The Health Benefits of Protein
Protein is an essential nutrient for our cellular function and the building block for all processes in the body. There are many benefits of protein, especially for older adults.
Essential for the production and maintenance of enzymes, hormones and muscular function, proteins are made up of smaller pieces called amino acids, which stack together and provide structural support to our cellular walls, tissues, organs and skin.
Our bodies are continually breaking down and rebuilding cells, tissues, muscles etc., so we need a constant supply of protein in our diets.
Our bodies must also have protein for energy in the form of calories. Our bodies have three main sources for energy: glucose (carbohydrates and sugars), fat, and protein. Our bodies burn protein when glucose and fats are already used, because glucose and fats are burned more quickly. Protein is an excellent source of energy, as it broken down slowly in the body. This allows for sustained energy and keeps our bodies feeling full.
Because proteins take more work to digest, metabolize and use as energy, you burn more calories processing proteins. And because proteins take longer to digest, you feel full sooner and longer, which reduces overeating. This can be great for people looking to lose or maintain weight.
A huge bonus of diets that are higher in protein is that protein helps you lose fat while maintaining muscle. Your body uses the amino acids in protein to build new lean muscle. Many diets low in calories don’t have sufficient proteins, creating a loss of both fat and muscle.
Obviously, you don’t want to be losing muscle as you age. Consuming the proper amount of protein will ensure that you are able to support your muscular health and maintain or build muscle mass. The more muscle mass your body has, the higher your metabolism will be.
This is a great asset for weight management long term.
Great Sources of Protein
Protein can be consumed through animal and plant sources. Animal proteins include meat, poultry, dairy, eggs and fish. Animal proteins contain all essential amino acids for humans.
Plant based sources of protein include legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains. Plant based proteins do not contain all of the essential amino acids, but vegetarians can get all the protein that they need in their diet if they pay attention to their intake. If you have a high activity level, you may need more protein, but generally our diets should be 10-30% protein.
When consuming protein, it is important to realize that not all proteins are created equal. You should stick to sources of protein that are high quality and low in fat and cholesterol. You should avoid high cholesterol proteins like bacon and burgers. Instead choose leaner options such as pork chops and lean steaks. Most poultry options provide ample protein with little excess cholesterol and fat. Fish is also a great option.
Your dairy choices should be low fat and with little added sugars. Yogurt is a great source of protein, but avoid yogurts that have sugar additives. Vegetarians, it is essential to pay attention to your protein intake. Unfortunately, many vegetarians rely too much on high carbohydrate intake and do not get enough protein. Include plenty of legumes, beans, seeds and nuts in order to support your muscular function and energy levels.
Two to three servings of high protein foods daily will be sufficient for most adults. An appropriate serving size for protein is as follows:
- Meat/poultry/fish: typically the size of a deck of cards (which is approximately 3-4 ounces)
- Beans/legumes: ½ cup cooked
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons of peanut butter or other nut butter
- 1 ounce of cheese
Why We Skimp on Protein
So why aren’t we all about eating protein? Well, for one thing, protein-rich foods are typically not very convenient or fast. Convenience foods are usually high in carbohydrates and low in proteins (i.e. all of those bars and breads). Most protein sources must be prepared, cooked and properly stored. Any type of convenient protein source (i.e. fast food) is not a healthy option. So, some planning must take place if you would like to increase your protein consumption and improve your nutrition.
You can prepare and cook animal sources for dinner, making a little extra for the following day. This way, you will have a lean source of protein ready for you when your stomach starts to grumble the next day at lunchtime.
If you’re often on the go, another great option is to hard-boil several eggs for the next morning. You can grab two eggs from the fridge and eat them on your way. You can also find some ready-to-eat protein sources to grab on the go. Some great examples include turkey or beef jerky (just be aware of the amount of sodium) and dry roasted or unsalted nuts or seeds. Almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and cashews are all great snacks for on the go.
You could also try stocking your fridge with string cheese or individual serve yogurts.
High protein granola bars can be another great option for on the go snacking, but just make sure that your bar does not have too much sugar.
If you find it difficult to eat sufficient protein, consider using a protein powder supplement. This can be an easy way to get protein into your diet, especially in the morning. Try making a fruit/veggie smoothie and adding one scoop of rice or soy based protein powder. You will ensure that you are providing your body adequate protein and will be able to take your breakfast with you to go if you want.
Try to analyze your diet to determine how much protein you are getting in a day. Write down everything you eat for a week. Then, break down your diet by food groups and determine which foods belong to carbohydrates, fats, and protein. This way you can determine how much you are eating from each food group.
By understanding your current dietary intake, you can work to improve your protein intake.