Choose your proteins wisely

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recently introduced My Plate model, a whole quarter of our plate should be reserved for protein-rich foods. Have you ever wondered exactly what is it that protein does to make it such an important part of our diet? And which foods are good sources of protein?
For starters, protein is made of a chain of amino acids, which functions in our bodies in many ways. One that may come to mind is the preservation of muscle mass, since that's what muscles are made of. But muscle isn't the only body part made up of protein; nearly every other cell in the body is made up it as well. Its functions range from keeping hair, skin and nails healthy (all made mostly of protein) to transporting nutrients throughout the body.
A big protein-plus when it comes to weight management is that it helps us feel full so we are satisfied after our meal and don't overeat later. Meat may be the first food you think of when it comes to good sources of protein, but there are many other delicious foods that are protein powerhouses, including beans, soy and even some grains.
How much do we need?
Protein should make up about 15 percent of our diet. The dietary reference intake for protein is 56 grams for men and 46 grams for women. The average American diet provides from one to two times this amount, easy to imagine as restaurant portions are sometimes two to three times the recommended serving size (a 16-ounce steak is far from the recommended 3-ounce serving size for meat).
But if some is good for us, more must be better, right? Not exactly. Many protein sources, such as red meat and full fat dairy, are also high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which can lead to weight gain and heart disease. Another problem is ketones, a toxic substance that the liver creates when too much protein is consumed. When blood levels of this toxic substance become too high, the kidneys become stressed as they work harder to excrete them, and because a large amount of water is required in the process it could also lead to dehydration.
Another problem is seen when it comes to bone health. Protein is acid-producing and requires an alkaline substance to buffer or neutralize its acidity. This buffer comes from our calcium-rich bones, so when protein is consumed in high amounts, bone loss could be a result.
To estimate your individual needs, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 and then multiply by 0.8 (most people need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day; those who engage in resistance training and weight lifting need 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram).
A 130-pound person, for example, would need about 47 grams of protein. The USDA recommends 5 1/2 ounce equivalents for women, and 6 1/2 ounce equivalents for men.
In general, 1 ounce of meat, poultry or fish, 1/4 cup cooked beans, 1 egg, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, or 1/2 an ounce of nuts or seeds can be considered as 1 ounce equivalent from the protein foods group. One ounce of meat provides 7 grams of protein, so a standard 3-ounce serving, which is about the size of the palm of your hand, would contain around 21 grams of protein. Explore the protein foods section of mypyramid.gov to find out more about how much protein you need, what counts as 1 ounce and pictures of serving sizes under the "protein foods gallery."
Protein-packed foods for both meat-lovers and vegetarians:
Great sources of protein are meat, dairy, poultry and fish. The 2011 dietary guidelines emphasize increasing the amount and variety of seafood in our diets by eating seafood in the place of some meat and poultry. This protein-rich food has the additional benefit of omega 3 fatty acids, a heart-healthy fat that's been shown to reduce the risk of many chronic conditions including heart disease, stroke and Alzheimer's disease, to name a few.
Whichever of these food groups you choose, you'll be receiving protein of a high biological value, meaning the body can easily absorb and use the nutrients in these foods because they contain all nine essential amino acids. For vegetarians and vegans, good sources include legumes (nuts and beans), soy and some high protein-grains including quinoa, spelt and buckwheat. Since these proteins do not contain all nine essential amino acids, they must be paired with other foods to make them complete. For example, beans (a legume) are low in the amino acid lysine, while rice (a grain) is rich in lysine. This is why rice and beans and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches make great combos — not only do they taste delicious, but their nutritional profiles complement each other.
Some tips for protein-prep:
Choose lean meats to decrease the amount of saturated fat you consume. The leanest cuts usually contain the word "round" or "loin." Choose extra lean ground beef — the label should say at least 90 percent lean. Buy skinless chicken parts or take off the skin before cooking — the leanest types of poultry are boneless, skinless chicken and turkey breasts and turkey cutlets.
For sandwiches, choose lean turkey, roast beef, ham or low-fat, low-sodium lunch meats. When cooking, trim off all visible fat from meat, drain off any fat that appears during cooking and limit breading, which adds fat and calories.
The best way to prepare meat, poultry or fish is to bake, grill, roast, poach or boil. Frying adds harmful trans fats. With the right amount of protein on your plate prepared in the right fashion, not only will your stomach feel satisfied, but your every cell in your body will be thanking you, too!

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