There is something about meat that has satisfied our cravings since caveman days. Today, these protein-rich foods are still at the center of our plates. In fact, locally sourced meats and seafood rated as the top culinary trend of 2015 in the National Restaurant Association’s ‘What’s Hot in 2015’, a survey of nearly 1,300 American Culinary Federation member chefs.
In addition, protein is the hottest functional food trend, basically the top nutrient added to foods such as beverages for a specific purpose, especially enhanced athletic performance, according to a 2014-released report by New York market research firm Packaged Facts.
However, the power of protein lies in not eating too much or too little, but just the right amount.
Protein, along with carbohydrates and fats, are the three calorie-providing nutrients in our diets. Protein’s benefits range from growth and repair of our body’s cells and tissues to more trendy help such as providing satiety by stabilizing blood sugar levels, promoting weight loss due to the satiety effect, preventing loss of muscle mass as we age, and pepping up athletic performance and recovery after an intense workout.
But more protein isn’t better. Eating too much, especially in combination with a low-carb diet, can cause a number of problems. First, this kind of diet puts your body into a state of ketosis, with symptoms like bad breath and nausea. Severe effects over the long term include liver and kidney damage.
Secondly, fatty protein foods can elevate blood cholesterol and increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Thirdly, protein excess can strain your kidneys, lead to kidney stones and increase the risk of osteoporosis.
On the other hand, too little protein can cause muscle loss, skin problems and hair loss, and increase your risk of infections.
There are three ways to eat the right amount of protein and optimize its intake.
First, choose natural food sources of protein rather than protein in pills, powders or other potions. This way, you get all the vitamins and minerals along with the protein in these foods. Protein-rich foods include red meat, poultry, fish and seafood; eggs and dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt; soybeans and soy products; dried beans and peas; and nuts and seeds.
Choose lean meats or trim off extra fat before cooking, take skin off chicken after baking and buy low-fat or skim dairy products to get the benefits of protein without excessive cholesterol and fat.
In addition, cook meats by baking, boiling, broiling or grilling rather than frying. Plant-based sources of protein such as soy, beans, peas, nuts and seeds are cholesterol free. Plus, these foods contain dietary fiber that can add synergistically to the satiety effect protein provides.
Second, practice moderation when it comes to portion size. The World Health Organization recommends an intake of 30 to 60 grams of protein daily for adults over the age of 18, with the range depending on height, weight and gender. This equals 4 to 8 ounces a day.
That’s not very much. Four ounces is one egg and one small boneless chicken breast. Eight ounces is 1 cup of milk, one egg, and a palm-sized serving of lean meat, chicken or fish. It’s not hard to get all the protein you need in a day.
Third, eat protein strategically. For satiety, add a lean slice of turkey, piece of cheese or handful of nuts to a green vegetable salad or to a snack of carrot and celery sticks or piece of fresh fruit.
Eat protein at every meal to prevent muscle loss, as well as using those muscles in physical activity. A protein snack such as a cup of yogurt, a hard-boiled egg or a cheese stick within 30 minutes after completing a workout can help muscles recover more quickly.
And have fun with protein. Pick up some locally sourced meat and seafood in all the terrific places you cruise, such as New Zealand lamb, Alaskan salmon or Prosciutto de Parma. It will help you feel full in more ways than one.
Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and a regular contributor to The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.