Nutrition 101: Protein [INFOGRAPHIC]

by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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Nutrition 101: Protein [INFOGRAPHIC]

Whether you’re wanting to lose weight, gain muscle, recover from a tough workout, feel more satiated at mealtime or simply maintain good health, eating adequate amounts of healthy sources of protein is important.

A crucial component of every cell in the body, protein is used to build and repair tissues (like skeletal muscle, bone, hair, fingernails, cartilage, skin and blood) as well as make enzymes and hormones. Like carbohydrate and fat, protein also provides energy, but because it has so many other important functions and can’t be stored, the body relies heavily on carbohydrate and fat for energy. This leaves protein free to be used for maintaining healthy tissues, enzymes and hormones.

Shortly after a meal, proteins are digested into amino acids. These amino acids, or protein building blocks, are absorbed by the small intestine and then distributed to cells in the body. The cells take what they need and rearrange amino acids to make new proteins or repair older ones. Because the body doesn’t store protein, once our basic needs have been met, any excess is either used or stored as energy. Amino acids may be converted into glucose, and subsequently glycogen, if the body is short on carbohydrates. They may also be converted into fatty acids and stored as fat. It’s important to get enough protein throughout the day but it’s also important not to go overboard. Eating excess protein, just like carbs and fat, can lead to undesired weight gain if calories in exceed calories out.

Protein is found in a variety of foods: meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy and even grains. From a dietary perspective, meats, poultry, fish, eggs, and soybeans are complete proteins, that is they provide all of the amino acids required by our body. Other protein foods like legumes, some nuts and seeds, and grains, don’t provide adequate amounts of the essential amino acids by themselves but can when eaten in combination with other foods and as part of a balanced diet.

So how do we make healthier choices when it comes to protein?

  • Vegetarian or not, we can all benefit from eating more plant-based proteins. In addition to being great sources of protein, foods like beans, peas, quinoa and lentils, as well as low-fat dairy and eggs, are also rich in other nutrients like fiber, vitamins and minerals.
  • Meat eaters, choose lean cuts like pork and beef tenderloin. A general rule of thumb when shopping: cuts that have round, chuck, or loin in the name are usually lean. Some cuts may take a bit longer to prepare (try marinating or braising) but if prepared right, they’re equally as delicious as some fattier cuts. Since ground meats are typically high in fat, look for the leaner options, like 90/10 ground beef, which contains 90% lean meat and only 10% fat. And if you’re a steak or burger-lover like I am, feel free to indulge every-so-often, but limit red meat to once or twice per week since it is high in saturated fat.
  • Skin aside, poultry is generally lean–but beware when buying ground chicken or turkey. Unless it says 100% ground turkey breast (or chicken breast) on the package, the meat has likely been ground up with the skin and fat, which means that turkey burger may not be any healthier than one made from ground beef.
  • If you enjoy fish, aim to eat 3-4 ounces of it twice per week. Frozen or fresh, fish can be a great source of protein. Some–like salmon–are even rich in Omega-3s, a healthy, unsaturated fat.

In addition to helping us feel satiated after a meal, dietary protein plays a critical role in every cell–building and maintaining healthy tissues and producing important enzymes and hormones that help regulate metabolism, growth and many other things. Getting enough protein is important so the body can perform all of these functions on a daily basis. But remember, just like carbs and fat, if consumed in excess, protein can just as easily be converted into and stored as fat.

Catching up on our Nutrition 101 series? Check out the two previous posts, Calories and Carbs, and be sure to come back Thursday to learn more about Fats!


Graphic by Kim Steinhilber
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  • Liboma Minghi


    First of all, thank you for these articles are very interesting and appropriate for all who move through here. 😉

    Any chance of publishing in Spanish?? It would be much more comfortable for many of us ….

    Anyway, thanks again.

    A hug

    • Fred

      No. Learn English like everyone else

    • Susan Morse Sigourney

      I would like to second that, thank you for these interesting and informative articles.

  • Joe Kohn

    Article was incomplete, green leafy veggies have more protein than meat, and it’s in amino acid form, which is easier for the body to assimilate.

