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Understanding protein as part of a well-balanced diet

Nutrition For A Healthy Pregnancy - Parents Canada

Protein is a hot topic nowadays, especially as countless people shy away from carbs. It’s being trumpeted on food packaging as manufacturers add it to their food products to cash in on the nutrient’s new found appeal. As a result,some people are going overboard on their protein intakes but at the same time, others are falling short – some at certain meals only and others, on the whole.

Boy daydreaming protein - understanding protein as part of a well-balanced diet 

So what’s the real story on protein?

Protein is made up of compounds called amino acids – amino acids are to protein what bricks are to a wall. Although there are more than 20 amino acids, only nine are considered essential, meaning that they cannot be synthesized by the body and must come from what we eat.

Protein is needed for growth and development, making it a key nutrient for kids. If a food doesn’t contain all these essential amino acids, it’s called an incomplete protein. Most animal-based foods (plus soybeans) contain complete proteins. Protein-containing plant foods, such as other legumes, grains, and nuts and seeds, are missing one or more amino acids.

Eating complementary proteins together is recommended for kids. For instance, if you eat a food missing one amino acid at the same time as one that is missing another, you get a complete protein. Examples of these combos include beans and rice or peanut butter and whole grain bread.

The typical North American family eats a protein-heavy dinner, but to obtain a range of protein’s perks, you might want to distribute protein-rich options through the day.

One benefit to this strategy is weight management. While many people point to low-carb diets as the reason for shedding weight, it’s in fact having protein through the day that provides the appetite regulation. Studies show that protein is linked to decreased hunger hormones and increased satiety – the feeling that you’ve eaten enough.

If your child’s weight is an issue, it’s more productive and positive to add protein to meals than to restrict food.

Having small portions of protein packed foods throughout the day can also help stabilize blood sugar, making for better moods and more steady energy levels. A protein-rich breakfast and lunch may do wonders for that after school witching hour when everyone seems to be tired and cranky.

Another lesser known perk of protein is that small amounts can boost metabolic rates or calorie burning capacity. This heating effect of the body – known as thermogenesis – also contributes to feeling more energetic.

Go for real food rather than protein powders, drinks and bars. Read ingredient lists and compare the protein content of various products so that you’re not being fooled by a name. For example, ounce for ounce, cottage cheese has more than double the protein contained in cream cheese. Protein-fortifi ed foods, such as some cereals, may offer little extra protein with a glut of sugar on the side.

It’s definitely buyer beware: Don’t fall for the preservative-free claim

Protein-rich deli meats, such as turkey and bologna and hot dogs, are high up on the list of kids’ favourites. But many parents are concerned – and rightly so – about the long-term consequences of consuming these foods due to their nitrite and nitrate content. Research links these compounds to an increased risk of certain cancers. Having these foods on an occasional basis may be fine but as regular menu items, they’re best avoided by the whole family. Some food manufacturers make so-called natural and artificial preservative free products, but don’t be fooled. While you might not see artificial compounds listed in the ingredients, the nitrates are still there, just from a natural source: cultured celery extract.

Complete proteins

Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, yogurt and milk, as well as soybeans are considered to be complete proteins:

› beef, pork, poultry or fish – 7 g protein per 28 g
› eggs – 6 to 7 g protein per egg
› cheese – 6 to 7 g protein per 28 g (excluding cream cheese)
› plain yogurt – 10-13 g protein per 250 mL (8 oz)
› milk – 8 g protein per 250 mL
› soybeans (cooked) – 14 g protein per 125 mL (1/2 cup)
› cottage cheese – 14-16 g protein per 125 mL (1/2 cup)

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit for more.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2014.

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