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Power Up with Protein—The Healthy Way

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

Rocky Balboa knew it when he choked down a mouthful of raw eggs before taking on his morning workout: protein is a competitive man’s best companion. But you need not eat eggs (especially raw eggs, which carry a risk of dangerous salmonella) to add the powerful punch of protein to your diet. There are plenty of ways to do it—animal source or not.

What makes protein such a big deal? To start, protein plays a key role in the repair and maintenance of body tissues like lean muscle, especially when it comes to weight loss and exercise. And protein is acts as a requisite for body structures, many hormones, and lots of enzymes to do their jobs. Protein is also a dieter’s delight; since it has the highest satiety value of the macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrate), eating something with a good dose of it will keep you fuller longer than something without. Think of it as a doughnut vs. omelet breakfast scenario: the higher-protein omelet will keep you full all morning, while the stack of doughnuts will likely have you looking around for something to eat long before lunch. And as long as we’re talking diet, it’s worth mentioning that the inclusion of quality protein in meals and snacks will also help stabilize blood sugar levels—making it a critical ingredient if you struggle with diabetes or hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). But perhaps the timeliest benefit of all: protein can help boost your immunity. With the epidemic H1N1 spread and regular seasonal flu gearing up, it pays to fine tune your diet to help you stay well all winter.

With all that’s going for it, it’s easy to see why it is so important to make sure you have enough high-quality protein in your daily line-up of meals and snacks. Protein comes in a variety of packages, from red meat to nuts, but the challenge is finding the right mix of protein vs. fat (especially saturated fat), since the two often go hand-in-hand. For example, a six-ounce porterhouse steak has 38 grams of protein, but on the downside, it also packs 16 grams of saturated fat; that puts you just four grams shy of your limit for the entire day. Making a more careful selection with an eye on artery-clogging fat, like a six-ounce fillet of salmon, gives you 34 grams of protein, with only four of them saturated—a much better choice.

Red Light, Red Meat
Of all the ways you love to get your protein, a juicy steak hot off the grill probably tops the list. But when you’re thinking red meat, think red lightstop and consider your choice. In fact, a recent National Cancer Institute study found that people enrolled in a 10-year study that ate the most red meat—about 5 ounces per day—had a 30 percent higher risk of dying during the course of the research than did those who ate about the same amount of red meat per week. But no need to bid Morton’s or your butcher farewell, just keep your red meat allowance to one serving per week. And when you do partake, make it a high quality, lean cut like top and bottom round, top sirloin and tenderloin. If you’re eating ground beef, always choose 93 to 99 percent lean.

Green Light, Protein Choices that are Just Right
For squeezing in protein, chicken and other poultry have long been considered the healthier alternative to red meat. But that’s only true if you’re eating the skinless white meat. And pork, specifically tenderloin trimmed of visible fat, is another lean protein alternative to try when you think you might cluck at the sight of another boneless, skinless chicken breast.

As you just read with the salmon example, seafood is an excellent way to deliver a healthy dose of protein—without the saturated fat—to your diet. Even better, some fish, like albacore tuna, salmon, and mackerel give you the added benefit of polyunsaturated omega 3s which may help lower triglycerides and increase HDL (good) cholesterol.

But don’t forget the other meatless, animal-based proteins that are spread throughout the pyramid. Eggs boast the highest quality protein known, second only to mother’s milk (which is considered perfect), not to mention that they also make a quick, satisfying and cheap meal. Low-fat dairy can also add protein to your diet, but to save on saturated fat, use only one-percent or skim milk as well as low-fat or fat-free cheese, yogurt and cottage cheese. If you haven’t tried Greek yogurt yet, give it a taste—it has about twice the protein of regular yogurt, and has an indulgent, thick texture.

Go Greener: Pick Plant Based Proteins
Animal sources aren’t the only way to go for protein—in fact, health experts recommend that you go meatless and rely on plant proteins at least once per week to give your health a boost. Just one meatless day can help reduce the risk of heart disease, since eating non-meat, plant-based sources of protein like beans, lentils, nuts and seeds contain no or very small amounts of saturated fat. And reducing the amount of saturated fat you eat helps keep your cholesterol low, thereby reducing your risk for heart disease. Plus, plant-based proteins like beans add a double dose of nutrition to your diet since they also provide plenty of fiber.

Just keep in mind with nuts, though they are a healthy source of meatless protein, (and heart-healthy monounsaturated fat), they still have a high calorie and fat content, so a small handful goes a long way. If sticking to a serving is hard for you, try this simple tip to keep from going nuts over your stash: use a condiment cup (like the kind that often contains ketchup or salad dressing in restaurants) to measure out the portion of nuts you need (most measure about a quarter of a cup) and keep it by the bag or box to make eating the perfect portion easy.

Other plant-based, meatless protein options include soy products like tofu and edamame (whole soybeans). Soy is king when it comes to meatless protein since it contains all nine amino acids, making it a complete protein. And it’s a calorie bargain, too. For only about 300 calories per one-cup serving of edamame, you’ll get a whopping 29 grams of protein (which is about twice the amount of hunger-curbing power as other beans).

And it may surprise you, but don’t overlook grains to provide a little protein bump to your day. High protein grains like quinoa and spelt are getting easier to find in most mainstream supermarkets. Try pastas made with spelt or quinoa as an unusual side to your main dish.

Go Meat! (or tofu, peanuts or eggs)
Getting enough protein generally isn’t a problem for most Americans, since, according to the National Institutes of Health, most of us already eat about 12 to 18 percent of our calories as protein. So your focus should not necessarily be on making sure you get enough protein, it should be on getting your protein from healthy sources.

How much do you need? Generally speaking, between 10 and 15 percent of your total calories should come from protein. So for an average 2,000 calorie diet, that would be around 200 calories, which translates into about 50 grams of protein. To find your personalized need, figure on 0.8g protein per kilogram of body weight (your weight in kg x 0.8).

So no need for the Rocky-style raw egg cocktail; at breakfast, get off to the right start with a good source of protein to rev up your metabolism to begin the day. Scrambled eggs, yogurt with whole grain cereal or a banana with peanut butter are just a few easy places to start. Once you’ve got breakfast covered, you’ll find that it’s easy to make healthy and high quality protein choices that will satisfy you as the day wears on—whether you’re boxing in the ring or just metaphorically boxing with your colleagues.