    • Little_Monster

      Leafy veggies do NOT have more protein than meat. How on earth have you had upvotes on that comment.

      • Fatty_McFatFat

        they can depending the porportions Joe is correct. you find this alot with Beans, lentils, artichokes, soybeans, peas, sweet corn, watercress, asperagus, brocolli, whole garins ect you only need a few ounces of meat but you may not feel full or content. you can eat these veggies in much larger quanties and get more nutrition without over consuming animal fats so more bang per ounce.

        • Chad Barker

          not one thing you mentioned is a green leafy veggie! Green leafy Veggie would be lettuce, spinach, kale.

        • beirutbomber

          Joe needs to make his comment more explicit and detailed rather just making a sweeping statement , and no green leafy vegetables are not beans , asparagus or soybeans !

    • L Endregat

      Yes thank you, 100 gr of green leafy vegetables have more proteins than 100 gr of beef and you don’t get the yucky fat/hormones and stuff !

      • Ales

        Can you post any resource supporting this please?

        • JeninBelgium

          oh and as far as beef, also from the usda website, 90/10 has a bit over 25 grams of protein per 100 grams of meat; or about 50% of the calories from protein

        • JeninBelgium

          funny I posted a link showing that leafy veg provides protein but far less of it than chicken or beef in a 100 gram portion but my extended comment does not seem to show up
          anyway check out the usda website for more iformation – while leafy green vegetables are very healthy, and great sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber etc 100 grams of leafy greens provides far less protein than 100 grams of chicken – and since the respondents argument is the contrary i just want to point out the website of the usda since nutrtional information for many many many foods can be found there

      • Junlex

        I can’t think of any leafy vegetable that provides anywhere close to 23g protein per 100g portion, which is around what decent quality lean meat provides. Please give an example to prove me wrong as I’d love a vegetable source of protein that doesn’t require a huge volume to get a decent amount of protein. Highest I can think of is kale, which is 5g of protein per 100g portion, less than a 1/4 of what meat gives.

        • FrankieTB

          Meat is calorie dense food. Leafy greens are nutrition dense food. No secret there. There is nothing wrong with eating dramatically in excess 100grams of veggies or leafy vegetables. Your logical yet oversimplistic explanation demonstrates the misconception and overall underconsumption of leafy greens and vegetables in general. Generally, people have been misguided to focus on macronutrients at expense to their understanding and consumption of important micronutrients.

          • JofJLTNCB6

            Words matter. Junlex was taking issue with L Endregat’s bogus statement that “100 gr of green leafy vegetables have more proteins than 100 gr of beef”…because it is blatantly incorrect. Now had they said “100 calories of green leafy vegetables have more proteins than 100 calories of beef”, well, that’s probably correct…because of the inherent fat content in the beef and the lack of any appreciable carbs in either (but I’m admittedly not going to confirm it because I have no intention of changing my primary protein source to green leafy vegetables).

            Granted, it would still be misleading because dietary fat isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and green leafy plant proteins are an incomplete source of protein, but that statement at least wouldn’t have been so blatantly demonstrably false.

          • Kyle

            Quick search on spinach vs beef where 100 gr of spinach has 23 calories and 2.9 gr protein and 100 gr 85/15 beef has 250 calories and 26 gr protein. That’s 0.126 gr protein / calorie for spinach and 0.104 gr protein / calorie in beef or 21.4% more protein / calorie in spinach than beef. All that said, you’d have to eat nearly 900 grams or nearly 2lb of spinach to equal the amount of protein in 100 grams of beef.

          • Junie

            A combination of both is just fine.

        • conrad

          lupin contains 45% of proteins
          also Spirulina contains 57 %
          so it’s way more than red meat,

  • Bethany

    Thank you for mentioning that there are healthy cuts of BEEF! It seems so many times, people are misinformed and do not offer beef as a healthy protein option!

    • Dick Tracy

      because it isn’t healthy. The negative effects far outweigh any benefit AND all the benefits can be found in actual healthy sources, plant based and unprocessed, have zero negative effects.
      The only reason animal protein is consider “complete” is that you are eating flesh and organs that have already digested nutrients from plants. you are digesting second hand nutrients.

