High-protein diets: just trendy or truly healthy?

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Diets high in protein sources and low in carbohydrates are taking over as we are becoming more health conscious. Paleo, Ketogenic, South Beach, Whole30 and more – all focus on higher protein consumption with fewer carbs. Is this just a trend? Is it even healthy to eat so much protein?

The purpose of protein

In grade school, we learned that protein plays a vital role in our bodies, building muscles and tendons. But protein also supports enzymes, neurotransmitters, hormones and other organs including our skin. In fact there are 9 essential amino acids – ones our bodies cannot make – that we can only get from the protein we eat. So protein is crucial to our health!

Protein also lowers blood pressure and helps fight diabetes. A few sources suggest that too much protein might cause kidney damage over the long-term, but this has not yet been determined. Other evidence suggests this to be false. It’s too soon to know, but keep this topic on your radar as research develops.

According to Dietary Reference Intake, the average male should consume about 56 grams per day and the average female should consume about 46 grams per day (healthline.com). But these are minimal amounts – resulting in assumedly minimal benefits. And the amount of protein you need goes up as you lose muscle mass due to aging or other health issues, as well as when you are more active.

In other terms, the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that 10-35% of your calories come from protein sources. So better goals for the average male and female may be 56-91 grams and 46-75 grams per day (healthline.com).

As always, it is best to chat with your healthcare provider before making any drastic changes, whether you are latching on to the latest trending diet or simply trying to improve your diet! This is especially important if you have existing health concerns – you don’t want to inadvertently make those worse as you replace other foods/nutrients with protein.

Best sources of protein

Just as we’ve learned all these years, lean meats make a perfect source for protein. That includes lean cuts of beef, pork, chicken, lamb, turkey and other game, grass-fed and organic ideally. Fresh-caught wild fish without additives should also be a regular part of your diet.

If you aren’t a meat-eater, you still have tons of protein options. And even if you do eat meat, these will add variety to your snacks and meals. These are listed in order of priority.

  • Vegetables: spinach and other leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, potato (though this is really a grain)
  • Eggs
  • Seeds: sesame, sunflower, chia, pumpkin, hemp, flax
  • Nuts: walnuts, pistachios, nut milks
  • Legumes: black-eyed peas, peanuts (organic only, in moderation)
  • Dairy: low-fat ricotta cheese, cottage cheese, mozzarella, cheddar, Parmesan, feta, milk
  • Soy (organic only)

*Foods in orange are rich in all 9 of the essential amino acids, according to nomeatathlete.com. This is by no means a complete list of protein sources, but gives a starting point.

Aim to add vegetables first, since they should make up 40-50% of your diet. Then consider eggs, seeds and nuts as they are generally easier to digest and offer loads of other nutrients. Soy and legumes (crops that grow in pods) can be hard to digest, and soy is often grown using chemicals and/or modified. Dairy seems to cause more harm than good – consider limiting dairy if you do consume it.

How can you incorporate these foods?

Vegetables – well just eat them with every chance – raw, steamed or however. Eggs are hard to avoid, so embrace them, whether hard-boiled, over-easy, scrambled or whipped into a recipe. Sprinkle hemp or pumpkin seeds in your cereal, smoothie or salad. Grab some nuts as a snack instead of chips, crackers or worse!

Guava seems to be the king of protein when it comes to fruits. Hummus made with both garbanzo beans and tahini (sesame) provides a protein punch. And if you want to transform your kid’s carbolicious pancake breakfast into a protein party, have him help you create a tasty batch of pancakes made from pumpkin, amaranth or buckwheat.

Eating high protein could be life changing. Remember that the quality of your protein matters. Variety helps, so get creative when you can. As always, aim for better health!

*This blog is intended for use as a source of information and should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. 

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