Opting for good carbs, good fats and complete proteins and understanding the glycemic index will help you make healthier choices.
Protein is a dietary essential, even for vegans, who don’t eat animal protein in any way, shape, or form. Proteins are made up of tissue building blocks called amino acids, and proteins that contain all the essential amino acids (amino acids that the body can't ’make and therefore must be obtained in foods) are called “complete.” Animal protein is a good example of a complete protein, while the proteins found in grains, nuts, and vegetables are incomplete, and you must carefully balance them to obtain all the essential amino acids in your diet.
Although protein isn’t a high source of energy, your body uses proteins to grow and to build hormones, antibodies, and the enzymes that regulate the chemical reactions within the body. Proteins are essential for healthy aging because they maintain healthy tissues and sustain growth. Because protein can’t be stored in the body, you need a new supply every day to keep tissues from breaking down.
How much protein do you need?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says that to be healthy, 20 percent of your total daily calories should come from protein. So if your optimal daily caloric intake is 1,800 calories (click here to read about calculating your optimal daily caloric intake) 360 of them should be in the form of protein.
Can you eat too much protein? It depends. A large study indicated that women who ate over 95 grams of protein per day were 20 percent more likely to suffer a wrist fracture over a 12-year period. The same study, however, showed that women who ate the most protein (up to 110 grams a day) were 25 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke compared to women who ate less protein (68 grams a day). The safest bet is to take in around 70 grams of protein each day.
On the other hand, too little protein has serious health consequences, leading to muscle loss, failure to grow properly, and a weakened immune system.
Red meat is a good source of complete protein, but some red meat also contains a large amount of saturated fat, which can raise your cholesterol levels and contribute to heart disease. So poultry and fish, which contain less saturated fat, provide a better source of protein. And if you’re vegetarian, you don’t have to worry about the high levels of saturated fats in meat—dry beans and nuts are excellent sources of protein. Most servings of protein supply around 24 grams of protein.
Your protein needs depend on your activity level, age, and if you’re dieting. Use the following equation to calculate your protein needs:
Weight x 0.6 grams of protein per pound
For example: 170 pounds x 0.6 = 102 grams of protein per day. Remember this formula is an approximation. Check with your doctor, too.
You can break down your protein choices like this:
Complete proteins: These contain all essential amino acids. Examples include the following:
- Beef: Lean beef contains less than 10 percent fat, but be careful—this doesn’t apply to ground beef, which, in some states, doesn’t even have to display the exact fat content on the label. Mix ground turkey with regular ground beef to cut the fat.
- Poultry (chicken, turkey and duck): Some people eat so much poultry that they really should cluck. And that’s a good thing, because the white meat in poultry is high in protein, low in fat, and low in cholesterol. Remember to remove the skin (that’s where most of the fat is) and stick to white meat, which has less fat than dark meat. Poultry contains about 0.5 grams of saturated fat and delivers a walloping 30 plus grams of protein per serving.
- Fish: Some fish is very low in saturated fats: most types of fish have less than 1 gram of saturated fat per serving. A few have 2 grams—salmon and tuna among them. Fish is a good source of protein as long as you don’t fry it in saturated fat. Fish is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. The fish that’s best for these fatty acids include salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel, and whitefish. Fish contains around 20 grams of protein per serving. Farm raised fish don’t have the same amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and can have high levels of mercury.
- Pork: Pork has about the same amount of saturated fat (2 grams per serving) as lean beef. Even when you trim the fat before eating. Although the pork industry is promoting it as the “other white meat,” pork is higher in saturated fat than poultry and shouldn’t be a nightly dinner choice. Pork has around 25 grams of protein per serving.
- Lamb: Lamb is also high in fat compared to poultry; in fact, it’s slightly higher (3 grams per serving) than pork in saturated fat.
- Eggs: Eggs contain about 6.25 grams of protein and are only 75 calories. The egg white is only 17 calories. They have 3.5 grams of saturated fat, which is mostly contained in the yolk, but the yolk contains most of the amino acids and 40 percent of the protein.
Incomplete proteins: These don’t contain all essential amino acids. Incomplete proteins include:
- Dry beans: Dry beans and lentils are excellent sources of protein, although you may not think of them as such. Beans contain around 7 grams of protein and lentils about 9 grams of protein per half cup and less than one gram of saturated fat. To obtain all the essential amino acids, you need to combine them with other sources of protein that contain the rest of the essential amino acids.
- Nuts: are a good source of protein, around 5 grams per serving, and are also a good source of healthy fats. Nuts are also an incomplete source of protein.
