Your body needs protein for everything from maintaining skeletal muscles to transporting vital molecules, breaking down toxins, and other maintenance. Protein is essential to forming new cells and repairing old ones. The amino acids that make up proteins form the precursors of enzymes and hormones, and help protect the body against infection.
Studies show that people who consume their daily allowance of protein have a lower body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference than those who don’t—possibly because protein makes you feel full. Higher consumption of healthy proteins has been linked to reduced risk of frailty and stroke.
The healthiest, protein-rich foods include cold water fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel, herring), poultry, low-fat dairy, legumes (which include beans and chickpeas), soy, nuts, and seeds—especially chia, hemp, sunflower, and flaxseeds.
These proteins are rich in monounsaturated and polyunstaturated fatty acids, which are heart healthy. They help your body fight diseases, lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and lower your risk of cardiovascular diseases, including diabetes, heart attack, and stroke. Red meats also contain proteins, but consumption of full-fat red meat increases your risk for heart-related and other diseases, so eat lean meats, and do so in moderation.
Don’t Overdo It
With all the buzz about protein-rich “Paleo,” “keto,” and low-carb diets, plus marketing hype that has put protein claims on labels throughout the supermarket, you might be wondering if you need to boost your protein intake. Despite the fads, the reality is that most Americans get plenty of protein.
One study reported that people with the highest protein intake (but not from fish or eggs) were more likely to develop heart failure. People with chronic kidney disease should avoid high-protein diets, which also may increase the risk of kidney stones even in people with otherwise healthy kidneys. Patients with gout should consult their physician about protein intake, since many protein sources are high in purines, which the body breaks down to form uric acid, the cause of gout’s painful inflammation.
But Don’t Underdo It Either
Some older Americans may be falling short, however. Approximately one-third of adults over 50 fail to meet the recommended dietary guidelines for protein—46 grams a day for women—and about one in 10 older women fail to meet even the lower estimated average requirement—0.36 grams per pound of body weight.
Experts also have suggested that older people might actually need more than the recommended amounts of protein. But more important than getting more protein is choosing the right sources.
“Choosing varied lean protein sources is the best way to include protein in a healthy diet,” says Rachel Lustgarten, a dietary nutritionist with Weill Cornell Medicine. “Consider fish, dairy, tofu, beans, and chicken.”
Too many people rely on burgers, steaks, and other protein sources high in calories and saturated fat. “Meats, particularly processed meats such as hot dogs, should be avoided as they are high in fat and sodium,” Lustgarten says. Substituting plant proteins from soy products, whole grains such as quinoa, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds can healthfully provide what your body needs.
Be wary, too, of packaged and processed foods that boast of their protein content. “Processed foods that promise a high-protein intake—like snack bars and baked goods—may contain other less-healthy ingredients, such as fat, sugar, and sodium,” says Lustgarten. It is possible to find protein shakes and bars that are low in these undesirable additions, but you’ll need to scrutinize Nutrition Facts labels. Look for products containing only one or two grams each of saturated fat and sugar, with double-digit protein grams.
Finally, look for “complete” proteins—those that contain all the essential amino acids the body doesn’t make. Meats, dairy, soy, and quinoa are complete protein sources. With plant sources, consume a variety (such as rice and beans) to meet your requirement.
Getting adequate protein throughout the day rather than mostly at dinner is best for maintaining muscle strength. Spreading equal amounts over breakfast, lunch, and dinner has been linked to greater muscle synthesis than concentrating it at a single meal. Try adding protein to your breakfasts—eggs, whole-wheat toast, peanut butter, even fish. Healthy snacks such as yogurt or nuts also can even out your protein intake.
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO YOU NEED?
The recommended daily allowance for protein is 46 grams a day for adult women. (Note that the Daily Value percentage used on Nutrition Facts labels is based on 50 grams for a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet.) But experts say those general numbers should be adjusted for body weight. Sedentary adults should aim for 0.36 grams of protein per pound, so a woman weighing 150 pounds would need about 54 grams of daily protein. Endurance runners and strength-training athletes need more.
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