Red meat is the best protein source. Relying mostly on the protein from beef, pork and such can come with a cost. Eating red meat is associated with heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer, partly because saturated fat, iron and nitrites in meat increase internal inflammation. A 2012 study found that as little as one serving of red meat a day was associated with premature death and death from cancer and heart disease. You needn’t cut out animal proteins entirely: Limit the burgers and chops to a few times a month.
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There’s no way vegans can get enough protein. Most vegans and vegetarians actually meet and even exceed protein requirements, reports the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The trick: Eat a variety of plant foods to get essential amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
To build more muscle, you need more protein. Americans are already eating close to two times the recommended 46 grams of protein for women and 56 grams for men—enough to fuel the workouts of most regular exercisers. Competitive athletes of both genders do need to pay more focused attention to their protein needs (they can determine their daily quota by multiplying body weight by 0.6 to 0.9 grams). Be aware that the body can only use so much protein at one time. “Just because you eat a big steak or enormous shake doesn’t mean the muscles can take up all that protein,” says registered dietitian Andrea Chernus, co-author of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance. Spread protein intake throughout the day to get the most muscle-building benefit.
Protein helps manage your weight. True—but this isn’t an endorsement of diets that deify sirloin, bacon and wings and demonize grains and starches. Studies comparing such plans with other weight loss regimens have found that they all yield about the same short-term results. Some large-scale studies have even associated animal protein intake—red and processed meats in particular—with weight gain. But protein can help you manage your appetite and blood sugar levels, especially when you replace carbs like white bread, white rice and sweets with fish, lean poultry, lowfat dairy, beans, nuts and eggs. Protein slows stomach emptying, helping you feel fuller longer, and spurs the release of appetite-suppressing hormones such as cholecystokinin. —Samantha Heller, MS, RD
Protein, by the Numbers
Recommended daily: 56g men/46g women
Average intake: 102g men/70g women
Average intake, vegetarians: 56g (men and women)
Average intake, vegans: 72g men/55g women