Protein is the latest hip food supplement, appearing in everything from weight-loss shakes to pasta. Protein is marketed as vital to our health and well-being, and this is true.
High protein foods satisfy you for longer than high carbohydrate foods, making them essential to include at every meal, especially if you want to lose weight.
But where's the best place to get the protein you need?
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks for muscles, the immune and nervous systems, the organs (including skin), even hair.
Our bodies can't produce nine of the essential amino acids, so we must get them from food.
Where to find it
Americans are famous for our love of meat. Animal products (including eggs) are a wonderful source of protein, but for health, cost and, for some people, ethical reasons, you might not want to make it your sole source of protein.
After ingesting animal protein, the body produces a byproduct called uric acid, and this can be a real problem if you are prone to attacks of gout.
Also, while a thick steak has a lot of protein, it also has a lot of fat, which is good neither for heart health nor weight control. So it's important to choose lean cuts and varieties of beef, pork, chicken and fish, and watch your portions. But even the leanest cuts still can have quite a bit of fat so it's not a good idea to depend on meat as your sole protein source.
Dairy, especially plain (not fruit-flavored) Greek yogurt and cottage cheese are great sources of protein. They do not increase uric acid and are generally not high in sugars, which can interfere with weight-loss goals. Unfortunately lactose sensitivities are on the rise so dairy may not be right for all.
Vegetable proteins vary in the amount of amino acids they contain, and must be combined (such as legumes and whole grains) to provide a more complete protein. For convenience, many people prefer using grains that can be quickly cooked and therefore are more processed. In general, the more processed the food, the less nutritionally complete it is.
Powdered protein supplements don't have living cells, instead getting their amino acids from protein isolates. Weight lifters love to debate whether whey, soy or egg whites are the best source of protein, but they all have their pluses and minuses.
Protein supplements can be a good choice, especially for those with gout and dairy sensitivities. But always read the labels closely; Many of the supplements are made for body builders and may have far too many calories for an individual who is not active. Even products advertised as "low carb" bars may contain as much as 16 to 26 grams of carbohydrates, equivalent to 4 to 7 teaspoons of sugar.
So if you're watching your weight, look for protein supplements with fewer than 10 grams of carbohydrates per serving. You may also want to contact the company and inquire about the essential amino acid composition of their products. The higher their content the better quality protein it is. If you want details, just Google "essential amino acids.''
The right amount
Your protein requirement depends on your age, gender, size and how active you are. You can find a good online calculator at www.healthcalculators.org/calculators/protein.asp.
For instance, a 40-year-old woman who is 5 feet 5, has a medium frame and is moderately active would need 78 grams of protein a day. You could get that much from a half-cup of nonfat cottage cheese (15 grams), 3 ounces of chicken breast (25 grams), a cup of lentils over a half-cup of brown rice (21 grams) and a 6-ounce cup of plain Greek yogurt (18 grams).
But on days when you find yourself too busy to put together this kind of healthy fare, a good protein supplement can be just what you need to meet your protein needs.
Dr. Katarzyna "Kasia'' Ostrzenska is medical director of Bay Medical Center in St. Petersburg and is board certified in internal medicine.