Protein, Explained

Experts field questions about a key nutrient we all need.
Protein Explained

What do dietary proteins do for the body? Almost everything! They build muscles, bones, skin and, in fact, all bodily tissues; they help make hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body; they help boost immunity; and much more. But beware: too much protein is too much of a good thing. New Jersey Fit asked experts eight questions about this basic food building block:

How much protein should one eat?

“A healthy diet should draw between 30 and 35 percent of its calories from protein,” says Ohan Karatoprak, M.D., medical director of family medicine and wellness at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck and author of the ebook Weight Loss Tailored for Women. “And at least 30 percent of that protein should come from legumes, a class of plant foods that includes peas, beans and bean products such as tofu.”

Can a diet that’s very high in protein aid weight loss?

it can, but some studies have shown that weight loss from such diets isn’t sustained in the long run. “Emphasizing protein-rich foods to the exclusion of other foods is not recommended,” says Dr. Karatoprak. “it can lead to a condition called ketosis, which causes pressure in the liver and kidneys and increases uric acid. Conversely, too little protein is not desirable because it could cause the loss of muscle mass and you could quickly gain weight back when you reintroduce it into your diet. For healthy weight loss, you need a reasonable balance of protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates.”

What are some protein-rich foods?

In addition to beans, seeds (including quinoa and pumpkin seeds) and nuts are also rich in protein. “Egg whites are a great protein source, and so are dairy products such as cheese, milk and yogurt,” says Dr. Karatoprak.

Meat is another protein source, but the proteins in meat come with saturated fat, and the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends getting no more than 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. “Often, fish can be a better alternative,” says the doctor. “If you’re eating meat, try to make it chicken breast with the skin off.” Other forms of poultry without skin—such as turkey or duck—are also good options.

What if you can’t resist beef?

If you decide to have beef occasionally, make sure it’s labeled “extra lean.” Sirloin tips, top round roast and top sirloin steak fall in this category, according to the USDA. And watch serving sizes: One serving of lean meat is two to three ounces, or about the size of a computer mouse, says the AHA.

“Lean and fatty meats have identical amounts of protein, so you’re better off going with lean meat,” says Dr. Karatoprak. “If you make that occasional cheeseburger, use ground-up London broil, which is made from top round, a lower-fat cut.”

It used to be said that people need red meat to build up their blood. Any truth to that?

“Plant-based proteins are the healthiest choices,” says Tina Marinaccio, a dietitian with Atlantic Health System’s Chambers Center for Well Being in Morristown. “Red meat is not necessary for healthy blood. However, the type of iron in meat is more readily absorbed than plant-based iron. So, if you are anemic, including small amounts of lean red meat in your diet may be appropriate to help support healthy hemoglobin levels.”

Should i eat protein after a workout?

Yes, says Dr. Karatoprak. “After exercise, your muscles are more ready to absorb protein and build muscle fibers,” he says. “Any kind of protein is okay. Shoot for around 100 calories. Each gram of protein is four calories. You can have a couple of egg whites or protein powder, which usually comes from whey, a byproduct of cheese making.”

What are some healthy, protein-rich snacks?

Marinaccio suggests hard-boiled eggs; pears with low-fat cheese; apple with almond butter; no-sugar-added trail mix; turkey lettuce wraps; low-fat Greek yogurt with fresh fruit and chia seeds; vegetables with hummus; brown rice cake with part skim ricotta cheese; shelled edamame with sea salt; a no-sugar-added protein bar. Bonus: “Because protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates,” says Marinaccio, “adding small amounts to your snacks promotes satiety, the feeling of fullness— and consequently can aid in weight loss.”

Is it important to distinguish between “complete” and “incomplete” proteins?

“It was once thought that plant-based protein foods should be eaten in specific combinations because grains or beans alone did not have the proper amino acid profile,” Marinaccio explains. “However, we now know that the body has a ready supply of amino acids that are used to carry out the various functions of protein. So plant-based foods can be eaten freely without worrying about whether or not they are ‘complete.’”

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