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A Protein Primer: Part 1 of 4—Poultry

By H.K. Jones

While most athletic and fitness-focused men know that food provides them with the energy and nutrients they need to reach their peak performance, many are confused about just how much protein they need. And it's no wonder. Body building publications, fitness magazines, and health food stores alike boast ads for protein supplements and shakes promising bigger and better lifting results with—you guessed it—a lot more protein.

Yet despite all the hype, the fact is athletes (yes, even body builders) require only small increases over normal protein needs in order to support muscle growth. In fact, on average an athlete needs only between 1.3 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of body weight, as compared to non-athletes who only need between 0.8 to 1.2 grams per kilogram body weight. There are 2.2 pounds in a kilogram, so if you're a 185-pound athletic man, for example, you need around 127 grams of protein per day. And these increased needs can easily be meet by simply eating more protein-rich food.

But not all protein-rich food is created equal. Protein from animal sources, such as milk and meat, is called "complete" protein because it contains all nine of the essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein that are, well, essential to human health. Protein from most vegetable sources, on the other hand (think beans, legumes, grains, and fruits and veggies), is called "incomplete" because it lacks one or more of the oh-so-important essential amino acids.

Another important protein consideration is the protein package, meaning what you're getting along with the protein. A six-ounce broiled Porterhouse steak, for example, is a great source of complete protein—38 grams worth—but it also delivers 16 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat. That's almost three-fourths of the recommended daily intake for saturated fat. Ouch. The same amount of salmon however, gives you 34 grams of complete protein but with a much more heart-friendly four grams of saturated fat.

The bottom line: You should pay attention to getting enough protein to fuel your body and your workouts, the quality of that protein, and—very important!—what comes packaged with the protein.

For this first part in a four-part weekly series on protein sources, we'll take a look at a big player in the world of good-for-you complete protein: poultry.

Poultry—Lean, High-Protein Goodness
Lean poultry is a good-for-you, versatile protein choice that's packed with iron, zinc, thiamine, niacin, and vitamin B-12. In fact, one boneless, skinless seven-ounce chicken breast has around 55 grams of complete protein that comes packaged with just six grams of total fat, and only two of them saturated. And skinless, boneless turkey offers approximately the same protein-to-fat ratio.

But don't reach for a drumstick and a turkey burger just yet. All poultry is not good poultry. Below, learn some important facts for picking and preparing your protein-rich poultry:

What to Look For
The leanest poultry choice is skinless white meat from the breast of chicken or turkey. (Skinless dark meat has nearly twice the fat and calories of white meat.) Organic poultry is also a good bet if you are concerned about antibiotic use and pesticides. Organic poultry doesn't contain residual pesticides, because the animals they come from must be given pesticide-free organic feed or graze on land on which pesticides haven't been used for at least three years. The animals also can't be given antibiotics (which critics say can contribute to the spread of drug-resistant bacteria), nor can they be fed animal byproducts.

What to Watch For
If you think that "free-range" chickens and turkeys roam around grassy fields, bask in the sunlight, and engage in other natural habits, think again. Although the government regulates free-range poultry, it only requires that the birds have been given access to the outdoors for an undetermined period each day. In reality, a "free-range" animal's exposure to the outdoors can be as little as a few minutes a day, so you might be paying for a benefit that hardly exists.

Also look out for ground poultry. Many stores sell both ground chicken and ground turkey, but ground poultry can have as much fat as ground beef because it often includes dark meat and skin. To make the leanest choice, choose ground breast meat or look for low-fat ground chicken or turkey.

How to Prepare
Remove the skin and trim all visible fat before cooking poultry. However, if you're roasting a whole chicken or turkey, to keep the meat moist, remove the skin after cooking, before you carve and serve the meat. And always stick with low-fat cooking methods including baking, broiling, roasting, braising, grilling, or stir-frying.

Note: This will be the first of a four part series on protein. Next week: the ins and outs of red meat.

About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.