Dietician’s Prescription: The power of protein

Hello, Grand Central Magazine readers!  My name is Sarah Zmierski, and I am a dietetics student here at CMU.  I am passionate about health and wellness, and when given the opportunity to write for Grand Central Magazine I was ecstatic to say the least!  While I am no registered dietitian YET, I have learned several things throughout my time here at Central, and I hope to be able to share some of it with you here.

If you ever spent time around a self-proclaimed “health nut,” then you’ve probably heard the phrase, “You need more protein” more than once.

Many people, health enthusiasts included, can develop the mindset that protein is a magical substance that will pump up your workout routine and provide you with glowing, radiant health.  If you consume enough protein on a regular basis, it can certainly do just that.

Q: What is protein, what does it do, and why do I need it?

A: Protein is one of the three dietary macromolecules, alongside carbohydrates and fats, which are crucial to the health of cells in our body. Protein is used for repairing tissues and make up some of the main structural components of the human body. It is also necessary for our bodies so it can carry out several chemical functions at the cellular level.

Q: How much protein does my body need?

A: Protein is required to help support people’s workout routine (hopefully you have one!), and for repairing our bodies from the wear and tear of a busy life.

For these reasons alone, it is necessary to regularly include sources of protein in your diet.  But this doesn’t mean that you need to get loaded up on protein shakes and bars.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams a day per kilogram of body weight, which supplies adequate protein for most as outlined in “Understanding Nutrition,” a textbook guide to nutrition topics by Ellie Whitney and Sharon Rady Rolfes.

Based upon this guideline, a woman weighing 52 kilograms (about 115 pounds) would need approximately 41.6 grams of protein daily.

Q: What if I don’t get enough or get too much protein?

A: The average American will usually get more than enough through their daily eating habits, but others may struggle to reach their body’s protein needs.

Severe protein deficiency is luckily something not often seen in America, but more so in impoverished nations such as Africa, where basic nutrition is not taught, and quality food is hard to find.  Even a slight protein deficiency can cause undesirable symptoms, including the impairment of normal functions in several organ systems throughout the body.

But even though deficiencies do exist, too much protein is also not desirable.  As with any macronutrient (includes carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), protein does contain four calories per gram.  So as with any food, an excess in consumption can create an excess of calories, which translates into weight gain (possibly as body fat) if not monitored.

A good way to ensure you are getting an appropriate amount of protein is to include a serving of protein at each of your three main meals.  A simple guideline you can use for protein foods is to have a serving about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand.

Q: Where can I get it?

A: There are several sources of protein in the world of food.  Low-fat milk products, including milk, yogurt and various cheeses all provide quality sources of protein, as do several lean meats, eggs, legumes and nuts.  So there are options for everyone.

Q: Any good recipes?

A: This time of year, while we are all carving pumpkins, we can also enjoy a wonderful protein-filled treat of roasted pumpkin seeds.  So before you throw out the “guts” of your pumpkin this year, save the seeds.

They make a great little snack for anytime of the day, and provide over 10 grams of protein in a 1/4 cup serving.  Just simply salvage the seeds from the “guts,” rinse and clean them well, boil in salt water for 10 minutes, drain and dry slightly with a paper towel, then roast them on a baking sheet with a little olive oil and salt for about 10 minutes at 325 degrees fahrenheit until slightly crispy on the outside.

For further recipe description, go here.