Question of the Week

July 28, 2008


Look at a nutrition label, and it will tell you how much protein is in each serving of the food you plan to eat.

Over the past several years, protein has found its way into the headlines for various reasons: from high protein diets that say they are good for weight loss and optimal health to recent news reports that mention the increasing food costs that are causing people to find meat, eggs, and dairy more difficult to afford.

Everyone needs protein, but not all protein is created equal. Sometimes it can be difficult to make it through the headlines to really understand the role that protein (in its various forms) plays in a healthy diet.

"Proteins are part of every cell, tissue, and organ in our bodies. These body proteins are constantly being broken down and replaced. The protein in the foods we eat is digested into amino acids that are later used to replace these proteins in our bodies. ... Proteins are made up of amino acids. Think of amino acids as the building blocks. There are 20 different amino acids that join together to make all types of protein. Some of these amino acids can't be made by our bodies, so these are known as essential amino acids. It's essential that our diet provide these. ... A complete protein source is one that provides all of the essential amino acids. ... An incomplete protein source is one that is low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Complementary proteins are two or more incomplete protein sources that together provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids."

Everyone needs protein. Those who are not getting enough protein (whether they don't have access to proper nutrition or they suffer from an eating disorder) end up with health problems as a result.

"Adequate protein intake is essential for good health: It's necessary for maintaining the body's normal growth and its muscle mass (which is mostly protein), its immune system, and heart and respiratory functions. Protein deficiency is generally not a problem in the U.S., but it is in many parts of the world. Malnutrition takes two forms: a person doesn't get enough total calories (and they waste away) or he doesn't get enough protein."

Protein comes in many forms. In addition to vegetable sources and whole grains, there are the traditional meat, eggs, and dairy sources that many still think of when they think of protein in their diets. While there is a variety of protein sources, there is also a great range of healthy versus unhealthy within these sources.

"[I]t's important to eat the right amount and the right kind of protein to get the health benefits. ...

  • Seafood is one of the best sources of protein because it's usually low in fat. ...
  • Stick to the white meat of poultry for excellent, lean protein. Dark meat is higher in fat. ...
  • Not only are dairy foods excellent sources of protein but they also contain valuable calcium. ...
  • Eggs ... The American Heart Association says normal healthy adults can safely enjoy an egg a day. ...
  • Beans: One-half cup of beans contains as much protein as 3 ounces of broiled steak. Plus, these nutritious nuggets are loaded with fiber...
  • Pork Tenderloin: This great and versatile white meat is 31% leaner than 20 years ago.
  • Soy: Twenty five grams of soy protein daily can help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. ...
  • Lean beef has only one more gram of saturated fat than a skinless chicken breast. ..."

While meat, eggs, and dairy are more well known protein sources, there are also numerous vegetarian and vegan sources of protein. For those who chose to limit or avoid animal products, it is important to find other sources of protein to enjoy on a daily basis.

"Protein helps muscles remain strong. Proteins need to be eaten regularly, because the body cannot save them for later use. Since meat has a lot of protein, it's extremely important to find alternate sources if you are a vegetarian. Foods that contain protein include beans, nuts, nut butters, lentils, tofu and other soy products."

Whether people choose to limit meat because it is getting more expensive or because they have chosen a vegetarian lifestyle, it is important to remember that protein is found in many sources that do not come from animals.

"You don't need to eat foods from animals to have enough protein in your diet. Plant proteins alone can provide enough of the essential and non-essential amino acids, as long as sources of dietary protein are varied and caloric intake is high enough to meet energy needs. Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds and nuts all contain both essential and non-essential amino acids. You don't need to consciously combine these foods ('complementary proteins') within a given meal. Soy protein has been shown to be equal to proteins of animal origin."

Questions of the Week:
What sources of protein are in your diet? How can you find out how much protein is in the various foods you eat? In what ways can you replace unhealthier sources of protein in your diet with healthier sources? Which animal products are healthier sources of protein and which should be avoided or eaten in moderation? Which plant-based foods are good sources of protein? Without giving up all of what you like, what modifications can you make to your diet to improve the quality of the protein that you are consuming?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

[email protected]
Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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