I truly love talking about food. Which foods I like and don’t like, why we need different foods to stay healthy, comparing notes with my friends on which new foods we have tried. The list is endless. I mean, we have to have food to live, right?
Perhaps it was this love of talking about food that guided me into my chosen field of dietetics almost 25 years ago. I have been a registered dietitian for 18 years, specializing in the field of pediatrics. Working in the clinical setting for many years, I was energized and excited by the teams of medical staff with whom I interacted. It was very fulfilling to know that the work I did was aimed at helping patients recover, recuperate and eventually, go home. When I was expecting my first child, I realized that it might be a good time to take leave of hospital work, and begin my own practice. This would give me the chance to serve children and families and the community for the long-term. It’s hard to believe now, but that was almost eleven years ago.
Over the years, I have learned quite a bit about creating a balanced, healthy, enticing meal plan – not just for kids, but for grownups as well. One of the things that became so clear to me many years ago is, as a nation, we love our carbohydrates. It is sometimes an inner struggle to turn down those extra helpings of yummy crackers, rice, pasta, bagels, breads, fruit juices, or French fries. Don’t get me wrong – carbs are a critical and necessary part of our diet. We need them to give us energy, to fuel our muscles, and to feed our brains and bodies. But over the past few decades the American meal has transformed into one of carbohydrates as the central focus, accompanied by other foods that may or may not contain lean, quality protein, and heart-healthy fats.
Here’s the problem with this scenario: Carbohydrates are digested more easily and quicker than proteins and fats. We may initially feel full after this carbohydrate and calorie-laden meal, but in an hour or two, we may feel sleepy, cranky, or run-down. We might even feel like we need something to munch on to perk us up again. The carbohydrates that were not needed by our bodies at the time get broken down and stored in our fat cells to be used later. But in the meantime, we may have eaten more food to try to boost our energy level again. Very often we grab quick carbs for a pick-me-up: crackers, pretzels, juice, graham crackers, and the like. And so continues this vicious cycle.
What we want to do is bring more quality protein into our meals and snacks. Protein not only fuels our bodies and muscles and helps young bodies grow, but it also helps us feel fuller longer. This is because it takes our bodies longer to digest protein than it does carbohydrates. With this longer digestion time comes a more even, sustained energy level, without the ups and downs of a high carbohydrate intake.
Now, how to improve our intake of high-quality protein? And is there a way to figure out if we are getting the right amount of protein each day?
1. Where can we find good protein sources?
There are five groups of good protein sources: milk products – including skim or 1 percent milk, low-fat cheeses, low-fat yogurt and cottage cheese; meat and fish – including lean and skinless poultry, 90 percent (or higher) lean ground beef or turkey, turkey bacon and sausage, turkey pepperoni, lean deli meats, most any kind of seafood and shellfish that is not fried or bathed in butter; eggs – the whites are where the protein is, but the yolk is a super source of iron and many important vitamins and minerals; nuts – including peanut butter, peanuts; almonds, pecans, walnuts, cashews are all great (the macadamia nut is the one to avoid because of its high saturated fat content); and finally, legumes – including kidney beans, black beans, and chick peas.
2. How should we incorporate protein into meals?
Here’s one approach: Try to aim for at least two protein choices at each meal, and at least one protein choice at each snack. Use the groupings above to guide you. There are, of course, many other foods that are also good protein sources (like seeds, tofu, and yes, even pasta), but the groups above are a general guideline to help you get started. Kids can use this same guideline as adults, but their portion sizes should be much smaller.
3. How much protein do I need each day?
This question does depend on a few factors, such as how active you are, and if you are a young child or fully grown adult, but here are some guidelines that should help: Children need about 1.5 to 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight; older children about 1.0 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram; adults about .8 to 1.0 grams of protein per kilogram; athletes/active adults about 1.2 to 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram. To convert your weight into kilograms, take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2. If you are extremely underweight or obese, these calculations are done a bit differently. For example: a woman weighing 130 lbs. Should shoot for about 59 grams of protein a day. (130 divided by 2.2 equals 59.09); a child weighing 80 lbs. Should aim for at least 37 grams of protein a day. (80 divided by 2. 2. Equals 36.36
4. How do you tally your protein intake?
Use the labels on food packages and drinks when possible. You want to look at the serving size, the grams of protein in one serving, and compare that to the amount you ate or drank. For example, an 8-ounce glass of milk has 8 grams of protein; you just drank 12 ounces. Therefore, that 1 glass of milk provided you with 12 grams of protein.
5. How worried should I be if my family isn’t getting enough protein?
Don’t beat yourself up. Think of this as a great opportunity to make positive changes and better choices. Whatever you do, I urge you not to obsess about label reading and doing protein math every time you or your family eats something.
So much of creating a healthy diet comes down to balance. The goal is to have the majority of our diet consist of a variety of foods from various food groups, and to avoid going too heavy with any single food grouping. Making sure you’ve got enough protein throughout your day can make a huge difference in your energy level, stamina, and focus.