Protein: the Trendy Nutrient

What is it and how much do you really need?

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Back in the 70s, fads like the Atkins and Stillman diets were based upon a solid foundation of protein foods – while shunning carbs as if they were poisonous. Protein developed a reputation as the nutrient that contained calories you didn’t have to count; you could eat all you wanted without gaining weight. This, of course, is not the case. The weight loss that resulted from these diets came more from the carbs that were ditched than the protein that was ingested. Yes, protein does have calories, and a steak bigger than the size of your plate, even when not accompanied by a baked potato, can pack on the pounds as easily as any other food. The old "eat your meat and leave the potatoes" approach may not have been the best advice parents gave us. Today, protein plays a great role as a side dish – accompanied by whole grains, with veggies and fruit as the stars of the plate.

Research still underscores the importance of protein in the diet, but the problem is that many of us are confused about why we need protein, how much we need, where it appears in our diet and the best sources. So let's break it down:

What is protein?

Every body part contains protein, one of the main, or macro nutrients that gives your body energy. Different proteins are made up of combinations of amino acids that are regularly broken down and reassembled to repair and replenish cells.

[Read: Top-Rated Diets Overall.]

How much do you need?

Most of us are likely to eat more than enough protein without even trying. Steak houses and diners provide portions of protein that look as big as a serving of the Flintstones' brontosaurus bones. Restaurant diners confuse value with volume, making the assumption that if you want to make the most of your money, the portions served should be worth your while. True value, however, lies in quality, not quantity. Below is a chart highlighting protein requirements based upon age and gender:

Recommended Dietary Allowance for Protein
Age Range Grams of Protein Needed Daily
Children ages 1 - 3 13
Children ages 4 - 8 19
Children ages 9 - 13 34
Girls ages 14 - 18 46
Boys ages 14 - 18 52
Women ages 19 - 70+ 46
Men ages 19 - 70+ 56

As an important frame of reference, you should know that 1 ounce of protein is equivalent to around 7 grams of protein.

This fact becomes particularly important when comparing our needs to the labels foods wear. Energy bars that claim to be a good source of protein – yet contain just a gram or two – are basically bogus, and if sugar appears at the top of their ingredient list, this bar will more likely zap your energy than provide it.

Here are examples of amounts of protein in food:

  • 1 cup (8 ounces) of milk has 8 grams of protein.
  • A 3-ounce piece of meat (the size of a deck of cards) has about 21 grams of protein.
  • 1 cup of dry beans has about 16 grams of protein.
  • An 8-ounce container of yogurt has about 11 grams of protein, and Greek yogurt really packs a protein punch with double that amount.

[Read: Unusual Uses for Greek Yogurt .]

Where does protein appear?

Protein is plentiful in our food supply. There is protein in animal products, such as meat, poultry, eggs and fish; in dairy products such as cheese, milk and yogurt; and in plant foods such as tofu, beans, peas and nuts and seeds. Quinoa is a grain that is also rich in protein, with other grains providing smaller – but still important – amounts. In general, 10 to 35 percent of your daily calories should be derived from protein sources.

It's best to include lean protein like white instead of dark meat chicken, as well as cuts of meat where fat isn't surrounding the meat like a moat around a castle. Leaner sources will give you the best bang for your buck without including as much harmful saturated fat and cholesterol.

By starting your day with a protein-packed meal, such as an omelet or yogurt with added nuts, you'll likely stabilize your blood sugar levels and feel satisfied until lunchtime.

[Read: High-Protein Breakfast Ideas.]

Why should you add some protein today?

Including protein in your meals and snacks will help you squelch hunger until your next meal. Satiety is key to preventing unnecessary between-meal snacking, as well as weight gain caused by overeating. For example, a dinner consisting of a small amount of pasta with veggies will not stick to your ribs as readily as that same dish with some cubes of chicken, grated cheese or beans added to it.

The bottom line is that the protein portion of your plate should take up about 25 percent of its real estate. If that amount seems smaller than you're accustomed to eating, it could be that excess protein is one reason you're holding onto excess pounds.