MyPlate Mondays: Protein

What is protein? Proteins are the building blocks of cells and come from animal products, beans, seeds, and nuts

How much do I need? Adults need 5-6.5 ounces daily

Remember: Go lean with protein

(Find out how many servings of protein you need. Use this chart to determine what an ounce is.)

Of the five food groups, proteins are probably the most misunderstood category while simultaneously being the most over-consumed as the American diet places heavy emphasis on meat and animal products. With the new MyPlate graphic, we see that proteins should make up around 20% of your plate.

The protein group includes all meat products, poultry, seafood, and eggs, along with plant-based sources such as beans, peas, soy, seeds, and nuts. (Dairy products also provide a high level of protein, as we’ll discuss next week.)

Proteins—created from amino acids—play a vital part in growth and provide building blocks for every part of the body, from blood to bones to muscle to skin. While your body can produce most of the amino acids it needs, there are nine amino acids that we need to provide it through food. These are called essential amino acids and are found in a variety of protein-rich foods. Foods that contain all nine of these acids are called complete proteins.

All animal products provide the essential amino acids needed, including red meat, seafood, poultry, dairy products, and eggs. Vegetarians need not be worried because complete proteins can be gained from several plant sources as well, including soy, buckwheat, and quinoa. In addition, several traditional meals pair foods that provide all nine essential amino acids when combined: rice and beans; hummus and pita; or peanut butter and whole grain bread. You just need to pair beans with seeds, nuts, or grains in order to get all the amino acids you need.

When choosing protein foods, remember that animal products also contain cholesterol, which can increase your LDL or low-density lipoprotein (aka: “bad cholesterol”). Go lean with your protein: make sure any meat you consume is lean or low-fat. In addition, eat a healthy balance of animal proteins along with plant sources of protein. Several plant proteins, such as soy, nuts, and seeds have been shown to decrease LDLs while maintaining or even increasing HDL (high-density lipoprotein, aka: “good cholesterol”).

While a strong diet relies on consuming protein in balance with the other food groups, over the past few decades, several weight-loss diets have popped up that rely on dieters eating high levels of protein and forgoing the other food groups. While some studies show that a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet can be good for you, several complications can arise from consuming too much protein in the long run.

If you have existing liver problems, you can cause serious damage by consuming more protein than your organs can handle. In addition, unless you are a bodybuilder or professional athlete, eating large amounts of protein to gain muscle may be counter-productive. Too much extra protein can cause your body to store the energy as fat, leading to weight gain. You can also become dehydrated, leading to kidney damage, or lose calcium, leading to poorer bone health.

But on the whole, proteins provide many essential nutrients and vitamins that help with repairing and maintaining your body’s health. B vitamins gained from protein foods help with the nervous system, blood, and tissues. Iron and vitamin C help your blood cells carry oxygen (especially important for teenage girls and women). Magnesium helps build sturdy bones, and zinc keeps the immune system running strong. And omega-3 fatty acids, found in seafood, can help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Tips on eating healthy proteins:

  • go lean: make sure to buy lean or low-fat meat and poultry; trim any excess fat and drain any grease released while cooking
  • eat plenty of beans, peas, nuts, and seeds, especially if you are vegetarian or vegan
  • grill meet instead of frying to avoid adding additional fats
  • eat a large variety of meats since different meats provide different amino acids
  • choose unsalted almonds and sunflower seeds for healthy snacks
  • try to eat around 8 ounces of cooked seafood every week (especially fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids)