you need, go to choosemyplate.gov/protein-foods.
*That sardines recipe above is from Paula Deen (gasp!) but is a good, simple one. I use tapioca flour and coconut oil in her basic recipe, and I recommend you season the flour/coating with smoked paprika and cumin along with the salt and freshly cracked pepper. I serve over shredded cabbage topped with a garlic-olive oil-parsley-lemon-salt-pepper sauce. Delicious!
**Lentils are nutritious enough to be called superfoods. But for some people with certain digestive issues, they're less than super. If you don't tolerate FODMAPS, have IBS, or generally feel crummy and bloated after eating beans or legumes, then the Huffington Post article is not for you. Want to learn more? Schedule an appointment with me and we can talk all about it.
***No article about protein is complete without a list of recommended egg-based recipes. Try huevos rancheros (has beans too for a bonus!), or any of these 43 egg-based breakfast ideas. My favorite is the breakfast hash with fried eggs, but don't trust my judgement on this one. I don't even eat eggs (sadly) due to an intolerance.
Lindsey Hays, RDN, LN
Lindsey Hays is licensed as a Nutritionist/Dietitian in the state of South Dakota. While she holds a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN or RD) credential which is nationally recognized by the Commission on Dietitian Registration, she is not licensed to practice as a nutritionist or dietitian in states other than South Dakota. She is a Certified Dietitian in the State of Washington. The information on blackhillsnutrition.com is not intended as medical advice. The content of this site is not intended to provide or replace medical advice, nor should it be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. Always consult a qualified healthcare professional before changing your diet or medications. For full disclaimer statement click here.