Protein plays a vital role in maintaining health. Proteins are part of the structural components of cells, tissues, organs and bones.They act as enzymes that digest food and propel chemical reactions. Proteins make up hormones, regulate fluid balance, transport nutrients in the blood, act as antibodies and can even be used as a source of energy.
The protein from our meal is not used directly by the body for all these functions. After digestion, it goes through a cellular recycling process where the protein's building blocks, called amino acids, are used to make new proteins. This recycling is important, because we can only make some amino acids ourselves; others must be supplied from protein in the diet.
Although many people associate protein with meats, it is found in a variety of foods. There are both animal and plant sources of protein. Animal sources include all types of meats, fish, eggs and dairy products.
Some of these foods can be high in fat, so eat them in moderation and try to choose lean cuts of meat and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
Plant sources of protein are a healthy choice. Peanut butter, almonds, tofu, lentils, veggie burgers and vegetables are protein-containing foods.
Although some plant sources may be lower in protein than animal sources, eating them throughout the day can add up.
When it comes to protein, there is a significant difference between animal and plant proteins. Animal proteins are considered "complete" because they contain all the essential amino acid building blocks in a single protein food, like a serving of chicken.
Plant foods lack some of the essential amino acids (tofu is an exception and is considered complete). This is why many vegetarians rely on protein complementing: combining two different plant sources of protein, which together supply the all essential amino acids. For example, rice and beans or peanut butter on fortified whole-grain bread are examples of complete protein combinations.
Most sedentary adults should consume about .4 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day. Therefore, a person who weighs 150 pounds should aim for about 60 grams of protein.
Protein is a powerful nutrient; however, that does not mean you should eat it exclusively or in excess. As a matter of fact, most Americans get enough, if not more than the recommended amount.
A diet with adequate calories is usually sufficient in protein for most individuals. If you are working out to build muscle or are an athlete, you may have greater protein needs. Seek the advice of a sports nutritionist to guide you.
Protein works best when it is part of a balanced diet that includes both carbohydrates and healthy fats. The protein content of foods is listed on the Nutrition Facts label.
If you have some protein with each meal, you will be on the right track to getting enough. For example, skim milk for breakfast with a serving of protein cereal like Kashi Go-Lean, or an egg-white omelet.
For lunch, include low-fat cottage cheese or tuna, and for dinner chicken or tofu. Other protein-containing foods, such as vegetables, pastas, beans and whole-grain foods, will fill in the rest.
Protein-rich foods are good sources of many vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12, which is only found in foods of animal origin, and zinc, a mineral associated with protein-containing foods. Dieters may be happy to know that protein assists with weight control since it keeps us more satisfied after a meal.
Now that's really good news.