Protein is one of the many components of a healthy diet and helps your body build and repair tissues, and, in addition to fats and carbohydrates, is also a source of energy. Many people think of meat when they think of protein, but protein can be found in all sorts of foods, many of which can be healthier to have more often in your diet than meat proteins, such as:
- Dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and milk
- Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and soybeans, and soy products such as tempeh, tofu and soy milk
- Nuts and seeds, such as almonds and sunflower seeds
- Seafood and fish
Proteins make great snacks on the go or at work. Try such quick options as peanut butter on celery sticks, hard-boiled eggs or hummus with vegetables. Protein takes longer to digest than carbohydrates, so you tend to stay fuller longer.
Protein is found just about everywhere in your body – in your muscle, skin, hair and body tissues – and is made from a host of building blocks called amino acids. Our bodies can’t store amino acids and we either have to make them or get them from food. Essential amino acids are nine amino acids that our bodies have to get from food.
Protein is not only vital for building and repairing muscle and providing energy, it’s important to your heart and brain, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. When you eat protein, it’s broken down into amino acids that make up neurotransmitters, which carry signals in your brain – without enough protein, your memory and mental agility suffer.
Health Canada recommends that you choose leaner cuts if eating meat, consume lower-fat dairy products and opt for more plant-based proteins. That’s because plant-based proteins, such as legumes, have more fibre and less saturated fat than other proteins, which is good for your heart. They are also usually less expensive and have less of an impact on the environment than meats. There are plenty of plant-based protein options for vegetarians and vegans such as legumes and tofu. And their lifestyle is catching on – in Canada now, there are 2.3 million vegetarians and 850,000 vegans, and more than 50% of Canadians are willing to cut down their meat consumption.
Your protein needs vary depending on age, size, health and activity level. As you age, you lose strength in your muscles. Getting enough exercise is important, but so is increasing your protein, which keeps muscles strong and reduces the risk of stroke. Most adults need about 0.8 grams of protein a day per kilogram of body weight, but older people, athletes and pregnant women usually have higher protein needs. So, an adult who weighs 80 kg, or 176 lbs., needs about 64 grams of protein a day. One cup of black beans has almost 42 grams, so about 1 1/2 cups a day would give that person all the protein they need for the day. The thing to remember is you want your diet to be well-balanced – we need fats and carbohydrates, as well as many vitamins and minerals, in addition to needing protein.
You should eat protein every day and the Canada Food Guide recommends protein-rich foods make up a quarter in size of each meal. It recommends what it calls the Eat Well Plate – fewer protein foods than fruits and veggies and preferably plant-based proteins:
Use this as a guide when making a simple stir fry for instance. Choose a variety of vegetables – such as carrots, peppers and broccoli – and then add half that amount each of whole grain rice and sliced tofu for your protein.
One interesting thing to know is that some vegetables actually have some protein themselves – such as spinach, broccoli, mustard greens, Brussels sprouts and watercress.
Protein for breakfast might be particularly important – it helps you fuel for the day and a protein-rich breakfast will avoid the sugar crash of high-sugar, high-carbohydrate breakfast choices such as bagels and toast. And you don’t need to limit yourself to eggs. Some other alternatives include Greek yogurt with fruit and granola; quinoa porridge; a berry smoothie with protein powder; and oatmeal.
So, whether you need a head start in the morning, or a pick-me-up in the afternoon, reach for protein-rich foods. They’ll fill you up, give you energy and make your body and mind work better.