Protein for Health: Part Two
Protein is a part of every cell in your body, and no other nutrient plays as many different roles in keeping you alive and healthy. It is important for the growth and repair of your muscles, bones, skin, tendons, ligaments, hair, eyes and other tissues. Without it, you would lack the enzymes and hormones you need for metabolism, digestion and other important processes.
When you have an infection, you should eat more protein because it helps create the antibodies your immune system needs to fight disease. If you are injured, you may need more, as well, to help your blood clot and make repairs.
Pick Your Protein Carefully
Your body needs many different proteins for various purposes. It makes them from about 20 "building blocks" called amino acids. Nine of these are essential amino acid, which means you must get them from food. The others are nonessential. This does not mean you do not need them. You just do not have to eat them because your body can produce them.
It is easiest to get protein from meat, chicken, turkey, fish and dairy foods. Cooked meat is about 15 to 40 percent protein. Foods from animal sources provide complete protein, which means they contain all the essential amino acids.
Next to meat, legumes -- beans, peas and peanuts -- have the most protein. But they are called incomplete proteins because they are lacking some essential amino acids. You can get complete protein if you combine them with plant foods from one of these categories -- grains, seeds and nuts, and vegetables. Eat any two or more of these plant foods, with or without beans, and you get complete protein.
You do not have to eat these foods in the same dish, or even in the same meal. But many cultures have created combinations that work well -- like corn and beans in Mexico, or rice and split peas in India. Many Americans enjoy legumes and grains in a peanut butter sandwich.
Make Digestion Easier
Your body can digest and use animal protein more easily than plant protein. But be sure to avoid excess fat by choosing lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Legumes are next easiest to digest, followed by grains and other plant sources.
Cooking protein foods with moist rather than dry heat, perhaps boiled in a stew rather than fried, or soaking meat in a marinade using wine, lemon juice, or vinegar makes it easier to digest.
Set Healthy Limits
Since protein is so important to your body's survival, you may think you need to eat a lot of it. Fortunately, your body actually recycles protein from tissues that break down and uses it to make new ones. So you do not need more than 10 to 15 percent of your total calories from protein.
Protein deficiencies are common in poor, undeveloped countries. Even in modern nations, they sometimes occur in certain groups. In fact, vegetarians need to be very careful about eating the right combinations of plant foods to get enough complete protein.
The chances are far greater that you eat too much protein, especially from meat sources. The typical Western diet includes about 100 grams of protein, while 50 grams is closer to what your body needs.
If you are healthy, with no liver or kidney problems, you can get rid of any excess with little trouble. Yet, meat protein can be expensive and high in fat, two good reasons not to eat more than your body can use.
Beware the Dangers of a High-Protein Diet
If you are looking for a quick way to lose weight, it is easy to get fired up about a high-protein diet. Unfortunately, the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association and other health organizations advise against it.
An initial drop in weight is common with a high-protein diet, but it is due primarily to water loss. These diets do not work very well in the long run -- nor do they build muscles as they claim. Most important, they can be dangerous, increasing your risk of heart disease, kidney disease and artery damage, and bone loss.
While most high-protein foods contain plenty of vitamin B12 and iron, they are low in other vitamins and minerals. Only a diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and grains supplies the other nutrients that keep you healthy.
See also: Protein for Health