By Jennifer Anderson, RD, LD, CDE
We hear a lot about protein these days, and protein can be found in all kinds of ways at the supermarket. Protein is a vital nutrient, but how important is it?
Most people don’t have a problem getting enough protein without supplementation, because it’s in a lot of the foods we eat. The problem most people have is choosing quality protein sources and figuring out how to distribute protein throughout their day.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different amino acids which make up proteins. The human body can make nine of these amino acids. We get the other essential amino acids by eating either plants that make them or animals that consume those plants. Someone on a vegetarian diet should eat a variety of grains, beans and seeds to ensure they’re getting these essential amino acids.
Getting adequate protein is important because proteins perform many different functions in the body. One of the most abundant proteins in the body is collagen, which provides strength and structure throughout the body. Hemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen from the lungs to other cells. Proteins can help speed chemical reactions in the body, and help repair and maintain cells.
For most people, meat is the most abundant source of protein in their diet. One ounce of meat contains about 7 grams of protein. Dairy is probably the second most abundant source; 1 cup of milk or an ounce of cheese provides about 8 grams of protein. Protein is also found in grains, beans, seeds and vegetables. Most people would be surprised to learn that a cup of spinach has about 4 grams of protein!
Protein also helps with satiety — the feeling of being full after a meal. Protein may prolong suppression of ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone. It also helps maintain lean body mass, which is important when cutting calories to lose weight.
If you choose meat as your protein source, go for lean cuts and choose a portion size that fills about a quarter of your plate. Remember that processed meat, such as hot dogs and sausage, typically contain more chemicals and preservatives and should be only occasional choices. Use lower temperature cooking and marinating to prevent charring or possible carcinogens.
Since protein contributes to satiety, it’s important to distribute protein throughout the day. Aim to have a protein source with each meal. Having eggs for breakfast is a great way to get protein in the first meal of the day. Adding beans to a salad for lunch will also add a good amount of protein. You don’t have to rely on meat as protein source at dinner, either!
This chicken quinoa stir-fry is a tasty way to get more than 30 grams of protein for dinner — or as leftovers for lunch!