Eating plenty of high-quality proteins each day is essential to assure your body functions efficiently, but how much protein do you really need? Should you worry about getting enough daily protein if you decide to adopt a meatless diet? In this guide to protein, we’ll look at the facts about this essential nutrient, including the best dietary sources of protein and how much protein to eat each day.
Why Protein and Amino Acids Are Crucial
Most people know protein as a nutrient. But inside the body, proteins are molecules that facilitate crucial cellular functions. We need amino acids to create proteins, which is why amino acids are often called the building blocks of protein. The body can configure these amino acids to create many different types of protein molecules.
The body makes some amino acids on its own, while others must be provided through diet. A “complete protein” is a food that includes all 20 of the amino acids the body needs to form protein molecules. You may also hear these protein sources referred to as “high-quality proteins.” This group includes meats and dairy products.
Some foods may contain a few amino acids but lack others. These foods are called “incomplete proteins.” Many plant-based protein sources–such as beans, rice, and soy–fall into this category. To give your body all the building blocks it needs to manufacture complete protein molecules, be sure to eat a wide variety of incomplete proteins from whole foods so you pick up all the crucial amino acids.
Daily Protein Requirements and How to Reach Them
Considering how important protein molecules are to proper body function, you really don’t need to eat that much protein to keep your body running smoothly. Men require slightly more protein in their diet than women do, but generally speaking a healthy adult should eat 45 to 65 grams of protein per day.
Of course, we don’t generally measure our food in grams. We use cups, tablespoons, and our eyeballs to figure portion sizes. If you’re a meat eater, you can get about 26 grams of protein, or nearly half your daily requirement, by eating about half a chicken breast. Half a cup of cooked, crumbled ground turkey yields about 22 grams of protein. Prefer fish? One serving (about 3 and a half ounces) contains 21 grams of protein.
For those on a meatless diet, one cup of cooked pinto beans equals about 16 grams of protein, or about one-third of your daily requirement. When going meatless, try to base your eating plan on unprocessed, whole foods. In general, we all could benefit from getting more protein from plant-based sources. Besides beans, whole-grain brown rice, nuts, and seeds can boost the protein level of a meatless diet.
Best Sources of Dietary Proteins
Plain and simple, meats and dairy products provide the best source of complete proteins. Meats not only contain protein, but they also contain all the necessary amino acids for the body to synthesize its own proteins.
On the downside, beef and pork contain high amounts of saturated fat, which is bad for cardiovascular health. If you choose meat as your main protein source, be sure to choose fatty fish (like salmon) or poultry. Whole eggs, milk, and yogurt also make fine choices.
If you don’t eat meats and/or dairy products, you can still get plenty of protein from whole-food plant sources. Beans rank at the top of the protein-packed list, followed by whole soybeans, fermented soy products (more on that below), legumes, nuts and seeds. You can easily get an adequate amount of dietary protein by planning meals around these food staples.
About Soy and Tofu
Many non-meat eaters rely on soy protein, be it in the form of a powder supplement, textured soy protein product, or tofu. As with most food choices, keep in mind that soy foods that are minimally processed are a better choice than those that are more processed.
Whole soybeans rank at the top of the protein heap. Next comes fermented soy products, such as tempeh, miso, and tamari. Fermenting removes a coating on the soybean that inhibits the absorption of protein by your body, making the protein easier to assimilate. Tofu, whether fermented (pickled) or plain, is a great protein source, but be wary of highly processed soy products (such as some soy burgers or other meat substitutes) because they can be loaded with sodium and fat. As with any processed food, read labels carefully. And while the jury’s still out on the possible negative consequences of eating a lot of soy, it’s generally considered safe for most people. If you have questions about whether you should avoid eating soy products, consult your health care provider for specific guidance.
Protein for Health
As with other dietary choices, the key to getting enough protein (and amino acids) lies in eating well-balanced meals with options from many food groups. Meat eaters easily consume enough protein each day, and those who choose to avoid meats and dairy products can construct an eating plan that includes nuts, fortified grains, beans, and legumes like lentils to satisfy their need for protein and amino acids. In fact, we’ve made it easy for you to eat healthy every day. Just follow the guidelines on our Healthy Plate diagram!