Protein: Healthy Amount, Healthy Sources

May 20th, 2009

Found in every cell of your body, protein is essential to life. It builds and maintains muscles, bones, skin, and other tissues. It regulates basic processes like metabolism and digestion. Protein is one of life’s basic building blocks.

Eat a Healthy Amount

The Institute of Medicine recommends that at least 10% but no more than 35% of your total calories come from protein. For an average sized adult, 10% of calories amounts to about 50 grams of protein a day. Most Americans eat about twice that much, and most of it from animal sources like meat and dairy products. A diet rich in animal protein may also be high in artery-clogging saturated fat. The level of saturated fat in the typical American diet puts us at increased risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and several types of cancer.

Cutting back your intake of meat can reduce your saturated fat intake. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) Eating Plan recommends the following:

– If you now eat large portions of meat, cut them back graduallyby a half or a third at each meal.
– Include two or more vegetarian-style (meatless) meals each week.
–  Increase servings of vegetables, rice, pasta, and dry beans in meals.
– Limit meat to six ounces a day. A deck of cards is equivalent to three or four ounces.
– Treat meat as one part of the whole meal, instead of the focus.

When you cut back on meat, you don’t need to worry about getting enough protein. Even totally vegetarian diets are unlikely to be deficient in protein. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “almost any reasonable diet will give you enough protein each day.’

Meat and dairy products provide “complete’ proteins, meaning that they contain all nine “essential’ amino acids. Most vegetarian protein sources are “incomplete’ (soy is an exception).  Contrary to popular wisdom, however, it is not necessary to eat vegetarian foods in a particular combination to create complete proteins.  Even on a totally vegetarian diet, your body will get all of the amino acids it needs over the course of the day, providing that your diet is reasonably varied and healthful.

However, here are some popular vegetarian combinations that do provide complete proteins:

–  Hummus and pita
–  Rice and beans
–  Almost any legume-whole grain pair
–  Trail mix
–  Yogurt with granola
–  Peanut butter on whole wheat bread or rice cakes
–  Lentil soup and a roll
–  Vegetarian chili with corn bread
–  Tofu-vegetable stir fry over rice or pasta