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Metabolism-Boosting Foods and Nutrients: Protein

Most Americans get enough protein — double the protein needed — to keep their metabolism on track. For the average Joe, that’s okay as long as that protein is from lean sources — meaning low in artery-clogging saturated fat — and as long as what you’re consuming isn’t exceeding the amount of calories you need.

But if you’re on a restricted or vegetarian diet, or just aren’t eating enough, you may need to focus on adding the right kinds of protein back into your diet.

You need protein to build and maintain tissues. You have protein in all your cells, which is regularly broken down and replaced by what you get in your diet. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and your body can’t make them on its own, which is why they are called essential amino acids: you must get them from your diet.

There are two main types of protein sources based on their amino acid content:

  • Complete proteins: These contain all the essential amino acids you need and are animal based (because those animals need the same amino acids that you do). Complete proteins are found in meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and eggs.

  • Incomplete proteins: These do not contain one or more of the amino acids but still offer up a source of protein. This includes plant sources like beans, grains, nuts, seeds.

    It used to be thought that you needed to eat combinations of these foods together at the same meal to create the complete protein from the complementary proteins, for example rice and beans together provide all the essential amino acids. But now it’s accepted that as long as you consume the foods within the same day, you will get the nutrients you need.

No matter where it’s coming from, getting about 4 ounces of protein per meal has advantages for your metabolic rate and ability to lose weight. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, per calorie ingested, more weight loss occurs with a high-protein diet versus high-carbohydrate diet. Some possible reasons for this include the following:

  • Protein helps build and maintain muscle mass, which then burns more at rest.

  • Excess carbohydrate calories are more readily changed into and stored as fat.

  • It takes longer to metabolize protein, so you feel more satisfied, resulting in decreased hunger.

Choose leaner sources of protein to save on calories and saturated fat that you might be consuming with fatty meats and full-fat dairy. Also consider including plant-based sources of protein in your diet. Try the following swaps:

  • Forgo the rib-eye or T-bone steak and go with sirloin, top round, tenderloin, and bottom round cuts — and trim visible fat.

  • Go with white meat over dark when it comes to poultry and remove the skin to save on saturated fat calories.

  • Don’t forget about preparation. Choose grilled, broiled, or baked lean meats and fish instead of fried or sautéed.

  • Add beans or tofu instead of meat to soups, chili, salads, and pastas.

  • Pick low-fat dairy products like skim or 1 percent milk, part-skim cheese, low-fat yogurts — including high-protein Greek yogurt for a lean-protein, calcium boost.

  • Get a serving of nuts or nut butter with your snack to keep your energy level high for hours between meals.

  • If you’re a carnivore or herbivore, you can benefit from the protein found in whole grains, specifically quinoa.

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