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  • Writer's pictureDerrick W. Spell, MD FACP

Add the Right Protein to Your Meal

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

My newest pet peeve is restaurants that ask if you’d like to add “a protein” to your meal. Protein is a macronutrient, not a food item! I know they are usually referring to beef or chicken, yet I wonder if they have given their choice of language much consideration. Regrettably, protein has become synonymous with meat in America over the last few generations. However, there are many other sources of protein in a well-balanced diet. There are everyday protein sources that may not be so obvious, so let’s discover more of them! (These sources also happen to be much healthier for you than beef or chicken!)

Seafood is a wholesome source of protein that is low in calories and saturated fat. (As long as it is prepared in a healthy fashion and not fried!) Most low-fat species of fish (like tuna, mahi-mahi, flounder and sole) contain around 100 calories per 3-ounce portion. Even the fattier fish (like mackerel, herring, and salmon) only have about 200 calories per serving. These fattier fish, which are typically found in cold water, are great sources of the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. They are also great sources of vitamins (like A, D and the B-complex vitamins) as well as minerals, such as selenium, zinc, iodine and iron. Local Louisiana catches like trout and redfish are also tasty options that are packed with protein. Most varieties of fish have at least 20 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving, however the different species have variable nutritional content. I recommend visiting the website for further details.

There are also significant protein contributions from plants, especially from the legume family. Beans and peas are the mature forms of legumes. This family includes kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), split peas and lentils. All of these foods are excellent sources of protein! In fact, one cup of beans typically has between 15 to 18 grams of protein! They are also excellent sources of dietary fiber and nutrients such as iron, folate, zinc and potassium. Best of all, beans and peas are easy to corporate into your weekly meal plan. They are simple to prepare at home and they are available at various restaurants, especially ethnic eateries. (Look for black beans and pinto beans at Hispanic eateries; lentils and chickpeas in Middle Eastern cafés.)

Seeds and nuts are another source of protein. They are also good sources of fiber and heart-healthy, unsaturated fats. Several studies have shown that people with increased nut consumption have lower rates of heart and vascular disease. Walnuts have been proven to lessen risk of stroke while both almonds and walnuts have been proven to lower cholesterol levels. Other familiar nuts include peanuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, cashews and macadamia nuts. Examples of high-protein seeds include sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, flax and chia seeds.

All of these seeds and nuts make great snacks and meals throughout the day. You can add them to a salad or a wholesome trail mix. And don’t forget about the nut butters! A peanut (or almond) butter sandwich with a 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) serving has seven grams of protein. You can also add nut butters to fruit for an easy breakfast or snack. I enjoy hazelnut spread with an apple or banana. I recommend Justin’s Butters (especially the Hazelnut Butter) as well as any of the less-processed peanut and almond butters. All of these spreads are more natural and incorporate less added sugar and salt.

Stay tuned! We haven’t even covered favorites like spinach, oatmeal or tofu. We will continue our discussion on additional protein sources in the next blog!

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