All About Protein

Learn how to choose the best sources of this essential nutrient, including the ABCs of healthful proteins.

  • Choose humanely produced eggs from chickens or ducks to get the highest nutritional benefit.
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  • Look for cheeses, and other dairy products, that contain hormone-free milk.
    Photo by Fotolia
  • Grass and other pasture plants are cows’ natural diet, but in feedlots, they’re fed grains such as corn and soy.
    Photo by Veer
  • Legumes are some of the best vegetable-based protein sources, and they also contain fiber and other important nutrients.
    Photo by iStock
  • Discover some of the most nutritious plant- and animal-based proteins to add to your diet.
    Photo by StockFood
  • Raw nuts and nut butters are an easy, delicious way to add more protein to your diet.
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  • Fatty fish, such as salmon, offers high levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
    Photo by iStock
  • Non-GM soy beans were found to have higher levels of protein than their GM counterparts.
    Photo by iStock

Protein is one of the most essential building blocks of our bodies: Every cell in the human body contains proteins, and our bones, muscles, skin and hair are all made of this essential nutrient. When we eat foods containing proteins, our digestive systems break them down into amino acids that promote cell growth and healing. Our bodies also use proteins to produce hormones, enzymes and other body chemicals.

Like all nutrients, proteins are just one component of a balanced, healthful diet. Eating too much protein over time may cause weight gain and reduced liver function, while a protein deficiency can cause muscle wasting, weakness and, in extreme cases, even death. This guide deciphers nutritional, quality and environmental considerations for a variety of high-protein foods, so you can make the best choices for you and your family.

Protein and Diet

Unlike fats and carbohydrates, protein isn’t stored in our bodies, so we need regular replenishment. The Institute of Medicine recommends a minimum daily intake for adults of 8 grams of protein for every 20 pounds of body weight; that’s 60 grams of protein daily for a 150-pound person. Because protein-rich foods take longer to digest than carbohydrates, eating them can help with weight management by making us feel full longer and curbing the urge to snack between meals.

Animal-based foods certainly offer high levels of protein, yet debate surrounds several issues including animal treatment and meat’s effects on our health. In the past, doctors and nutritionists have recommended limiting our intake of meats and dairy products that contain high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol, as it was believed these types of fat were tied to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Yet in recent years, research has determined that saturated fat isn’t as bad for us as we once thought. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, the nation’s official dietary guidelines panel, and the American Heart Association have both recently backed away from strict dietary restriction of saturated fats, urging instead that Americans drastically reduce sugar intake and eliminate intake of unhealthful trans fats, formed when liquid vegetable oils are hydrogenated (processed to remain solid at room temperature).

Despite these changes, eating a healthful, meat-centric diet requires consideration of a variety of factors, which we’ll discuss in detail later in this article. The best tactic for an overall healthful diet seems to be one that is well-rounded, and that includes a wide range of sources for various nutrients, including protein. Fortunately, many plants offer rich supplies of protein. Whether you’re carnivore or vegan, for optimal health choose organic, minimally processed protein foods and include plant-based proteins in your diet.

Go Local: Finding a local producer is almost always the best way to get the healthiest, most nutritious food. Find local producers of meat, eggs, milk, produce and more at your farmers market, or by visiting Local Harvest or Eat Wild.

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