Protein comes in many meaty forms, from a juicy hamburger sizzling on the grill to a sliced turkey sandwich. But there are many ways to satisfy your body’s need for protein, which remains an American staple at mealtime. In fact, Americans in general consume more than their fair share of protein, and this overconsumption includes sources that are high in saturated fat.
Don’t worry, though. Proteins are abundant in many foods, and a few alterations to what’s on your plate can ensure you’re going lean and varying your protein choices. Continuing our spotlight on the food groups, we look at protein: its purpose, its importance, and its delicious sources.
Essential and Nonessential
Protein might be best known for building muscle, but it has a variety of other responsibilities in the body. Our body’s enzymes and hormones are made from proteins. Proteins help transport necessary nutrients throughout the body. They also give cells their structure, help the body maintain proper pH levels, and keep the body’s fluid balances in check.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and our body needs 20 types of amino acids to properly function. Since your body automatically makes 11 of them, these are called nonessential amino acids. Nine of them (tryptophan and lysine, for instance) are considered essential, since we must get them from food.
When choosing protein sources, variety is key. Be mindful when selecting meat, as The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends lean versions of beef, pork, or lamb. Go lean by choosing options that have less visible white fat on the meat and by removing the skin from or buying skinless options of chicken or turkey. How meat is prepared also impacts your health; baked or grilled options are healthier for you than fried. Soy, quinoa, beans, and peas are also stellar protein sources. (Check out these tasty vegetarian recipes.) In addition, soybeans and other beans are high in fiber and many vitamins and minerals.
Seafood is another nutritious protein source and part of a healthy eating pattern, even though most Americans aren’t eating the recommended eight ounces (or two servings) per week. Many fish are rich in nutrients like B vitamins, zinc, and iron, to name a few and others are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Research has linked omega-3s to cancer prevention, vision health, and a lower risk of developing dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease. Certain cold-water fish—salmon, tuna, and sardines, for instance—are rich in omega-3s. The Food and Drug Administration has outlined some key strategies when choosing fish, which include selecting varieties that are lower in mercury. Other protein sources rich in omega-3s include nuts and seeds (flaxseed, chia, and walnuts), oils (canola, soybean, and flaxseed), and certain fortified foods (some eggs, yogurt, milk, and soy beverages).
Another now-prevalent and protein-rich item in the grocery store are plant-based meat alternatives. They have the look, feel, and taste of meat without the actual meat. A variety of plant-based protein sources, like beans (soy and mung), vegetables (peas and potatoes), and grains (wheat and rice), are the base for meatless options versions of meatballs, cutlets, and sausages, seasoned to provide the familiar flavors we enjoy. While these options can be good sources of protein, pay special attention to the Nutrition Facts Label. Some have as much saturated fat as your standard burger or are high in sodium.
You don’t need whopper-sized portions of protein to satisfy your daily intake goals. (As always, check the MyPlate protein page or MyPlate Plan for individual recommendations.) Most men and women require five to seven one-ounce equivalents (or servings) a day. An egg, seven walnut halves, or a tablespoon of peanut butter are considered one-ounce equivalents. When it comes to sizing meat, use the palm of your hand as a guide. One palmful of fish or meat usually equates to four ounces, which would be four servings. Instead of making meat the centerpiece of your plate, make it a side dish and fill up on healthy whole grains or vegetables instead. Or sometimes swap out meat with plant-based options like beans, peas, or lentils.
We hope these ideas help you incorporate a more varied, healthy, and delicious selection of protein foods to your meals.
—Fred Durso, Jr., is a Nutrition On Demand intern currently pursuing a master’s degree in food and nutrition and the necessary requirements to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Prior to heading back to school, he spent more than a decade as a journalist/communications specialist.