Healthy Eating Protein

Protein foods

Healthy Eating Protein - What is it?

The Science

Scientifically speaking, proteins are organic compounds made up of building blocks called “amino acids.” There are about 20 common amino acids. Nine of them are considered “essential” because the body cannot make them, and therefore, they must be supplied by the food we eat. This information is important to you only because, if your diet does not contain enough of these essential amino acids, you may suffer the effects of protein deficiency.

Is it complete?

Foods that contain all of the essential amino acids are called“complete proteins.” These complete protein foods are generally animal foods. Plant foods do not, as a rule, have complete proteins, but by eating combinations of plant foods, called“complementary proteins, ” you can obtain a complete protein.

For example, when you eat black beans or pinto beans with rice, such as is often found in Mexican cuisine, you are obtaining a complete protein. The beans and rice complement each other, in that each has some of the essential amino acids and when eaten together, they provide all of the essential amino acids. It is generally believed by nutritionists that it is not necessary to eat these complementary proteins at the same meal.

Here is a list of complementary proteins, that is proteins that when eaten together become complete.

Legumes... with Nuts

Legumes... with Grains

Legumes... with Seeds

Legumes... with Dairy

Grains... with Dairy

Nuts/Seeds... with Dairy

Nuts/Seeds... with Legumes

Dairy... with Nuts/Seeds and Legumes

Rule of thumb for Healthy Eating Protein

Complete Proteins = Mostly Animal proteins  

Incomplete Proteins = Plant Proteins

Vegetarians and Vegans, in particular, need to be aware of the importance of the essential amino acids.

If you are interested in this subject, please click on this link for more information .


Fun Fact about healthy eating protein: A tiny grain called "quinoa" (pronounced keen-wah) is one of the few plant sources of complete protein. It comes in a red and a white variety and can be cooked to make a hot cereal or used in place of bulgar in some recipes. It is also becoming more popular as an ingredient in wheat-free pastas.


The Scoop

The answer to the question of what is protein is simple--you are! If you take away the fat in your body and the water in your body, what is left--your bones and muscles and tissues and hair and skin and fingernails and toenails and hormones and enzymes are mostly protein. Wow! When you think of it like that, you can see how important it is to eat healthy protein.

When we talk about protein in our diets, we are mostly talking about meat, eggs and dairy products. Another way of saying this is, generally, most of the protein in our meals comes from the main course.

Steak… Hamburger… Roast Beef… Pork chops… Ham… Bacon… Sausage… Hot dogs… Lamb chops… Chicken… Turkey… Duck… Capon… Fish… Shrimp… Lobster… Crab… Scallops… Venison… Omelets… Egg Salad…

Dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yogurt are also good sources of healthy eating protein.

In addition, there are some plant foods that are significant sources of healthy eating protein. These are the legumes, grains, some vegetables, nuts and seeds.

Lentils… Split peas… Kidney beans… Pinto beans… Black beans… Soybeans… Garbanzo beans… Navy beans… Peanuts… Peanut Butter… Rice… Wheat…. Barley… Oats… Peas… Kale… Okra… Walnuts… Brazil Nuts… Almonds… Pumpkin Seeds… Sesame Seeds….

Many of the foods you eat have some protein in them, but those foods listed above, are a significant source that will make it easier for you to fulfill your daily healthy eating protein requirements.


Fun Fact about Healthy Eating Protein: Your body actually reuses the protein from the cells of your gastrointestinal lining when they are sloughed off (about every three days) and replaced with news ones. This allows you to have protein available from another source besides the food you eat. What an amazing creation we are!


How much do I need?

The Science

The answer to this question is not an easy one. The amount of protein needed can vary based on age, gender, genetics, health and the quality of the protein. It is generally thought that we need about 7 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight every day. This means that if you weigh 150 pounds, you would need about 52.5 grams of protein each day.

150 ÷ 20 = 7.5 7.5grams x 7 = 52.5grams

Many health experts put it a different way by saying that we should get about 30% of our calories each day from healthy eating protein sources. Protein has about 4 calories per gram, so if you consume 2400 calories a day, about 720 of them should be from protein.

2400 calories x 30% = 720 calories

Yet another way of putting it is in reference to the Food Guide Pyramid, which is a way to visualize the amount of food you should eat from each of the five food groups, each day. By this method, depending on your weight, you need two to three 3-ounce servings of meat, fish, poultry or meat analog each day. (A meat analog is a soy or grain based product that is manufactured to look and taste like certain meat products.)

After twenty years, the USDA has modified their visual representation for eating healthy from the familiar pyramid to a simpler concept called "MyPlate." This newer model shows a dinner plate divided into four portions for Protein, Vegetables, Fruits and Grains, with a side of Dairy.

The Scoop

Okay, so you’re not a mathematician, you’re a foodie, and you do not want to sit around doing equations to find out what you should eat. Suffice it to say, that if you live in a developed country such as the USA, it is more likely that you are getting too much protein than not enough.

