Protein: Getting It Right

Protein is a critical part of a healthy diet, and eating the right amount helps with everything from higher energy to stronger muscles. The trick is knowing the healthiest sources of protein and the right amounts for your body.

Wrapping up a three-part HealthWatch series, Elisa Zied returned to The Early Show to talk about protein, which she explores in her new book, "So What Can I Eat?!" Zied is a registered dietician and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, and she points out that a proper protein balance can also be helpful for weight loss. "If you are adding protein to your meals you will be a little full, which can curb your calorie intake," she told co-anchor Russ Mitchell.

And if your idea of a healthy serving of protein is a giant slab of steak, Zied has a reality check on portion size. "The size of a Palm Pilot is pretty much it for the meat," she said.

Why do we need protein?

Zied explains that protein provides the building blocks for our bones, muscles, skin, cartilage, and blood. It also helps us make enzymes and hormones that keep our bodies functioning. Protein is the most filling or satiating of all the nutrients, so it can potentially help us curb our calorie intake and help us achieve or maintain a healthier body weight. Protein can also boost energy by stabilizing our blood sugar levels throughout the day.

How much protein do we need each day?

The amount of protein we need varies from person to person, though we need more at certain stages in life, such as during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Zied says the Institute of Medicine recommends a protein intake of 10 to 35 percent of calories for adults, about 50 to 175 grams a day for someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day. Most of us get enough, but we don't always make the healthiest, leanest picks.

MEAT AND BEANS

Zied recommends about 5½ one-ounce equivalents of meat and beans each day in a 2,000 calorie diet.

The following equals a 1-ounce equivalent of meat/beans:
1 ounce of fish, poultry, or beef
1/4 cup beans
1 tablespoon of peanut butter or 1/2 ounce (2 tablespoons) of nuts
1 egg

Three cups of beans per week is the recommended amount, and a great option for vegetarians. "These are great sources that give iron, zinc and healthy fiber, which can fill you up as well," said Zied. They also supply folate and antioxidants. She points out, though, that they are very filling and high in calories, so a portion is 1/4 cup.

Eat lean cuts of meat and poultry

Choose lean cuts of beef such as sirloin, flank steak, or round cuts; for poultry, opt for skinless and choose white meat over dark meat. Stick to small portions (3 to 4 ounces at most) at a sitting.

Eat 8 to 12 ounces of fish per week

Fish is a great source of protein, it's low in saturated fat, and it's a great source of healthful omega 3 fats, specifically EPA and DHA. These are polyunsaturated fats that benefit your heart, even if you're at risk for or already have heart disease. They are also important for pregnant and breastfeeding women for proper brain development in their offspring.

Because of mercury concerns, children and women who are pregnant or of childbearing age need to keep tabs on their fish consumption — they should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish, in particular. But it's OK to eat up to 12 ounces per week of low-mercury options like canned light tuna (up to 6 ounces albacore tuna or tuna steak), salmon, shrimp, pollock, or catfish.

MILK

Zied recommends about three one-cup equivalents of milk each day.

Milk provides protein as well as calcium, vitamins A and D; yogurt provides calcium and healthful bacteria. Low-fat or non-fat milk, yogurt and cheese maximize nutrients and minimize saturated fat. A one-cup equivalent equals 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1½ ounces of hard cheese or 2 ounces of processed cheeses.

To read an excerpt from Zied's book, click here.