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Are you getting enough protein?

  • Story Highlights
  • Eating right kinds of protein could curb appetite and lower chronic disease risk
  • Government guidelines recommend eating 15 percent of calories from protein
  • Focus on lean, high-quality sources of protein like fish, poultry, beans, egg whites
By Maureen Callahan, R.D.
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Real Simple

Even if the low-carb diet craze ended up being a bit of a bust, the attention it focused on protein is a good thing. Researchers are taking a closer look at this often ignored nutrient and discovering its hidden health potential.

Eating enough of the right kind of protein may help curb appetite, improve heart health, and keep blood sugars in check.

Eating enough of the right kind of protein may help curb appetite, improve heart health, and keep blood sugars in check.

The gist of the latest research: generous amounts of the right kinds of protein --still within recommended levels but closer to the top of the optimal range experts recommend -- could curb appetite, improve heart health, and help lower risk for a laundry list of chronic ills. The key to unlocking benefits starts with taking a closer look at the quality and quantity of protein you eat.

The right kind of protein

Sure, a juicy T-bone steak will net you plenty of protein, about 53 grams for 8 ounces. Thing is, that protein package comes weighted down with 52 grams of fat, 20 grams of it the artery-clogging kind. To net the health-promoting benefits of protein, experts recommend tapping into lean, high quality choices: fish, skinless poultry, lean meat, egg whites, low fat dairy, and legumes. Real Simple: Make nutritious snacking choices on the go

How much protein is good? Government MyPyramid guidelines talk about eating about 15 percent of calories (68 grams for someone eating 1800 calories) from protein, a figure that is in line with what most Americans currently eat. The Institute of Medicine suggests as much as 35 percent of calories from protein is safe. Real Simple: 9 Healthy Predinner Snacks

Protein benefits

It's that upper end of the recommended range, in the neighborhood of 25-30 percent, that's keeping the scientific world all abuzz. At these higher levels, researchers find protein does everything from quench appetite to rev up fat burning to keep blood sugar and insulin levels on an even keel. A study from Johns Hopkins Medical Center finds that just shifting your diet to include a little more high-quality protein and a little less potatoes or rice could dramatically impact heart health. MyRecipes: 7 ways with black beans

Working on the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial to Prevent Heart Disease (Omni Heart), researchers found that people who replace just 10 percent of carb calories with protein (or a healthy fat like the monounsaturated variety) can significantly lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. RealSimple: 6 Ways to save on groceries

So far, this new thinking about protein is a work in progress. It doesn't change the fact that protein plays a role in grown and repair of all kinds of body tissues, including bone and muscle. These newer findings simply suggest the impact of protein on health is more far reaching than health experts first realized, and that perhaps protein is a key player in keeping the heart healthy, the blood sugar level, and appetite and weight all under control. As scientists debate the merits of all these provocative new findings, it's almost certain the 2010 Dietary Guidelines will include new advice about protein. MyRecipes: Go lean with protein

Protein advice

For now, don't worry about playing percentages or counting grams of protein. Instead, the best advice is twofold. Focus your fork on lean, high-quality sources of protein. And make sure to include them at every meal. Oh, and if weight loss is your goal, a little bigger serving of high quality protein is definitely in order. MyRecipes: 11 Simple ways to cut calories

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