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Protein, A Misunderstood Nutrient


One of the most misunderstood nutrients today is protein.  During the 1940’s and 50’s when many Americans were children, their parents lived during a time of want.  They suffered the hunger of the great depression and rationing during the second world war.  Many of them adopted the value of building a better life for their children and part of this value was to eat ample meat and dairy foods.   These and other factors led succeeding generations to believe that our protein needs are greater than they really are.  Many Americans consume 2-3 times more protein than they need.  

Most people need about 46-56 grams of protein per day.   Our protein needs are greater when we are growing as children or teens, if we are pregnant or nursing or if we’re an actively training athlete.  Some disease conditions can change our protein needs.  Otherwise, we can meet our daily protein needs with very modest meat portions.  A small 3-ounce piece of meat (beef, chicken, pork or fish) has about 21 grams of protein.  An 8-ounce piece of meat has over 55 grams of protein.  One cup of milk or yogurt has about 8-11 grams of protein.  One cup of cooked pinto beans has about 16 grams of protein.  We get about 4-6 grams of protein for every cup of cooked vegetable we eat.  We get a similar amount of protein from grains as we do from vegetables.  So, one modest serving of meat and 2 servings of dairy will provide 40 grams of protein without counting vegetables and grains.

But, is eating extra protein a bad thing?  In the long run, yes.  The protein-rich foods that we all love, meat and dairy come with significant amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories.  Think of how many health problems would disappear if we all were at an appropriate weight for our height; if our blood pressure was within a normal range; if our blood sugar and cholesterol were not high.  Think of the money we could save on medications.  Although important in the diet, extra protein will not help you build more muscle or make you stronger. You have to exercise for that.

We get protein from both animal and plant foods.  But plant food proteins are different in that they come with fiber, anti-oxidants, pro-biotics, fewer calories, less fat, relatively no sodium and no cholesterol.

Look at these comparisons.  A 4-ounce grilled chicken breast has 130 calories, 68mg of cholesterol, 77mg of sodium and no fiber with 21g of protein.  An 8-ounce grilled sirloin has 448 calories, 104mg of cholesterol, 120mg of sodium and no fiber with 56g of protein.  By contrast a 1-cup serving of pinto beans (or any other legume) provides 245 calories, no cholesterol, 2mg of sodium and 15g of fiber with 15g of protein.  One cup of fat free milk provides 90 calories, 5mg of cholesterol, 128mg of sodium and no fiber with 8g of protein.  One cup of whole milk provides 170 calories, 24mg of cholesterol, 98mg of sodium and no fiber with 8g of protein.   

Try not to get lost in these numbers.  The simple notion is that by reducing our meat portions and choosing skim or reduced fat dairy foods, we can reduce calories, cholesterol, and sodium while simultaneously increasing fiber, anti-oxidants and a wider range of vitamins and minerals all of which improves the balance of our meals and helps our body function better. 

Reducing meat portions is relevant if you eat larger than 3-4 ounce servings of meat more than one time per day.  

In nutrition as with many things, balance is the key to health.  When we over indulge in one food we exclude others and the valuable nutrients they contain.  This sets up an imbalance that leads to many health problems as we progress through the life cycle.

Just like our parents before us, today we still want better for our children.  Wisdom teaches us that more is not always better.  Rather balance and moderation in all things is the key to healthful living.

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