Why Do We Need Protein in Our Diets?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

One of the buzzwords in diet circles these days is “protein.” High protein diets, we’re told, can help you lose weight and beat the effects of aging. Products on grocery store shelves—from frozen entrees to yogurt—tout their protein content.

But what exactly is protein? Why do we need it, and how much is best? Most importantly, what are good sources of protein for maintaining health?

These are great questions. Let’s dive in…

What Is Protein?

Protein, along with fats and carbohydrates, belongs to a class of dietary essentials called macronutrients. Without these nutrients, the body can’t function properly.

On the cellular level, proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids that can be broken down and reassembled in millions of different ways, to create different types of proteins and build different types of cells—each with its own unique purpose. Hence the nickname of amino acids: the “building blocks” of life.

The body can produce most of these amino acids it needs, but a small group called “essential” amino acids must be supplied by the foods we eat.

The best source of these essential amino acids is animal protein.

Animal protein is a “complete protein,” which means it contains all of the essential amino acids. Other protein sources do not, which is an important detail—especially if you’re a vegetarian. If you consume mostly protein that doesn’t come from animal products, you’ll need to combine various sources to make sure you have all of the essential amino acid bases covered.

A Healthy Diet Needs Healthy Proteins

With all of the things protein does to keep our bodies humming along, it makes sense to pack your diet with the best sources possible. But while the typical “American diet” is full of protein-rich foods, they aren’t necessarily good ones.

In fact, many of them are downright bad for you.

Fatty cuts of meat, fried or smothered in cheese; processed meats filled with cancer-causing nitrites; or rich dairy products loaded with added sugars can deliver protein, all right—but sometimes far too much, which can be hard on the kidneys.

These foods also tend to be high in things that place a toxic burden on the body and stoke inflammation, which contributes to heart disease and other chronic, progressive illnesses. Topping the list of villains are two ingredients often associated with protein-rich foods: sugar and fat. What’s more, conventionally produced meats also may contain antibiotic and steroid residues, growth hormones, and other kinds of medications that were given to an animal prior to slaughter.

Fortunately, it’s easy to correct both of these issues—eating the wrong kinds of proteins and exposing yourself to undesirable elements—by adopting the Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean diet (PAMM).

My PAMM Anti-Inflammatory Diet

PAMM makes it easy to get the right amount of the right protein-rich foods, along with fruits, vegetables, low-glycemic carbs, and healthy fats—all of which fight inflammation, support cellular energy production, and promote good health.

How Much Protein Should You Eat?

There are a lot of online calculators that claim they can help you find the right amount of protein for your weight and age, but I wouldn’t rely on them. Instead, I prefer to calculate the amount of protein in your diet as a percentage of your overall food intake.

In my opinion, the ideal amount of protein should add up to about 20 to 25 percent of your total diet. Then balance it with 30 to 40 percent healthy fats and 40 to 45 percent low-glycemic carbs.

Next, make sure you choose organic products and wild caught fish whenever possible, to avoid toxins and GMO (genetically modified) foods. Then make sure you cook them healthfully.

If your primary source of protein is meat, listen up—here are a few must-follow rules for you.

As far as preparation goes, I don’t like to cook meats at very high temperatures because doing so can produce carcinogens and other toxins. A better option is a quick sauté or grilling at lower temperatures.

For frying, use an organic oil with a high smoke point, like coconut or avocado oil. I’d avoid using canola oil. Even though it sounds healthy, the way it’s processed may expose you to harmful trans fats and other toxins.

Cold-pressed olive oil is my go-to choice for marinating and finishing meats and poultry. Even though it has no protein content of its own, it adds plenty of antioxidant nutrients, healthy monounsaturated fats, and neutral omega-9 fats to any meal. It’s a staple in Mediterranean culture, and a staple of the PAMM diet, too. I especially love using olive oils that have been flavored “the fused way”  – by crushing fresh herbs, fruits or peppers with fresh olives. As you can see in this video, crushed flavored olive oils are a quick and simple way to bring fresh, succulent flavors to the table. 

What About Vegetarians?

Earlier I mentioned that choosing the right proteins was especially important for vegetarians and vegans.

If you’re one of these folks, getting enough complete proteins can be a challenge. Be sure to prioritize foods such as tofu (made from soybeans), tempeh (made from fermented soybeans) and seitan (from wheat gluten, if you’re not sensitive), along with grains like quinoa and buckwheat. They have the full complement of essential amino acids.

It’s also possible to get all of the essential amino acids by combining other protein sources, such as beans and rice, or hummus and pita. You don’t necessarily have to get a complete set of amino acids at every meal, or in every food. Just make sure you meet the cumulative total for the day.

You can even get your protein in healthy snacks, like cheese, a handful of nuts, or organic beef jerky that’s free of additives, GMO ingredients, and artificial colors and flavoring.

Protein is one of the most fundamental and vital nutrients we need for health. Make sure you fuel your body with the best sources to keep it running in tip-top shape.


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