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But what's the right way to get your protein, and how do you sort out the smorgasbord of products on store shelves? Here are guidelines that can help.
How much protein do you need?
The daily recommendation for adult women is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 47 grams for a 59 kg (130 lb.) woman. But that count is currently under scrutiny, as recent research from the University of Texas shows we may better preserve our muscles and bones by consuming 30 grams of protein (a serving that fits the palm of your hand) at each one of our three meals. Unfortunately, many North Americans focus only on dinner for their protein. "For the women I know, breakfast tends to fall off the map in terms of protein – they're eating bagels or muffins," Wallace says. "At lunch, a lot of women grab salads. They don't necessarily include a protein." (For easy and healthy breakfast ideas click here.)
Can you have too much?
Aiming higher than 30 grams per meal won't give you any extra benefit. And it may harm you, especially if you have kidney disease or other health disorders. A high-protein diet can also mean you're not getting enough carbohydrates and fibre. Contrary to what you might believe, folks who are physically active don't need more protein that someone who's sedentary. But very high-level athletes who train for several hours a day, as well as women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, do need to step up their protein intake.
Which proteins should you pick?
Whether it's meat, vegetarian-friendly proteins or store-bought supplements, there are pros and cons to every option. Check out these choices:
Pros: Meats like chicken, beef and seafood are complete proteins. When you eat meat, chances are you're getting all your essential amino acids in a single serving.
Cons: Meats can be high in unhealthy saturated fats. Certain meats, like ham, can also be high in sodium.
Bottom line: "Choose lean proteins with less animal fat," says Wallace. "Take the skin off your chicken, or choose fish more often."
Pros: Plant-based protein like nuts, legumes and soy, and dairy products like milk, are all healthy protein alternatives for people who don't eat meat. (Of course, non-vegetarians need these foods in their diet, too.)
Cons: Except for soy, plant proteins tend to be low in some amino acids, so they're not considered complete proteins.
Bottom line: If you don't eat meat, it's important to include a good variety of plant proteins in your diet. "Pair things up together, like grains with legumes," Wallace says.
Pros: Protein bars and powders are convenient, no question. You can grab them on the run. They often contain all your essential amino acids. And there are many options, such as soy, hemp, rice, casein or whey. They're all relatively similar in protein quality, so they can suit people with different preferences.
Cons: It costs a lot to rely on packaged products for your protein intake. And some of these are loaded with sugars or fat. Plus if reaching for supplements means you end up eating fewer whole foods, you may be missing out on other essential nutrients. "There are so many other things in whole foods that can benefit us, not just the protein," Wallace says.
Bottom line: Better a protein product than no protein at all. Just read your labels. "For a quick meal replacement for clients on the go," says Wallace, "I'd rather them eat a protein bar than have nothing, and gorge later."