Protein has been in the news a lot lately. We have heard that higher protein diets help with weight management and have seen food marketers adding protein to foods such as granola bars and bread.
What exactly is protein? Protein is a macronutrient – a nutrient that provides calories. Protein is broken down in the body into amino acids. These amino acids are important for our body to function. Nearly everything the body does needs protein. It is needed to build and repair skin, muscles, bones, blood and organs, as well as to make enzymes, hormones, and antibodies (for immunity). Our bodies use protein throughout the day to make and repair body cells.
The Canadian recommendations for protein are set to help prevent deficiencies. The current guidelines recommend 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight every day. For a 70-kilogram, generally healthy adult person, that would equal 56 grams of protein each day, or about 20 grams at each meal.
Recent research has shown that we may need to eat a bit more than the recommendations to build or maintain our muscle and help manage weight.
Some research suggests we should eat about 30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch and supper. Since there is a limit as to how much protein our body can absorb at one time, eating more than 30 grams at one time will not help to build more muscle. Unless a person’s calorie needs are high, the extra protein will eventually be stored as fat since our bodies cannot store protein.
There are very few foods made solely of protein. Most foods contain a combination of protein, fat and carbohydrates. Foods that are higher in protein come from the Meat and Alternatives and the Milk and Alternatives food groups in Canada’s Food Guide. Foods in the Grain Products and Vegetables and Fruit groups also have some protein, but in smaller amounts.
What does 30 grams of protein look like? This would be about 1 1/2 cups (350 millilitres) of lentils or three ounces (90 grams) of meat, fish or poultry. Typically, people have less protein at breakfast and lunch and more at supper. Eating two slices of whole wheat bread, two boiled eggs, 3/4 cup (175 millilitres) of plain yogurt and an orange is an example of a breakfast that contains 30 grams of protein.
What are the healthiest ways to get the right amount of protein?
- Choose lean sources of meat and meat alternatives. For example, choose skinless chicken or fish in a 90-gram serving.
- Use meat alternatives like beans and legumes in recipes. For example, eat baked beans for breakfast with whole wheat toast. Make a meatless chili or bean dish at least once per week; try to increase the frequency if you can.
- Choose low-fat milk and alternatives. Have skim or one-per-cent milk on whole grain cereal, or choose plain low-fat Greek yogurt on a baked potato.
- Shred lower fat cheeses (with less than 20 per cent MF on the label) and add to a salad or soup, or melt on toast. Limit servings of red meat and if possible avoid processed meats that are smoked, cured or salted. The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research recommend limiting red meat and eating very little, if any, processed meat. Choose less than 500 grams cooked weight per week. That would mean, for example, limiting your red meat to one 180-gram trimmed steak, two 90-gram hamburger patties, and one 180-gram serving of lean pork in a week.
So, do your muscles a favour and make sure you have enough lean protein at each meal by spreading it equally throughout the day. Maintain or possibly build the muscle you have with exercise and eating the right amount of protein each day.
Karol Sekulic is a registered dietitian with Alberta Health Services who has expertise and interest in the areas of weight management, nutrition and communications.