How to Add Healthy Protein to Your Diet

How to Add Healthy Protein to Your Diet

Proteins are essential building blocks for muscles, internal organs, blood cells, hormones, enzymes, and disease-fighting antibodies. Weight-loss diets packed with protein are touted just about everywhere, and they really can help you shed pounds. But a new report that you shouldn’t ignore uncovers long-term risks of eating a diet loaded with animal protein: Eating even what’s a moderate amount (for many of you) of beef, pork, and lunch meats quadruples your odds for fatal cancer.

University of Southern California researchers recently announced the folks who were at highest risk for deadly cancers were eating 100 grams (3.5oz) or more of meat protein daily on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet! And a heavy meat habit in middle age boosts cancer risk just as much as smoking. In fact, it triples or quadruples the odds for an earlier death by 74 percent.   

Related: Does eating animal protein cause heart disease?

These findings join a wave of new science suggesting that the type of protein and amount of protein you choose to eat can be a health bomb or a healthy boost.

Here are the best ways to put tasty, satisfying protein on your plate, worry-free:

Right-size your protein.  Stick with the Institute of Medicine guidelines -- 46 grams of protein a day for women, 56 for men -- it will help control appetite. (Some government surveys estimate the average American adult eats 69-113 grams of protein a day—and you can bet it mostly comes from meat!) On a daily basis, you want to aim for the amount of protein found in a four-ounce salmon filet; an ounce of nuts, especially walnuts—the only nuts with omega-3’s; 8 ounces of skim milk; two tablespoons of pure peanut butter; and a little bit in whole grains and veggies—plus a cup of oatmeal for the guys. You may need more if you’re extremely active, over age 65, or if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. 

Cut way back on red and processed meat. Saturated-fat packed red meats put you at risk for heart-stopping atherosclerosis—but that’s not the only way they threaten your cardiovascular system and other vital bodily functions. They also contain carnitine, lecithin, and choline—amino acids that are transformed into TMAO (or trimethylamine n-oxide) by intestinal bacteria when you eat egg yolks, processed meats, beef and pork. TMAOs increase your risk for heart attack, stroke, memory loss, and cancer, not to mention more wrinkles, poorer orgasm quality, and impotence. And stay away from the nitrite preservatives found in bacon, lunchmeat, ham and sausage. They raise your blood pressure and make arteries less flexible. 

  • Great on your plate (less than 4 ounces, once a week): Grass-fed beef has higher levels of good-for-you omega-3 fatty acids. Enjoy it, by adding a little to stir-fries, skewering it with veggies, or adding to chili and casseroles.

- Choose other animal proteins wisely. There are animal proteins that deliver healthy nutrients: Fish like salmon and ocean trout provide heart-smart, brain-friendly DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Skinless chicken and turkey breasts deliver plenty of protein with little saturated fat.

  • Great on your plate: Stick with smart portions (about the size of a deck of cards.)

Go meatless more often. Beans, soy products like tofu and tempeh—well-flavored with healthy spices and herbs, and nuts are satisfying alternatives to meat.

  • Great on your plate: Three ounces of animal protein provides 15-27 grams (g) of protein. From plant sources: 1 cup cooked lentils=18g; ½ cup tofu=20g; 1 cup cooked black beans=15g; 1 cup cooked bulgur wheat=5g; 1 cup cooked quinoa=11g; 2T peanut butter=8g; 1cup cooked spinach or broccoli=about 5g.

- Have some protein at every meal. Don’t wait for dinner. Spreading your protein out over the day helps muscles make the most of it, especially as you age.

  • Great on your plate: Add nuts to your salad or cereal. Use eggs whites for that morning omelet. Spread peanut, almond, or walnut butter on sandwiches. Dig into a bowl of fresh fruit and nonfat, no-sugar-added Greek yogurt for dessert.

Related: Pantry-Friendly Sources of Healthy Protein 

Medically reviewed in October 2019.

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