The added benefits of soy protein
Soy products are everywhere, and you may have heard that soy is superior to animal protein and can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart disease. Recent studies by the American Heart Association show that taking in 50 grams of soy protein a day (over half your daily requirement of protein) reduced LDL only about three percent, not a large amount but worth considering if you’re fighting high cholesterol. If you are planning to add soy protein to your diet, make sure it is non-GMO.
Carbohydrates are an important part of your diet because they help supply the energy that your body needs to function. They are so important that the USDA recommends that half of your daily calorie intake should come from carbs. Carbohydrates fall into two categories:
- Simple, which contain refined sugars, with minimal fiber, vitamins, and minerals
- Complex, which contain more fiber, vitamins and minerals
All carbohydrates are broken down and used for energy. The goal when choosing carbs is to choose complex carbs that increase energy storage at a slow, steady pace, to help control blood sugar levels. Sugars (simple carbs) are broken down most easily and cause a quick infusion of glucose (blood sugar) into your blood. This surge gives an immediate boost of energy, but it also causes blood sugar to drop rapidly and can leave you feeling weak.
Separating healthy carbs and unhealthy carbs: The glycemic index
Today, there’s an increased emphasis on the glycemic index (GI) of foods. The glycemic index categorizes foods by how quickly they’re broken down and enter the bloodstream and how high your blood sugar rises after eating them compared to pure glucose. Foods with a low glycemic index are considered most healthy. They’re rated on a scale from 0-100, with the lower numbers being healthiest.
Sugars have a high glycemic index, while starches such as whole grains have a lower glycemic index and stabilize your blood sugar because they take longer to break down. (Fibers can’t be broken down in the body and pass through unchanged.) So starches like whole grains and vegetables with a low glycemic index are your best choice for carbohydrates. Processed foods like white bread are stripped of much of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and they have a higher glycemic index, making less processed food like whole grain bread a much healthier choice.
You may be conditioned to think of fat as something bad to eat, but you need “good” fat in your diet for your body to function properly. You need fat to help with absorption of fat soluble vitamins, to regulate cholesterol metabolism, and to keep your skin soft and healthy.
Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. Excess body fat comes from consuming too many calories (of any kind) that aren’t used as energy but are stored away in the body as fat reserves.
Fat is either saturated or unsaturated. Unsaturated fat is good for you, and some saturated fats can be good for you and can aid in healthy levels of cholesterol.
Gathering near the good fats
Most people don’t realize that fat plays a necessary role in their diet. The important thing is to make sure you have the right balance of good and bad fats. Healthy fats such as polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are beneficial to your body, but they need to be consumed in moderation.
You need healthy fats in your diet for the following vital reasons:
- To develop and maintain gray matter in your brain
- To achieve optimal growth
- To maintain the health and structure of cell membranes
- To keep skin healthy
- To maintain proper visual development
- To maintain a healthy nervous system
- To regulate blood pressure, blood clotting, and your body’s inflammatory response
Experts don’t always agree on exactly what percentage of your daily calories should come from fat. Opinions vary from less than 10 percent to more than 50% in some cases.
You don’t need to add a lot of extra fat to your diet; just make healthy food and cooking choices to get enough of the nutrients from the healthy fats you need.
Omega-3 fatty acids are one type of “good fat.” There are many supplements that provide these fatty acids, because most people don’t consume enough of the foods that contain omega-3s. Good sources of the omega-3 fatty acids are found in the following foods:
Cold-water fish like mackerel, salmon, sardines, anchovies, and herring. The oils of wild-caught fish contain a significantly higher proportion of Omega-3 than the oils of farm-raised fish.
Nuts, such as walnuts, Brazil nuts, and almonds along with pumpkin, sunflower, and flax seeds.
Saying no to the bad fats
Trans fats should be avoided altogether because they can raise your total LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower HDL (good) cholesterol, putting you at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Examples of trans fat include most margarines, vegetable shortening, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, deep-fried anything, many fast foods, and most commercially baked goods.
Make sure to read your food labels and ask about trans fat when you dine out. But generally, some foods to avoid with trans fats include:
- French Fries
- Fried foods (like fried chicken)
- Ice cream
According to a recent study of some 80,000 women, for every 5 percent increase in the amount of saturated fat a woman consumes, her risk for heart disease increases by 17 percent. But just a 2 percent increase in trans fats increases her risk of heart disease by 93 percent!
*Agin, Brent, and Sharon Perkins. Healthy Aging for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Pub., 2008. Print.
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