The topic of protein divides many nutrition professionals and fitness experts. There are some who believe that the best source of protein is from plants, while others believe that plants alone cannot provide all that we need. When we consider animal protein, there are differing views on white meat vs. red meat and there is now concern around fish, which was generally considered to be healthy source of protein, because of the high levels of mercury and plastics in our waters. For other sources of protein such as soy and eggs, the advice has changed drastically over the years on whether they are healthy for the human body. One thing that all the experts agree on is that our body needs protein, so here are some things to think about as you consider where you get your protein.
What is Protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient, which is found not only in our muscles, but also in our bones, skin and every other cell in our body. Proteins make up the enzymes that carry out most of the chemical reactions in the body. They also act as messengers transmitting signals to coordinate important biological processes and transport molecules throughout the body. Proteins are made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids, and while there are 20 different amino acids, there are 9 that are called essential amino acids because they cannot be made in the body and must come from our food.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Unlike other macronutrients, the body does not store protein, so it is essential to eat protein-rich foods daily. The general guideline for how much protein you need is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, so a person weighing 150 pounds will require 54 grams of protein per day which they can get from 2 eggs, ½ cup of lentils, 3oz piece of chicken and a handful of nuts. Keep in mind that these guidelines are for the average healthy person; those who exercise frequently or have specific health concerns may need higher levels.
Animal vs. Plant Protein
Because we require relatively large amounts or protein in our diets, many people turn to animal products as an easy source of protein. For example a 3-oz serving of turkey breast or sirloin steak will serve up 25 grams of protein. While you will have to eat almost 2 cups of black beans to get the same amount of protein, this is one of the reasons for the myth that a vegan diet, which is fully plant-based, would not provide enough protein.
However there are other health concerns with relying on animal protein including:
• Animal protein, particularly red meat such as beef is high in saturated fat, which many experts agree increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes.
• The way conventionally raised meats are farmed affects the health of the animal, which in turn has an impact on human health. For example, animals are often kept in small spaces, are fed grains instead of the grass they would eat if they were allowed to roam, and are pumped with antibiotics and hormones. This can lead to hormonal imbalances and antibiotic resistance in humans who consume the meat, eggs or milk from these animals.
• Processed meats such as bacon, ham and sausages have been linked to increased risk of cancer.
In addition to the substances that may pass through to the milk of factory farmed cattle, many believe that consuming dairy products should be limited because; it is difficult to digest, leads to the build-up of mucous, may increase risks of cancer and it doesn’t actually reduce risk of osteoporosis as once thought. Of all the dairy products, Greek yogurt will provide the highest amount of protein with a 1 cup serving providing 25 grams while also providing healthy probiotics, which support your digestive system and immunity.
One benefit of plant-based proteins such legumes and nuts is that they also are high in fiber, which is important for our digestion, healthy elimination, improving cholesterol and blood sugar levels. While you need to eat a lot more plant foods to meet your daily protein requirements, it can easily add up when you eat a variety of plant foods for example:
• 1 cup of lentils has 18 grams of protein
• 1 cup of black beans has 10 grams
• 1 oz. of almonds has 6 grams
• 1 oz. of pumpkin seeds has 5 grams
• ½ cup of oats has 13 grams
• 1 cup of quinoa has 8 grams
• 1 cup of broccoli has 3 grams
Fish is another good source of protein and healthy fats. Particularly omega 3, which is important for brain health, heart health and reducing inflammation in the body. However, fish can contain some contaminants such as mercury- with some types of fish containing more than others. Salmon is one of the best sources of essential fatty acids and provides 25 grams of protein for a 4oz portion.
The Bottom Line
Our body needs protein for essential function and since we cannot store it, ideally you should try eat protein in every meal. While many meat-eaters can easily get more than twice the protein that their body needs daily, vegans and vegetarians need to be mindful that they are including enough of this important macronutrient in each meal. Consuming too much protein poses a health risk, so if you are a meat eater it is also important to source your protein from plants. Eggs, fish and organic poultry are better choices, and red meats consumed in smaller amounts and on special occasions. Processed meats should be avoided altogether.
You don’t have to measure your protein in each meal, one quick guide to making sure that you are getting enough protein is to ensure that about one-quarter of your plate at every meal includes protein rich foods.