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Understanding Food Labels: Protein

Getting enough protein in the American diet really isn’t as hard as you think.  The amount of protein needed by the body is not as much as some would have you believe.  Most Americans get enough protein PLUS SOME.  But let’s start at the beginning.

Proteins are part of every cell in the body.  They are called “building blocks” because they make up cell walls, bone, muscle, blood vessels (and the blood inside them), hormones and more.  The body is constantly breaking down body proteins and replacing them.  For that reason, you need to replenish protein on a daily basis by eating foods that contain protein.

Some people believe that protein is only found in animal foods.  That is just not true – remember that protein is a part of every cell, so even plant foods contain some.  When you eat animal meats such as beef, poultry and fish, you are actually eating the muscle of the animal.  For this reason, the protein content is higher and called a “complete protein”.  But in the same vein, you also can eat less and easily meet your body’s needs (which is what a lot of people tend to forget).

To be considered a complete protein, a food must contain each of the eight essential amino acids.

It may be more challenging to get enough protein as a vegetarian, but it can easily be accomplished by eating beans, tofu, eggs and milk (if you are lacto-ovo vegetarian), and grains.  Usually these foods are missing at least one amino acid and are called “incomplete protein”.  However, if you are missing one amino acid (say, corn is missing lysine) and you eat another source of that amino acid (beans), you complete the protein profile.

OK, so how do you know how much protein to get each day?  You can estimate your personal needs by using the following equation:

  • First, find your weight in kilograms by dividing your weight in pounds by 2.2.
  • Take that result and multiply by 0.8-1.0 to get an estimate on the number of grams of protein to consume in a day.  *Keep in mind that if you are overweight, this will overestimate protein needs – protein is only used by lean tissue.
  • Example:  for a 175 pound man (79.5 kg), it can be estimated that he needs 80 grams a day (rounding up).

If you have already calculated your calorie needs, you can estimate protein needs another way – by calculating 20% of your total calories for protein.  Then divide that number by 4.  Example:  2000 calories x .20 = 400 calories in protein divided by 4 calories per gram = 100 grams of protein per day.

With protein, keep in mind that unless you are a professional athlete or serious body builder (or are pregnant, underweight, or a growing child), more is not always better.  Getting 2.0 grams per kilogram versus 1.0 g/kg is not going to build muscle unless you have a situation where you need dietary sources to build or rebuild tissue.  Excess protein, like excess carbs or fat, will be converted and stored as fat.

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