It’s All About That Protein
From repairing muscle to digesting food, proteins do it all. Let’s take a look at what they are, how to get enough, and whether or not you should be guzzling protein shakes.
The complete picture
Your body makes proteins from building blocks called amino acids. You have to get 9 of them, called essential amino acids, from what you eat. Foods with all 9 essential amino acids are complete proteins.
What’s that mean for your diet? Animal proteins — in foods like meat, eggs, and milk — are always complete. That’s not the case with plant proteins, where only soy and quinoa are complete. Is that a problem for plant-based diets? Nope. We’ll dig deeper into that in a minute.
How your body uses protein
Your bones, muscle, skin, and hair are all made from proteins. When your body repairs muscle after exercise, it uses protein. Hemoglobin, a protein, delivers oxygen to every cell in your body. The list goes on and on. Proteins are critical to your health.
You can get protein from a wide variety of foods, including:
- Lean meats like poultry, pork, and seafood
- Low-fat dairy products like Greek yogurt and milk
- Whole grains like quinoa and whole wheat pasta
- Nuts and seeds like walnuts and cashews
- Legumes and beans like lentils and garbanzo beans (chickpeas)
Can I get enough protein from a plant-based diet?
You sure can. Note that 3 of the 5 protein-rich foods we listed above are plant-based. Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, or anything in between, the key is to combine food groups so you get complete proteins. And that really just comes down to eating a varied diet. Let’s look at a few basic examples.
Beans and a grain
This one’s easy and tasty. Think of the classic red beans and brown rice. Or black beans and quinoa. Throw in some garlic, some chili powder or smoked paprika (or both!), and you’re good to go.
Nuts and a grain
Perfect for breakfast, spread some almond butter on whole wheat toast. Or go with granola that has seeds and nuts along with oats.
Beans and nuts
Next time you whip up some chili, get creative. Sub in beans for meat and toss in some cashews or walnuts. The possibilities are endless.
Is a plant-based diet healthy?
It can be, if you do it right. Vegetarian diets might help lower your odds of diabetes, heart attack, and certain cancers. The key is to focus on fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and whole grains.
As with any diet, it can be easy to overdo it on processed foods — plant-based doesn’t always mean healthy. Be sure to check nutrition labels.
Talk to your doctor to see if going plant-based might be right for you. And remember, you don’t have to change all at once. Try it once a week with meatless Mondays. For inspiration, check out our Real Recipes.
How much protein to eat
Your protein needs depend on your age, height, weight, and activity level. On average, females need 46 to 75 grams a day and males 56 to 91 grams. To get a more specific number, try this calculator.
For some perspective, here’s how much protein you find in common foods:
- 1 large egg: 6 grams
- 1 ounce tuna: 8 grams
- 1 ounce chicken: 7 grams
- 1 cup quinoa has: 8 grams
- ½ cup black beans: 7 grams
- ¼ cup hummus:6 grams
- 2 tablespoons peanut butter: 8 grams
1 ounce is about the size of 3 dice. ½ cup is roughly the size of a cupped hand. 1 tablespoon is about the size of your thumb.
A word on supplements
Do you need protein shakes? Protein powders? Not likely. The average American eats plenty of protein, so you’re probably throwing your money away. Also, the FDA doesn’t review supplements, so you don’t always really know what you’re getting. Talk to your doctor before starting any supplements.
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