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Choosing better proteins
Choosing better proteins
Protein is important. Most of us know that. Your body needs protein to form new cells and repair old ones. Protein also supplies fuel for meeting our body’s energy needs.
Knowing “we need protein” is not enough
The problem in the American diet isn’t lack of protein; rather, it’s the excess of unhealthy calories and saturated fats that go along with all that protein we’re eating. Bottom line: We need to be smarter about the kind of protein we consume.
How much protein do we need?
Optimal protein levels depend on age, gender, and activity level. The RDA recommends:
- 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day; or
- Weight in pounds times 0.37 (to convert kilograms to pounds multiply by 2.2).
That’s about 46 grams for most women and 56 grams for most men. There are some important exceptions. Recent research suggests that older adults need to consume more protein than the RDA recommendation in order to maintain and build muscle mass and compensate for a decreased ability to absorb protein: approximately 1 to 1.2 grams for people over 60 per kilogram of body weight per day — and spread throughout the day, rather than predominantly at dinner.
Very active people and athletes in training, especially if engaged in strength training, probably need more protein than the RDA recommendation as well. Tufts University’s research found that athletes need at least 0.9 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. To date, there are no special RDAs established for these special categories.
Maximize “the healthy proteins”
The real protein problem is that too much of what we consume comes from animal sources which are not in the healthy category of lean meats and seafood. A Big Mac gives you a whopping 25 grams of protein — probably half your protein requirement, but you are also getting more than 500 calories and 10 grams of saturated fat.
A 2010 analysis of data from the Nurses Health Study shows that red meat intake is associated with higher risk of coronary heart disease. However, by shifting sources of protein in the diet from red meat to higher amounts of nuts, lean poultry and fish, risks were lowered. Good sources of vegetable protein include pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans, and lentils; nuts, seeds and peanut butter; and tofu, tempeh and other soy products.
Eggs are another excellent source of protein, having more than 6 grams of protein in the whites (and only 70 calories) per egg. Even though egg yolks contain cholesterol, evidence suggests that one egg per day does not result either in increased blood cholesterol levels nor increased risk of cardiovascular disease in healthy people. However, people with heart disease should limit their consumption to two eggs per week, according to the AHA.
Joyce Hanna, MA, MS, is associate director of the Health Improvement Program (HIP) at Stanford Prevention Research Center (SPRC), Stanford School of Medicine.