Guest Column: Consuming enough protein is crucial for the body

Published 1:00 pm Wednesday, February 27, 2019

By Emily Schmidt

Albert Lea resident Emily Schmidt is a registered dietitian at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea. She enjoys writing, cooking and spending time with her son and family.

Emily Schmidt

The three main nutrients that provide energy to our bodies, often referred to as macronutrients, are carbohydrate, fat and protein. I frequently write about carbohydrates and fats, but haven’t delved into the basics of protein, including why we need it and how we can get a variety of it. Consuming protein is crucial for the human body as it helps to keep us full, builds and repairs cells, helps maintain our immune systems and serves hundreds of other functions.

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In the United States, most people eat enough protein. However, there are still many who may not be getting enough, especially if their diets are higher in carbohydrate and fat. Increasing protein intake doesn’t necessarily mean eating chicken or fish at every meal and drinking protein shakes. There is a wide variety of ways that you can incorporate more of this macronutrient into your daily meals and snacks.

On average, adults should eat at least 0.8 grams protein per kilogram of body weight (or about 0.36 grams protein per pound of body weight) each day, give or take depending on the person. For instance, if you are a generally healthy female weighing 140 pounds, it’s recommended to consume at least 56 grams protein daily. A male weighing 175 pounds needs a minimum of 63 grams protein daily.

Meat and seafood: A 3-ounce serving of meat or fish, or approximately a portion the size of a deck of cards of the palm of an average hand, ranges from around 20 to 25 grams protein. Most of the time, stick to minimally processed meat and seafood, including skinless poultry, fish and other seafood, and lean cuts of beef and pork or other low-fat meats.

Eggs: Though the egg white is where your protein is coming from (the yolk is mostly fat, vitamins and minerals), consuming whole eggs in moderation is a great way to meet your nutritional needs. One egg contains around 6 or 7 grams of protein. Eggs don’t need to just be eaten for breakfast, either — have hard-boiled eggs for a snack or add them to a salad, or make a vegetable and cheese omelet for dinner.

Nuts and seeds: From peanuts to pumpkin seeds, this group of foods — great in addition to a meal or snack — contains healthy fats and plenty of vitamins and minerals. Add some protein to your food intake in the form of 1/4 cup or a handful of nuts or seeds, or 1 to 2 tablespoons of their butters (e.g., peanut, almond or sunflower butter).

Beans, peas and lentils: This food group provides a good source of protein in addition to fiber and a range of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals and trace elements). Just a 1/2 cup of beans, peas or lentils contains roughly 4 to 6 grams protein.

Tofu: Derived from soybeans, tofu is a plant-based food that can be used in soups, in place of meat or eggs in certain dishes and even in desserts or smoothies. Adding a serving of tofu to a fruit smoothie will contribute about 5 grams protein.

Dairy: Dairy products such as milk, yogurt, cheese and cottage cheese are not just beneficial for their calcium and vitamin D. Choose low-fat varieties for a nutrient-dense protein source, whether you have Greek yogurt and berries for a snack (around 10 to 12 grams protein) or add a slice of Swiss or provolone cheese (approximately 7 grams protein) to a sandwich made with low-sodium deli turkey, mustard, sliced avocado, red onion and tomato on whole grain bread.

Whole grains: Speaking of whole grains, these foods can contribute to our average protein intake as well. For instance, you can get approximately 5 grams of protein from one slice of whole grain bread or one cup cooked oatmeal. One cup quinoa has around 8 grams protein, and high-protein varieties of pasta can contain around 10 grams.

If you get protein from your regular foods and beverages, protein shakes shouldn’t be necessary. However, protein supplements may be helpful for those struggling to meet their nutritional needs from food alone, particularly for those who are athletes or anyone attempting to increase their weight or muscle mass, or older people at risk for malnutrition. Contact a registered dietitian if you’re unsure about how to adequately meet your protein needs.