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Health & Wellness

4 things you may not know about protein

Americans are obsessed with protein. How to get it, where to get it, what are the best (and worst) sources, and are we getting enough?

Protein preserves muscle mass and plays a role in many beneficial health outcomes, such as weight management and reducing diabetes risk. It provides amino acids needed for growth and development.

Protein is added to hundreds of products to make them “healthier” but misconceptions are abundant. Thirty years from now will we find out we were wrong to give it this much attention?

Through decades of research, a few things are certain: not all proteins are equal, the amounts we need vary throughout life and you’re probably getting enough — or even too much — of it.

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Breakfast protein (without eggs): Try Joy's chocolate banana oatmeal!

Play Video - 1:16

Breakfast protein (without eggs): Try Joy's chocolate banana oatmeal!

Play Video - 1:16

1. The type of protein matters.

If you look at people around the globe who live the longest, such as the people of Sardinia, Italy, their protein usually comes from plants.

Despite this, research indicates that Americans get most of their protein from animal sources. A 2016 study in JAMA Internal Medicine that included over 30 years of data in over 100,000 individuals found that a high consumption of animal protein from processed and non-processed red meat and pork shortened life in obese or inactive individuals. Plant-based protein decreased mortality, according to the study.

Similarly, a 2017 study found plant-based sources helped in preventing type 2 diabetes, while animal-based red meat increased the risk. While the research doesn’t show the same negativity with protein from fish or poultry, it is very clear that plants may be the perfect source.

2. Plants are a good source of protein.

While it may be easier to obtain protein from animal sources, you can get plenty from plants as well.

Top plant-based sources of protein:

  • quinoa
  • beans and legumes
  • seeds and nuts
  • whole soy sources
  • algae

The key is to get these foods in their whole form, as opposed to an energy bar with soy isolate or a processed vegetable burger with 50 ingredients.

If you avoid animal protein, newer evidence suggests it's not necessary to combine grains with proteins to form a “complete” protein — the gold standard that contains all 9 essential amino acids. Instead, simply having a variety of proteins and grains will do the job.

3. Consider fish as your protein of choice.

Plant-based proteins are wonderful but I often suggest 2-3 servings of fish every week as well.

Low mercury, fatty fish like salmon and sardines have numerous health benefits, especially in improving brain and heart health. One 5-ounce serving provides a whopping 25 grams of protein for a 4-ounce filet.

4. More is not better.

Protein needs vary by age, gender, activity level and health. For example, a 75-year-old man and a teenage girl may need more protein than a 45-year-old woman.

A recent report suggests that the recommendation daily allowance of .8 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight may be too low for the average American — but that doesn't mean we need to quadruple our intake.

In general, for someone with normal kidney function, a one-day protein binge of 200 grams or more won't be harmful. But eating lots of protein long-term can tax the kidneys and possibly increase risk of some cancers, according to research.

Perhaps the best way to quantify protein needs is through a percentage of total calories.

The Institute of Medicine recommends protein consumption to be 10-35 percent of total calories.

Another tip — space out protein through the day instead of loading up all of it in a big steak dinner. The key is, frequent consumption does not have to be paired with extra large servings.

For breakfast:

  • sprouted whole grain toast with nut butter for breakfast

For lunch:

  • ½ cup of cubed tofu on salad greens at lunch

For dinner:

  • 4-ounce piece of grilled salmon over quinoa

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Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat. For more diet and fitness advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter.

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