By Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.
Recent research has put protein front and center, and it’s about time. Protein is the only nutrient that’s highlighted on MyPlate, the government’s graphic for a balanced diet released last year. Protein is finally getting the attention it deserves for many reasons.
What protein does
Protein is part of every cell, and it helps to “hold” the body together in tendons, ligaments, and bones. Enzymes and hormones, substances that are necessary for life, are made of protein, and so are many other critical compounds that help your body run.
Protein in foods supplies the building blocks – amino acids –your body needs to repair itself and to make cells and tissues. Eating enough protein signals your body to make, and retain, muscle and other lean tissue. That’s beneficial, since muscle burns more calories than fat, and having more muscle may help with weight control.
Protein is especially important in the battle of the bulge. Calorie reduction may result in weight loss, but a lower number on the scale often includes loss of lean tissue, such as muscle, as well as fat. Higher-protein diets that supply adequate amino acids may help you to fight off belly fat, too.
Higher-protein eating patterns are associated with a lower risk for being overweight and having type 2 diabetes, as long as you don’t overdo it on calories. And recent research suggests just how protein keeps you full.
How much protein you need
Protein needs are based on calorie requirements. There is a large acceptable range for protein intake, from 10% of your daily calorie needs to 35%. On a 2,000-calorie diet, you need from 50 to 175 grams of protein daily, which amounts to 200 to 700 calories worth of protein. On 1800 calories, include between 45 grams and 158 grams of protein daily.
It’s fine to err on the higher side of suggested protein ranges. Don’t save up all your daily protein for one meal, though. Eating enough protein at each meal and snack is an important way to reap all the protein’s many benefits.
Protein: More than meat
When it comes to protein, amount matters. And so does the type.
Animal protein, from meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, and dairy products is considered “complete,” protein. That means it contains all the essential amino acids – the ones the body can’t make on its own – the body needs.
With the exception of quinoa and soy products, such as tofu, edamame, and soy beverages, which offer complete protein, the protein in plant foods, including beans, peas, grains, nuts, and seeds, is “incomplete” because it lacks one or more of the essential amino acids.
MyPlate recommends getting protein from a variety of plant and animal foods. People who avoid animal foods should get enough protein from an array of plant sources to satisfy their protein needs.
Here’s how to get the protein you need every day from more than meat.
Food Protein (grams)
Chicken, pork, beef, salmon, tuna, 22
3 ounces, cooked
Greek yogurt, plain, 6 ounces 18
Greek yogurt, fruit, fat-free, 6 ounces 14
Cottage cheese, low fat, ¼ cup 13
Morningstar Farms Sausage Patty (vegetarian), 1 10
Special K Protein Plus cereal, ¾ cup 10
Tofu, raw, ½ cup 10
Peanut butter, 2 tablespoons 9
Milk, any type, 1 cup 8
Lentils, cooked, ½ cup 8
Soy beverage*, 1 cup 8
Edamame, shelled, ½ cup 8
Egg**, raw or cooked, large 6
Almonds, roasted, 1 ounce 6
Quinoa, cooked, ½ cup 4
* Choose soy beverages fortified with calcium, vitamin D, and other vitamins.
** Choose fortified eggs, such as Eggland’s Best, for less cholesterol and saturated fat, and more vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fats