What is in this article?:
- Puzzled by protein? A guide for daily protein needs
- How often should you eat protein?
- Daily protein needs
How much — and what kind of — protein is really best for overall health? We find out the keys to protein intake for a balanced diet.
How often should you eat protein?
Regardless of how much protein you eat, you need to make it part of every meal. Why? There are two reasons, explains Vincent: For one, your body can process and absorb only so much protein at one time. And second, a fat-protein combo slows digestion, which helps control blood sugar levels and leaves you feeling full longer. Legumes — which are low in fat but high in fiber and protein — have a similar effect on blood glucose as foods with the fat-protein combo, says Boutin. “Water-soluble fiber absorbs water along the gastrointestinal tract, slowing the movement of digested food through the intestines, and thereby slowing the release of glucose into the bloodstream.”
What kind should you eat?
Not all protein is created equal; some sources are complete, others are not. “In the United States, we tend to eat more animal protein,” says Boutin. “But plant sources of protein can support us just as well.”
Vegetarians, take note: According to once-upon-a-time logic, meat-free folks had to carefully combine foods to get a complete spectrum of amino acids at each meal. Remember the ol' “beans-and-rice” notion? A well-planned vegetarian diet isn't a bad idea, of course, but strict mealtime food combining isn't critical.
“As long as you have a range of amino acids in a 24-hour period, your body will manage just fine,” says Boutin. If you eat dairy, grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds each day, you'll cover the essential aminos. But if you're allergic to nuts or don't do dairy, you might want to consider consulting a nutrition pro. Some examples of amino-balanced meals include mixtures of grains and legumes (seven-bean soup and whole-grain toast or lentil curry over rice), and seeds and legumes (hummus and falafel or bean cassoulet topped with roasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds).
And meat eaters may want to double-think that daily double cheeseburger in favor of more variety. According to Boutin, the USDA dietary guidelines lump together meat, poultry, seafood, legumes, nuts, seeds, and eggs because they share something in common: protein. But each food type offers unique nutrients. For example, pork is rich in iron, and some fish boast omega-3 fatty acids. So eating an array of these foods (5-6 ounces per day of any combo of protein foods is enough) will offer the biggest health bang for your bite and keep you from overdoing the bad stuff like saturated fat, which lurks most often in red meat and whole-dairy products. According to USDA guidelines, saturated fat should make up less than 10 percent of your daily calories.
Back to balance
In fact, no matter who you are, if you eat a mix of foods, you'll generally be OK. “We focus so much on nutrients,” says Boutin. “We had the bad-carb phase and a bad-fat phase. Now I'm waiting for the bad-protein phase. If you treat your diet like a triangle of needs — protein, fats, and carbs — and you eat a variety of foods that contain protein, then you'll be fine.”
Freelance writer Pamela Bond hopes a bad dark-chocolate phase never happens.
To calculate your protein needs, multiply your body weight in kilograms (pounds divided by 2.2) by the amount of protein per kilogram listed here.