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Protein: What, why and how

We’ve all heard that protein is an essential part of a healthy diet. But it can be tricky to understand what protein is, what foods contain it and how much of it we need.

Basic facts about protein

Protein is one of three macronutrients that give us calories, or energy. The other two macronutrients are fats and carbohydrates. Protein is found in animal products – like fish, poultry, meat and dairy – as well as nuts, legumes and some grains. We need to eat protein every day.

Most of us know that protein is essential for building muscle, but it’s also vital to your brain and heart.

Protein provides the amino acids that make up our neurotransmitters, which carry signals from brain cell to brain cell. If you don’t get enough protein in your diet, your memory and mental agility can decrease.

Studies suggest that eating proteins like fish, beans, poultry, nuts and low-fat dairy, rather than high-fat meats, helps prevent heart disease.

Types of protein and the importance of variety

You can get protein from many different sources, like meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, beans, lentils, tofu and some grains. And it’s healthy to try to get your dietary protein from a variety of different sources, not, for instance, always chicken or always meat.

Tips for choosing protein

When choosing protein, variety is important. Try to eat at least two servings of fish each week and include beans, lentils and tofu as a regular component of your diet. Choose lean meats and keep your portion sizes to about 4 oz (the size of the palm of your hand).

Some examples of foods with protein are:

  • beans and lentils
  • nuts (eat a variety of nuts for the most benefit)
  • lower-fat dairy and alternatives (choose from a variety of dairy products including yogurt, milk or fortified soy beverage, cottage cheese and low-fat cheese)
  • lean meat and game, poultry and fish.

When choosing foods with protein, keep these tips in mind:

  • Lentils are high in protein and are economical They come dried or canned: dried lentils require just 15-35 minutes to cook. When using canned lentils, be sure to drain and rinse them before adding to your recipe.
  • Beans are also economical and come dried or canned. Dried beans need to be soaked for a long time (4-8 hours) and then cooked for 1.5-2 hours. As with lentils, drain and rinse beans them before using.
  • Beans and lentils are perfect for stews, soups, salads, and dips like hummus*Nuts make a great snack or addition to salad.  One serving is ¼ cup (50 mL).
  • Plain Greek yogurt is a great addition to breakfast because it has more protein per serving than plain yogurt. Just mix it with fresh or frozen fruit and top it with granola or raw oatmeal.
  • When preparing lean meats and poultry, take the skin off and trim any excess fat before cooking. When preparing fish, stick to smaller, non- predatory fish such as pickerel and mackerel. Try to eat a variety of different kinds of fish. (Make this easy by choosing differently coloured fish). Fish can be expensive, but you can save money by buying in bulk and cutting and freezing portions for up to six months.

*Homemade hummus is preferred when available. When buying hummus at the grocery store, look for plain hummus, which will have less salt then flavoured varieties.

Resources

Healthy recipes