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Find out how protein keeps you lean and healthy. Plus, check out portable and delicious options
If you’re looking for a quick, inexpensive meal near your office or at the mall, it’s difficult to find fish or chicken that isn’t buried in batter, deep fried beyond recognition, drowned in gooey sauce (with lots of sugar–yum) and quite likely stuffed into an oversized white bun. Looking at such a giant sandwich, it’s hard to imagine that the little portion of protein within holds the key to a lean, healthy body–if only it could escape!
Our passion for “value” meals is partially to blame. Although naked lean proteins, tastefully seasoned or marinated and accompanied by fresh vegetables, can be delicious, they don’t have celebrity status in the world of convenient, fast foods.
Even “healthy” protein sources can be deceiving. Take yogurt: The abundant sugar flavoring can far outweigh its benefits. Unflavored Greek yogurt is a richer protein source and to satisfy a sweet tooth, stevia
in a variety of flavors can make it tasty without sugar. It’s less convenient to mix your own, but that little bit of extra effort creates true value.
The Appetite Solution
Weight gain underlies most of today’s health problems, from diabetes and heart disease to osteoarthritis and premature aging, and protein is a key part of the solution. However, it’s really beneficial only when it isn’t adulterated with hazardous trimmings.
“Everyone is fixated on calories, but I believe that eating less and exercising more is wrong. It doesn’t work,” says Jorge Cruise, author of The Belly Fat Cure. “The real secret is avoiding hidden sugar, and protein is very beneficial to weight loss, anti-aging and health because, whether it’s from an animal or vegetable source, it has very little or no hidden sugar at all.”
Unlike carbohydrates and sugar, says Cruise, “Protein is so powerful because it really causes your body to become satiated very quickly, and it’s not something we’re prone to overeating.” People don’t usually find themselves uncontrollably binging on chicken or eggs. However, he points out, “Carbs and sugar do the opposite–they cause you to feel more hungry.”
At thebellyfatcure.com, Cruise offers free meal plans and shopping lists. Rather than recommending a “diet” in the traditional sense, his strategy is to eliminate hidden sugars, not generally limit amounts of lean proteins and non-starchy vegetables, always include healthy fats and, as options, enjoy some sweet treats and/or wine.
What Protein Does
Protein is one of three “macronutrients,” food components we require in large quantities (carbohydrates and fats are the others), in contrast to “micronutrients,” vitamins and minerals we need in small quantities. Only protein provides amino acids, the building blocks that make up muscles and are essential for ongoing tissue repair throughout our bodies.
We lose muscle with age, and protein is a vital nutrient to slow down the process, which typically includes loss of strength, an increase in body fat and, in later years, frailty that leads to falls and inability to perform daily tasks we take for granted, such as getting out of bed and taking a shower.
Protein is also necessary for the production of enzymes and hormones; healthy immune function that enables us to resist bugs, from the common cold to more serious illnesses; and normal growth and development of children and babies in the womb. Among America’s thin minority, women and the elderly are most prone to not getting enough, speeding up muscle loss and aging.
Studies that tested different types of weight-loss approaches have found that compared to carbohydrate-rich diets, those with a higher percentage of protein lead to more weight loss, with more fat loss and less loss of muscle. This holds true when both types of diets have the same number of calories.
For example, researchers at the University of Florida analyzed 87 studies that compared results of different types of eating regimens for weight loss. Their conclusions, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, show that people following high-protein, low-carbohydrate plans for more than 12 weeks lost over 14 pounds more than those eating the same number of calories on a high-carbohydrate plan. And, the high-protein approach preserved more muscle.
According to research presented at a Health & Fitness Summit & Exposition of the American College of Sports Medicine, compared to carbohydrates and fats, proteins require more effort to be broken down, burning extra calories during digestion. As a result, simply substituting protein for other macronutrients can, by itself, cause some weight loss.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
If achieving or maintaining a healthy, lean body is you goal, exercise is definitely part of the equation, and the amount of protein you require depends on the intensity and type of physical activity.
“Protein needs increase in proportion to muscle breakdown during exercise,” says Mike Bracko, EdD, an exercise physiologist and director of the Occupational Performance Institute in Calgary, Canada. Situations that cause muscle breakdown and require extra protein, he says, include:
- Doing strength training with heavy weights or intense, Navy SEAL-style routines using your own body weight for resistance.
- Running hard for 30 or more minutes per day, when gearing up for a marathon or triathlon, or doing any other intense aerobic training, either at a constant level or in intervals. A brisk walk or light jog doesn’t increase protein needs.
The 30 minutes following intense workouts is the best time to eat protein, combined with carbohydrates for better absorption, says Bracko, as that’s when the muscles are most receptive to amino acids that will repair exercise-induced damage. However, he cautions that too much protein, with or without exercise, will be stored as fat, just like an excess of any other food.
With intense exercise, these are signs you need more protein:
- For a woman, not seeing more toned muscles after regularly strength training with relatively heavy weights.
- For a man, not seeing bigger muscles after regular strength training.
- For men and women, continually sore muscles that never seem to recover from any type of workout.
In combination with exercise, branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)–leucine, valine and isoleucine–can be especially helpful. “Some studies have shown that they can help reduce body fat, improve muscle strength and
speed of contraction, and improve performance and recovery,” says Bracko.
Lean red meat, skim milk, and whey protein are the richest sources of BCAAs, and some protein powders are formulated to deliver extra BCAAs.
Types of Protein Powders
(from cow’s milk, may be lactose-free)
(from cow’s milk)
(from egg whites)
garden of life raw protein A raw, vegan protein powder with 18 grams (35%) of the daily value per serving, plus all essential amino acids. Mixes instantly and has a neutral taste.
Biggest Loser Protein Bars This convenient on-the-go snack in Vanilla Almond or Honey Peanut gives you 6 gm of 100% whey protein, 4 gm of fiber, and 20% vitamin D.
Nature’s Plus Spiru-tein Plant-based protein plus essential nutrients in a delicious chocolatey drink. A patent-pending blend of non-GMO rice protein, pea protein, and soy.
MHP Probolic-SR boasts a patented 12-hour sustained release micro-feed technology for superior bioavailability and a continual 12-hour supply of the most critical amino acids.
Atkins Shakes No added sugar, great taste,15 gm of protein, 23 essential nutrients, plus calcium and only 2 grams of carbs. An optimal mix of protein and essential vitamins and minerals.