Monday, August 15, 2011

How much protein do you really need?

Protein sources
Protein can be a hot topic, particularly when people learn that I grew up vegetarian. "Do you mean you've never had meat?" they ask with widened eyes. "But how do you get enough protein?" The attitude is: that can't be healthy. Actually, just the opposite, which is why I am passing the lifestyle on to my son.

Far from trying to start a heated debate, I am blogging to share my own research into the science of protein nutrition. You are certainly welcome to differ with me, and I won't be offended if you eat meat in my presence. My husband and a couple of other family members are not vegetarian, so I cook meat on occasion. I have even tasted meat, though I find the texture off-putting. I prefer vegetarian cooking, particularly lacto-ovo vegetarian. It works for me, and my husband doesn't complain. Smart man.

A burger and shake McMeal contains two to three times as much protein as people need per day. According to the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average American eats about double the amount of protein that their body requires.

Our bodies use protein to repair damaged cells and build new ones. Figures vary, but the amount of protein needed by the average adult is just 10-35 percent of the day's calories, which means 46 grams of protein for women and 56 grams of protein for men. Protein servings of meat, poultry, or fish, should be the size and thickness of the palm of your hand, which is about a 3-ounce portion. Meat eaters should eat no more than two palm-sized servings of meat a day to get enough—but not too much—protein.

What are the best protein sources? Lean animal sources include red meat with less marbling, poultry without skin, nonfat or low-fat dairy products, and fish. Soy foods include tofu, edamame (green soybeans), roasted soy nuts, and meat substitutes like veggie burgers or crumbles.

A few of the many lacto-ovo
vegetarian protein sources
Most people benefit from eating less processed protein (e.g., bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meats) and are better off eating beans and fish a few times a week. Beans and whole grains are some of the healthiest foods on the planet and they're cheap, filling, and easy to make. From black beans and garbanzos to lentils and split peas, plant proteins can be used in soups, chili, spreads, and Mexican dishes. As for whole grains, three protein-rich grains are quinoa, spelt, and amaranth.

Unlike animal protein, most plant-based proteins are "incomplete," meaning they lack some amino acid building blocks. By combining plant proteins, such as rice and beans or hummus on pita bread, they become "complete" with all the essential amino acids found in animal protein. Soy protein is the only plant source that's complete. This means that rice and beans are not only a delicious meal, they are also a complete protein. Recommendations used to be that you needed to combine plant proteins at a given meal, but more recent information reveals that it is not necessary to combine specific protein foods at one sitting to make complete protein. Your body will do the protein combination for you.

Whew! That went on a bit longer than I intended. To think that I didn't like nutrition class when I was in college!

Do I always make the right food choices? Certainly not, but I'm trying. I want my son to continue to be healthy and active, and part of that means modeling good eating behaviors. It can even be fun. My son's very favorite food is yogurt. He goes through so much of it that I've resurrected my yogurt-making skills. Tonight was mommy-son time, so I filled two small bowls with homemade yogurt flavored with honey and fruit puree. As we enjoyed our treat, his enthusiasm made it (almost) as good as ice cream.

For someone who grew up eating meat, vegetarian cooking is an adjustment. It takes a different kind of mindset. If you are interested in at least trying Meatless Monday, I recommend that you start with a book like The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour.

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