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Lean protein an essential energy source to help you feel full longer: dietitian

03/19/2012 04:06 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - We all need protein in our diets, whether we are growing children, office workers chained to a desk or personal trainers helping people achieve their fitness goals. Yet some Canadians might not be aware of where in the food chain to get this important nutrient.

Registered dietitian Carol Harrison recommends eating protein at every meal. The amount varies depending on activity level, weight, height and age.

Protein helps build lean muscle mass and improve immune function, and can help you feel full longer.

"Protein is one of the macro nutrients that our bodies require because it provides the building blocks of those amino acids that our bodies then will use to create our own protein. It also can be a source of energy," says Harrison.

"We'll break down those proteins into those amino acids, then resequence them and turn them into hair and nails and muscle and tissue, but also things like hormones and enzymes as well which sometimes people don't realize."

Having protein at each meal can help moderate blood glucose levels after you're finished eating. "Having fewer spikes in your blood glucose is definitely helpful for people living with diabetes," says Harrison.

She suggests following the "healthy plate" model at each meal — half of your plate is vegetables and fruits, one-quarter is lean protein choices and one-quarter is grains, preferably whole grains. "And when you think about a lot of people's plates, it's usually a little less vegetables, a little more grains, not always whole grains, and sometimes the protein piece gets squeezed a little bit."

Canada's Food Guide recommends 10 to 35 per cent of our daily calories come from protein, which translates to 50 to 175 grams of protein per day.

"Most Canadians are at about 17 per cent. That's the average. So we're at the low end of that recommended range," says Harrison, a registered dietitian based in Toronto.

Animal sources — lean beef, pork, chicken, fish and eggs — "are all nutrient rich, so you get protein as well as a whole host of other vitamins and minerals."

To keep them lean, bake, broil or barbecue. Add flavour with herbs, onions, garlic, chutney or salsa as opposed to adding fat.

Legumes, nuts, lower-fat cheeses, cottage cheese, soy beverages and yogurt are good sources of protein and you can get smaller amounts of protein from whole grains, breads, rice, pasta and cereal.

"We've had a bit of an explosion of yogurt in the dairy case in the last while with all the Greek yogurts. They generally have about twice as much protein as regular yogurt and they can be lower in fat so you get that satisfying creamy yogurt taste that's higher in protein and my tip there would just be to check the brands for ones that are higher in protein and lower in fat because there is a bit of a range," says Harrison.

Vegetarians also need protein from a variety of sources. "Most vegetarians are lacto-ovo so they will be including eggs, so they are getting some animal protein sources which are the complete protein so it will have all the essential amino acids. Soy is complete as well."

Vegans can get a variety from legumes, nuts, seeds, and items like quinoa.

"For a teen dabbling with vegetarianism, it's not a matter of cutting the meats but replacing it with a really good source of protein such as beans, legumes, lentils."

And that's not just a sprinkling of a few beans, she adds. Canada's Food Guide recommends 175 ml (3/4 cup) for one serving as a substitute for meat.

Here are ways to incorporate healthy protein into your daily food intake.

BREAKFAST

Scramble an egg in a mug in the microwave in about a minute. Or hard-boil some eggs and they will keep for about a week in the fridge.

Peanut butter is affordable and portable. "Put some on toast or on a bagel or in a tortilla wrap with a banana or any kind of sliced fruit. Again you could take that to go."

Toss nuts and seeds over Greek yogurt. "You have the higher-protein yogurt and you've got some nuts and seeds over top and balance it out with some fruit and you have three food groups."

Boost a smoothie with protein supplements or use skim-milk powder as a low-cost alternative. You can also spoon skim-milk powder into spaghetti sauce or milkshakes and even into yogurt.

LUNCH

"I like to cook roasts and have leftovers for sandwiches. It slices up really nice and it's a good lean choice as well," says Harrison.

Other ideas: Tuna or egg salad, fish, leftover shrimp, bean salad, couscous with beans and vegetables, hummus or black bean dip spread in a pita with shredded vegetables. Drink a glass of milk.

DINNER

Slice beef, pork, chicken, salmon or tuna over a salad. Serve a hearty stew, a bean and beef burrito, chili, minestrone or dahl, which is lentils and some vegetables.

Firm tofu can be diced into soups and stir-fries or it can be marinated and grilled.

"If people are new to tofu, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. You can still have your beef stir-fry, but throw a few cubes of tofu into it or add some tofu to a soup that you're making so that you're not feeling you have to try a whole new recipe or even completely new different way."

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