Protein: How Much? Which Sources?

August 30, 2011 in Blog Recipes, Cooking & Baking Hints, Diabetes, Diabetic Menu Item, Mediterranean by Joyce Bunderson

I want to share with you right at the beginning of this article that most Americans don’t need to worry about eating enough protein. Our meals are frequently designed around a sizable chunk of animal protein. This is protein overkill. Maybe if we understood our protein needs a little better, we’d relax our concerns in the ‘getting enough protein’ arena.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that protein is vital to our health, but the needs for large or frequent servings of meat are not necessary, and bring a host of problems. This year a group of researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health published their research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. They found that eating a diet high in animal protein and fat was associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. When the meat was red and processed it made the problem even worse. And heaven only knows, we don’t need to do anything that increases our risk of type two diabetes. The above Harvard research didn’t consider what red and processed meat could do for our weight, risk of colon cancer, and cardiovascular health, but we’ve already covered that in numerous blog posts.

So let’s go through a few facts that may help in making decisions about our protein intake.

First let’s realize that protein is important.  If you eat lots of sugar and fat, and processed foods, to the exclusion of vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy products, nuts, milk, fish, cheese, eggs and animal meat, you may become one of the rare victims of kwashiorkor in the United States. Protein, unlike carbohydrates and fats - the two other macronutrients needed for health, is not stored in the body for ready use. If you don’t have enough protein, even if you have enough calories, you can become malnourished; the result is kwashiorkor. Thank goodness Americans rarely have this horrible problem; but this condition is a marker problem when the issue of food security raises its ugly head in famine-stricken areas of the world.

Most of us need about .8 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight or stating it another way is to get about 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds; but there are variables. Your protein needs depend upon your gender, body weight, pregnancy, age, and other factors. On average, however, women need about 46 grams, men about 56 grams and infants about 10 grams.  If you’re very physically active or an athlete, you may need a little extra protein to repair and rebuild your muscles. If you want to know your protein needs you can turn to a protein calculator, but most people don’t want to calculate each and every day.

You may want to consider calculating a couple of day’s meals in a general way and see if you are close; then if you are you can stop worrying. I used a handy site to easily find the grams of protein in the foods that I ate yesterday. If you just look at the very high protein foods you could do something like this – a few foods from yesterday:

2 biscuits of Shredded wheat 5 grams; 1 cup non-fat milk 9 grams; 2 tablespoons sliced almonds 3 grams; 8 oz. Greek Yogurt 23 grams; 6 oz. cod 30 grams; 1 oz. before cooking whole wheat pasta 3 grams; 3 tablespoons peanuts 7 grams protein. So you see that I got to 80 grams of protein not counting the vegetables or other grains. It adds up fast. My message is that there’s protein in vegetables and grains. Meat is not the only source of protein; of course, the vegetables, nuts, legumes, and grains are especially important sources of protein for vegans and those who have vegan days. The 80+ grams that I got yesterday generously covers what the average woman needs (46 grams) – I consider myself fairly average.  If I use the protein calculator link above, I need 64 grams. Either way my test day is far more than the minimum that I need, because I did not even count the vegetables that I eat and they contain a lot of great proteins.

Strict vegans, even adolescents and children can be well-nourished; but care should be taken to be sure to get adequate calories and a variety of protein foods. Combining protein sources with complimentary amino acids, like eating grains and legumes (peanut butter with bread; and beans with rice, for example) no longer is deemed as necessary. However, having a variety of protein sources each day is important so the body can make all the necessary cells, enzymes, and the various tissues.

Another group that needs to pay attention are those at risk of osteoporosis. Taking excess protein can cause the loss of calcium through the urine; so a balanced diet of fat, carbohydrate and protein is still the wise choice in eating styles.

Try to use red meats in small to moderate servings and much less frequently than in the typical American diet. If you rarely have red meat; there is no nutritional disadvantage. Keep in mind that many foods besides red meat are excellent sources of protein, as indicated in the short list in the fourth paragraph above. The plant sources of protein have the same benefits that animal protein provides, but without the same risk. High protein foods are digested more slowly than carbohydrate foods, so they make you feel full for longer after the meal. The protein foods can also support a steadier blood sugar level, which in turn, can protect you from frequent hunger cycles.

If we want to reduce our risk of heart disease and diabetes, one of the easy ways is to substitute protein for the simple carbohydrates (sugar, white flour and processed junk foods), for instance. As an example, if you switch from three regular Oreo cookies (160 calories, 25 grams carbohydrates and 1 gram protein) to 3 tablespoons of peanuts (170 calories, 6 grams of carbohydrate – two of which are fiber and not metabolized, and 7 grams of protein; you’d discover that for almost the same calories, you get 6 additional grams of protein and 19 fewer grams of simple carbohydrate. Today I won’t spend too much time talking about the differences in the fat in the Oreos (not the greatest), verses the fat in the peanuts (mostly healthy monounsaturated). But you can easily see that making a single snack change from Oreos to peanuts is a big benefit in the nutrition department.

When you move to a diet that focuses more on natural plant-based food choices in the Mediterranean-style of eating, you can relax in the knowledge that you will still get plenty of protein. And the bonus is that you can get more fiber, less simple carbohydrates, less salt, less fat, and far greater variety of nutrients. You will reap the benefits of a lower risk for diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

The following is a portrait of the first pink banana squash that I've harvested and prepared this year. Yum. In only 3 little ounces there is about 30 calories and a gram of protein.

Picnic Perfect Squash

She must be a 'girl' because she's so pink, fresh from the garden.

Poke the holes - no explosions, please.

Ready for a hot time.

She took about 1.5 hours at 350 degrees F, to get soft.

I let her cool a bit and then sliced her open.

Her strings and seeds are all cleaned away.

Next she was cut into small serving-size pieces.

Basted with a touch of butter and sprinkled with the slighest bit of brown sugar and cinnamon

Ready to serve after a 15 minute re-heat in the oven.

Nary an edible crumb left after the picnic.