Protein is key to a healthy diet. Are you getting the recommended daily amount?

Much of the focus on nutrition tends to be on reducing fat intake and increasing the consumption of vitamin-rich foods, and protein is easily overlooked. But protein is important for more than just muscle bulk and skinny waists; it’s also a key staple of any diet for every age and activity level. In the U.S., a diet rich in healthy proteins is easy to consume yet many people don’t get adequate amounts in the food they eat each day.

Proteins are part of every cell, tissue and organ in the body, and healthy levels are important in supporting cell repair and maintenance. As a person ages and during certain life stages like pregnancy, protein intake becomes especially crucial for health and proper body function. Lets look at the risks of low protein, recommendations on protein intake and how to give your body the quality protein it needs to maintain health.

Protein matters

Like any dietary component, low protein levels can have serious health consequences. If the body doesn’t get enough protein, it starts breaking down muscle, which can result in loss of muscle mass. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, lack of protein can also negatively affect growth, immunity, and the heart and respiratory systems.

Since the body can’t store protein, it must be continually replenished through foods like fish, legumes and eggs, among other ideal protein sources. But how much protein do you need? See the chart for intake recommendations, or visit the USDAs website choosemyplate.gov to create a protein program using their Daily Food Plan. Since protein needs vary by age, body weight and activity level, among other factors, its important to talk to your health care provider to determine the best intake level for you.

Quality counts

Most people can get their recommended protein intake with just a few servings per day, but the source of protein is important. While foods like red meat contain high levels of protein, regular intake may contribute to high cholesterol and other health issues. Instead, opt for high-quality proteins that deliver the nutrients your body needs without the added saturated fat. Quality protein can be found in foods like:

  • Meats, poultry and fish. A serving size of 2 to 3 ounces of fish like salmon, or lean meat like skinless turkey or chicken can deliver around 20 grams of protein.
  • Peanut butter. Just 2 tablespoons of the healthy spread or another nut butter has about 8 grams of protein. Be sure to avoid brands that contain high fructose corn syrup.
  • Legumes. Add a serving of 1/2 cup of cooked dried beans to your daily intake for a healthy protein boost of about 7 grams.
  • Eggs. One egg provides around 6 grams of protein. Add variety to your diet by having a scrambled egg for breakfast one day and a chopped hard-boiled egg on your salad the next.

Other good sources of protein include tofu, nuts and seeds, milk and milk products, grains, and some vegetables and fruits.

Why supplement?

Whey. Casein. Soy. Rice. Pea. If you’ve ever walked into the supplement section of your favorite store, the protein options might seem a little overwhelming. Vegetarians, older adults, athletes and people with dietary restrictions may not get enough protein through diet alone and might need to add a supplement to meet the recommended daily intake. If this applies to you, here are some tips for selecting the right protein supplement:

  • Vary the type. Since the body needs a variety of proteins to function properly, purchase a few different types of protein supplements such as whey, soy and rice and alternate each day.
  • Pair it with dietary protein. Don’t rely on supplementation alone; instead, use a supplement along with eating a diet rich in healthy proteins to get your recommended daily intake.
  • Consider your dietary needs. If you’re on a vegan diet or are lactose intolerant, choose a rice or soy

supplement instead of whey, which is a milk derivative.

  • Pair it with your lifestyle. If you’re constantly on the go, a ready-to-drink protein, as opposed to a powder you have to mix yourself, might be a good option. Most come in convenient, one-serving cans or boxes you can store in the fridge and grab on the way out the door.
  • Make the most of it. Protein supplements don’t have to taste bad. Try blending protein powder with ice and your favorite fruits to make a delicious and healthy drink that packs a powerful protein punch. Add fiber or essential fatty acids like flax-seed oil for added nutrition.

Getting the right amount of protein is about a balance of diet and supplementation. Along with a healthy diet and exercise, meeting your daily protein requirements supports the body’s functioning and overall health. If you’re unsure whether you’re getting the right amount to meet your needs, talk with your health care provider. You’ll find that getting your daily intake of protein is easy, delicious and good for your whole body.

How much protein do you need?

MORNING SMOOTHIE

A fresh, delicious smoothie is a great option for meeting your daily protein needs. And what better way to start your day than with a healthy protein drink at breakfast? This recipe combines berries, fruit and a protein supplement for a delicious and nutritious morning smoothie.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 medium banana, peeled
  • 1 cup frozen mixed fruit
  • 1 cup frozen blueberries or raspberries, partially thawed
  • 2 (6 oz. ea.) mixed fruit- or berry-flavored yogurt cups
  • 1/4 cup protein powder (2 ounces)

DIRECTIONS

Combine banana, mixed fruit, berries, yogurt and protein in a blender or food processor. Cover; blend until smooth. Enjoy!

Dr. Andrew Myers, an expert in nutrition and preventive medicine and the co-author of Health Is Wealth: 10 Power Nutrients That Increase Your Odds of Living to 100 and Health Is Wealth: Performance Nutrition. Visit healthiswealth.net for more information.