To your health: A few thoughts about protein-packed foods

To your health: A few thoughts about protein-packed foods

By Leia Kedem

Taking a look at grocery shelves, you'd think Americans were starving for protein.

Perhaps we are, but our hunger is not literal. Just a few years ago, calcium was all the rage, and more recently, fiber and antioxidants. Protein is now the nutrient du jour, and food companies have jumped on this trend by rolling out protein-fortified granola bars and cereal to smoothies and even water. But do we truly need all that protein?

There's no doubt about it, protein is essential for good health. It's most closely associated with muscle mass, but protein also is needed for immunity, growth, hormone production and many more bodily functions.

Protein also can be a helpful addition to your weight maintenance toolbox, as including protein with meals and snacks can help keep you full and satisfied for longer. And it helps prevent blood sugar spikes to keep your mood and energy on an even keel.

It's easy to see why one would assume that more protein is better. Plus, simply advertising a product as having more of a certain nutrient implies that we aren't getting enough. No wonder we're inclined to toss the high-protein bread in the cart.

In actuality, most of us are getting more than enough protein. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average American adult takes in more than double their recommended protein intake. This is not surprising because the typical American enjoys liberal amounts of protein-rich foods like meat and dairy.

It's important to remember that protein needs are not one-size-fits-all. They are different based on several factors like weight and activity level. Most moderately active people need 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. With this in mind, a 170 pound man (about 77 kilograms — there are 2.2 pounds in 1 kilogram) would need about 62 grams of protein every day to help build and repair muscle and meet his body's needs. That's not a whole lot.

What if he wanted to build more muscle mass? It's commonly thought that getting extra protein will help us bulk up, but that's not completely true. We do need protein to build muscle, but not as much as you might think. Extra calories are stored as fat regardless of where they come from. So even if you are regularly active, that after-workout protein shake may not be necessary if you already consume a balanced diet.

A little extra protein is not necessarily a bad thing for most people. But since we're already getting more than enough, adding even more might be overkill. Yes, protein-fortified foods can be tasty and convenient, and they can indeed be helpful for those who have trouble getting enough protein. But for most of us, they're just something else we don't really need.

If you are interested in learning more about your personal nutritional requirements, check out the USDA's SuperTracker at http://www.supertracker.usda.gov.

Leia Kedem is a nutrition and wellness educator with the University of Illinois Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 333-7672 or at lweston2@illinois.edu.

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