Sources of protein
Protein is made up of amino acids. Your body uses 20 amino acids to form proteins necessary for muscle maintenance and biological function. Your body can manufacture 11 of these amino acids (called nonessential amino acids), meaning it must get the other nine from food. These nine amino acids are referred to as essential amino acids.
Animal foods can typically provide both nonessential and essential amino acids, while plant-based foods have lower levels but can be paired with other foods to provide an adequate intake of the 20 amino acids.
The health benefits of protein
Diets high in protein deliver a number of health benefits. Not only does an adequate intake of protein build, repair and maintain your muscles, it also promotes satiety and results in your body burning more fat and calories.
Your body uses more energy to assimilate dietary protein, meaning you burn more calories eating protein as compared to carbohydrates and fat. Protein keeps you full longer, meaning you will tend to eat less. And protein plays a role in your body's metabolism because it maintains and builds muscle, which uses more calories and helps burn fat.
Unfortunately, there is no singular guideline regarding the amount of protein you should eat, but research suggests 30 percent of your calories come from protein and some experts recommend one gram of protein per pound of lean body mass (read The truth about protein in your diet
for more information).
An effective way to ensure you get enough protein in your diet is to include a protein-rich food at every meal, including snacks and even desserts. These tips on choosing animal and plant-based proteins can help.
Meat, poultry, fish, dairy products and eggs are rich sources of protein. However, some animal products, such as high-fat cuts of meat, are also rich in saturated fat and cholesterol. When choosing animal products, follow these guidelines:
- Opt for leaner cuts of beef, lamb, pork and poultry. They will have less artery-clogging saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Buy grassfed meats and poultry instead of commercially-produced meats. Grassfed meats will be hormone, antibiotic and chemical free. They will also have a more robust, satisfying flavor.
- Choose wild – not farmed – fatty fish, which are high in heart-healthy omega-3s, and white-flesh fish, which are good sources of lean protein.
- Purchase eggs laid by free-range chickens – some are rich in omega-3s.
- Drink organic, rBST-free dairy and buy organic yogurt and cheese. Opt for low-fat dairy products if you are watching your saturated fat intake.
Plant-based proteinNuts, seeds, beans, and legumes are high in protein compared to fruits and vegetables. Quinoa is a higher-protein grain. Many whole grain products on the market are also good sources of protein. When choosing plant-based foods for your protein needs, here are some tips to keep in mind:
- Eat a variety of plant based foods to ensure an adequate intake of protein and essential amino acids - you'll be getting a good dose of fiber, too.
- Eat beans and grains together or in the same day to get all 20 amino acids.
- Use natural nut butters for sandwich spreads or as part of sauces for vegetables and fruits.
- Use ground nut meal or soy flour in place of flour in recipes.
- Take advantage of the many forms of soy, such as soy milk, soybeans, tempeh, tofu, miso and soy-based products, such as protein powder, pasta and yogurt.
- Include beans and grains in side-dishes, salads and entrees for tasty protein and fiber combinations.
- Read labels and buy cereals, whole grain products, and snacks with the highest content of protein and fiber – some cereals and snack bars contain up to 13 grams of protein and fiber per serving.
Importance of protein and fiber in keeping you satisfiedMeals that contain a balance of healthy nutrients, such as lean protein, fiber-rich complex carbohydrates (such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains) and unsaturated fats, will keep you feeling full longer, stabilize your blood sugar, and give you longer-lasting energy.
Experts recommend consuming 25 grams of fiber every day. With the many all natural whole grain products on the market, meeting your daily quota is not only convenient, it is also a tasty endeavor.
When protein and fiber are eaten together, they are digested more slowly than when eaten alone or as compared to a meal consisting of simple carbohydrates. This keeps hunger at bay and, more importantly, prevents drastic spikes in blood sugar, which can lead to binging and a crash in energy.
A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, all natural whole grain products (including frozen entrees made with all natural ingredients), and wholesome sources of protein is essential in achieving natural health and keeping you deliciously satisfied with your healthy meals.