Ask a nutrition student: The beef on protein

Stacey Arnold

What are some easy ways to incorporate more protein in my diet without much cooking? I don’t want to make steak or chicken, but I don’t know what else has protein. 

What comes to mind when you think of protein? A large ribeye steak? Bodybuilding? Chalky protein shakes? There is lot a of hype around foods labeled “high-protein,” but protein is just a macronutrient similar to fats and carbohydrates.

Protein should make up 10–35 percent of your diet, according to the Institute of Medicine. Your body needs protein to build muscle, repair tissue, create enzymes and carry oxygen in your blood. Proteins are more filling than fats or carbohydrates, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. There is little that proteins don’t do.

A quick biochemistry lesson: Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. All proteins are made up of varying combinations of 20 different amino acids. Some amino acids can be produced from scratch by your body — these are called non-essential amino acids. Essential amino acids must be supplied by food.

Unlike animal protein sources, which tend to supply all essential amino acids, plant protein sources generally lack one or more essential amino acids. But don’t fret, vegetarians! By mixing and matching your plant sources of protein, you can ensure that you don’t exclude any one amino acid from your diet.

When you select a protein source, keep the nutritional big picture in mind. Protein sources that are heavily processed or red meats, such as bacon and marbled steaks, are high in saturated fat and sodium. Lean meats such as turkey, chicken and fish are healthier options. A six-ounce salmon fillet contains almost as much protein as a six-ounce porterhouse steak but has ten fewer grams of saturated fat, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. 

For the vegetarians and vegetarian wannabes, beans, lentils, eggs and soy products like tofu and tempeh are protein-packed options. If you do follow a vegetarian diet, remember to consume a variety of plant protein sources. If you consistently stick with just one protein source, you might end up without an essential amino acid.

Contrary to gym lore, consuming more protein does not necessarily mean you’ll build more muscle. Calories are calories, according to a study published in The Journal of American Medicine Association. Participants who consumed excess calories on a high-protein diet gained the same amount of fat as those who overate on a high-fat, low-protein diet. The body has a threshold of about 30 grams of protein per meal. Young and elderly individuals who consumed more than the threshold did not grow more muscle, according to the National Institute of Health.

So don’t be mistaken, there are plenty of foods other than chicken and steak that provide protein. Nuts, slices of deli turkey, hummus and low-fat Greek yogurt are all portable and no-cook options. Don’t think that you need to binge on protein powders or raw egg whites to meet your protein needs. 

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