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Nutrition 101: Protein by Teodora Touzharova

Protein is one of three main macronutrients that our body needs. It is the basic building block of cells and tissues. We need protein for growth and tissue repair, for making hormones and enzymes, for collagen formation, for muscle mass, to regulate fluid and pH balance, and for energy when carbohydrates are not immediately available. In short, we need protein for a lot of bodily processes and functions so getting enough good quality protein is essential to our health and wellness.

How do we get protein?

We can get protein both from animal and plant sources. Animal protein sources, such as red meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy, are called complete protein sources because they contain all the essential amino acids. Some of the amino acids can be synthesized by our bodies on their own, while we need to get others externally from our diet. The latter are called essential, not because they are more important than the others, but because it’s essential that our diet provides them. There are nine essential amino acids.

Plants contain different amounts of essential amino acids and despite popular belief one can get all the protein and all essential amino acids needed from plant sources. Examples of complete plant protein sources are quinoa, soybeans and chia seeds. However, all plant foods contain some of the essential amino acids (and traces of most of the others), so eating a variety of plant-based foods (legumes, grains, leafy greens, fruit, etc.) can provide all the essential amino acids your body needs.

So while we tend to think that we need meat and dairy to obtain the protein we need, in reality a diverse combination of whole grains, legumes and vegetables can provide more than enough protein with less calories and fat. Another benefit of obtaining some or all of the protein needed from plant sources is that plant protein provides us with numerous other nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber. A diet rich in plant-based foods also will reduce one’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer.

How much protein do we need?

How much protein one needs depends on age, physical activity, weight and other factors. As a general rule of thumb, the recommended daily amount of protein is about 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound of weight. So an adult who weighs 140 pounds (and is not trying to lose or gain weight) needs about 50 grams of protein a day. Athletes and pregnant and nursing women need more. A six-ounce broiled porterhouse steak has about 40 grams of protein, or 80 percent of the RDA for a 140 pound adult. It also has 38 grams of fat whereas a cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein and just 1 gram of fat. Other options include a cup of milk which has 8 grams of protein, a cup of cooked quinoa which has 8 grams of protein and is cholesterol-free, or a quarter cup of chia seeds which has 6 grams of protein and more than half of the recommended daily fiber.

For most of us, getting enough protein is not an issue. What’s important is in the way we get the protein. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises that “rather than just focusing on your protein needs, choose an overall healthy eating plan that provides the protein you need as well as other nutrients.”

Teodora Touzharova is a local holistic health coach and registered yoga teacher. She offers one-on-one and group health coaching. She also teaches yoga classes in locations throughout Orange County. She can be reached by visiting LuminouslyHealthy.com or calling 646-510-1797.

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