When you consider that most foods have some protein and many foods, as listed above, have significant protein, if you are eating three square meals a day, you are probably getting enough protein. However, if you live in an underdeveloped country, protein deficiency may be a real concern. People in poor countries struggle to meet the minimum requirements for protein.

If you have eggs (possibly with bacon or sausage) or cereal with milk or toast with peanut butter for breakfast, a salad with chicken breast or a ham and cheese sandwich or minestrone soup for lunch, and a hamburger or a pork chop or spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, you are most likely getting more than enough protein. Even if you skipped one of those meals, you probably are still getting enough protein.

What is a serving?

If you misplaced your meat scale, the usual guideline for visualizing meat servings is that the portion should be the size of a standard deck of playing cards. (Just imagine how many servings are represented by that platter-sized prime rib served at your favorite restaurant!)

For non-meat protein sources, a serving, which is 1 large egg, ½ cup cooked beans or rice, or 2 Tablespoons of seeds, nuts or peanut butter, is equivalent to only about 1/3 of the protein in a serving of meat. Tofu can also be included in this group with a serving size of about 4oz.

In addition, most health experts recommend that, whenever possible, choose a leaner or low-fat version of the significant protein sources. For more about this subject, click on this Fats link.


MY TWO CENTS about Healthy Eating Protein

When you think about how meat should fit into your meal planning, you may want to think of it more as a side dish than a main course. Rather than eating mostly meat, with a few veggies on the side, try eating lots of veggies with a bit of meat on the side. It does not take a lot of meat to get your protein allotment from a meal, plus you can also get some protein from other parts of your meal--bread, rice, dairy products, eggs or legumes. This is a far more balanced way to look at your diet, and could have a beneficial effect not only on your health, but also your budget!


Caveat about Healthy Eating Protein: Even if you eat a lot, if you eat mostly “junk foods” -- foods with little or no nutritional value-- you are putting yourself at risk for protein deficiency.

Why do I need protein?

Protein has a number of functions in the body. The one that most people know about is that protein is the building material for our skin, bones, muscles and other tissues in the body. Whenever there is any damage to any of our tissues, either due to normal wear and tear, or to injury, protein is necessary to rebuild that tissue. To be healthy, eating protein is also necessary to build brand new tissue, which makes it very important to children and pregnant women.


Fun Fact about Healthy Eating Protein: In order to build muscle (a la Fabio and Arnold), you have to injure the muscle, usually by working out with weights or by doing some other form of strenuous weight-bearing exercise, and then, when the body rebuilds it, the muscle gets bigger! Is that where the expression, “no pain, no gain” comes from?


In addition, protein is a major component of enzymes, antibodies, and hormones. These are chemicals that play a major role in many processes in the body that, among other things,digest your food, fight disease and allow you to enjoy a healthy sex life.

Proteins also function as regulators of fluid balance and acid-base balance, which help keep you from swelling up, drying up, and/or becoming toxic, any of which could be life-threatening. Protein is also involved in the clotting of blood, which keeps all your blood from leaking out when you cut yourself.

Proteins also act as transporters in the body, carrying important nutrients. These nutrients can get on the protein “bus” and travel to places in the body where they are needed. For example, hemoglobin, a protein in the blood, carries the oxygen from your lungs to your cells.

Finally, protein can be used by your body for energy. Needless to say, this is not the best use of protein, since it has so many uniquely important functions, as listed above, but absent another source, your body can convert protein to energy.

What if I don’t get enough?

You have probably figured out by now that protein is an important nutrient. For that reason, if there is not enough protein in your diet, it will have a noticeable effect on your health, from being susceptible to infections to actually wasting away.

Severe protein deficiency is most often associated with starvation and malnutrition and is a major cause for concern in developing nations, especially among children. In developed countries, severe protein deficiency is mostly associated with those in extreme poverty or those suffering with eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. Severe protein deficiency can lead to death.

What happens if I eat too much?

As with anything, you can get too much of a good thing. If you eat too much protein, your body can convert it to energy, but if that energy is not used, it will be stored as fat, which could lead to obesity. In addition, eating too much protein puts a heavier load on the kidneys to get rid of the by-products of protein metabolism.

There has also been some suggestion of a link between eating large amounts of animal protein (which is usually accompanied by saturated fat), and heart disease, cancer and possibly diabetes. Although protein is good for you, don't overdo it.

What do I need to remember about healthy eating protein?

Nearly everything you eat has some protein in it, but to be healthy, you need to eat several servings a day of the significant sources such as meat, dairy, eggs and/or certain plant foods. This is particularly important for children, pregnant women and athletes.

Healthy Eating Protein - The Secret

The secret is really no secret at all. Moderation. Eat some protein foods at each meal. Eat protein from a variety of sources. In the case of animal protein, concentrate on the leaner or low-fat types. Just for fun, investigate some of the protein foods from plants.

That’s it! Eat and be healthy!


Click here to go from Healthy Eating Protein page to Diets and Weight Loss page.




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