      • Bethany Swendener

        Thank you for your opinion Mr. Dick Tracy, but I’ll stick with my healthy protein from beef. I know that most people who are freaking out about the beef suggestion have very strong opinions. And it is perfectly fine for you to have and share yours. I’m always interested in others’ lifestyles, and their choice of diet. I am not quite sure of what negative effects you speak of. But I can tell you, that according to my latest check up, it doesn’t appear I am having the onset of any health issues. Thanks again for your opinion.

        • Dick Tracy

          not my opinion, but the facts from any science based studies.
          Cholesterol, saturated fat, protein to calorie ratio all contribute to the two main killers of western society; heart disease and cancer.
          Plaque buildup, blood cells sticking together, loss of elasticity of the arteries all restrict circulation.
          Larger amounts of protein than your body can absorb causes an acidic environment in which cancer cells thrive.

          • Bethany Swendener

            Yes, it is your opinion. And really, there are several science based studies that say the opposite of what you would like to convince everyone to believe. What about the facts from science based studies like this one? BOLD – Where new research shows including lean beef can lower bad cholesterol.
            Protein to Calorie Ratio……So you’re saying in 3 oz of lean beef I can’t get nearly as much healthy protein(never mind the other vitamins/minerals) as any of the vegetarian options?
            And for good measure, what about the research and investigation that went into the book, The Big Fat Surprise?
            Mr. Dick Tracy, I realize you are obviously a vegetarian, and it really doesn’t bother me that you’ve chosen that. Feel free to put into your body what ever you wish! If that is what you feel is best. It just isn’t something that will work for me. And the best research I can come up with is myself. My very own body, which I feed beef every single day. And to this point, my doctor hasn’t found any cancer, any bad cholesterol, or anything else that you’ve listed.
            Thanks again!

          • Dick Tracy

            Lean beef lowers cholesterol compared to what? Red meat? Duh
            I’m saying you are getting too much protein per calorie, therefore cannot eat enough to get other important nutrients because you have eaten all your calories for the day.
            The Big Fat Surprise – I haven’t read it, so cannot honestly comment, but I can tell you there is more than one misguided dietary principle in western society. if the main premise is that low fat and sugar processed foods are not good for you, then yes, agreed. But there are not the only alternative.
            Diet can be simple, eat food in as natural a state as possible, unprocessed by machines or animals. No one would suggest low fat chips or margarines are going to be nutritious. Complex carbohydrates in their natural state along with the appropriate amounts of fat and protein and a reasonable caloric intake.
            I’m glad to hear your diet hasn’t killed you yet.

  • AngelzProphecy .

    actually, i get 96/4 ground beef all the time and i get it eat it quite often while staying leaner than most people so i dont really think ground beef is bad for you

  • rcleaver

    I was hoping to see some indication of how much protein people need, perhaps by gender, age and activity type (sedentary, athletic, etc.)

    • isabel

      cdc says, .8 grams of protein per kilogram weight (for average adult) . Typically people eat a heck of a lot more than that a day.

  • Protein can help
    you shed those unwanted pounds and keep your belly full. But it’s important
    to eat the right amount and the right kind of protein to get the health
    benefits.Seafood is an excellent source of protein because it’s usually low
    in fat. Fish such as salmon is a little higher in fat, but it is the
    heart-healthy kind: omega-3 fatty acids.Eggs are one of the least expensive
    forms of protein.One-half cup of beans contains as much protein as an ounce
    of broiled steak. Plus, these nutritious nuggets are loaded with fiber to
    keep you feeling full for hours.

  • John C

    Animal based protein will have very grave effects on your body. Read The China Study by Dr. Campbell and watch “Forks Over Knives”

    • Nerdgasm

      Just curious, but I have heard that recent studies have shown that severe calorie restrictive diets, say 1000 per day and under, may be a major factor in people living longer and having less health issues. I have not gone into this China study, but I would like to know if they accounted for this? Are they comparing Chinese peasants who are so poor they eat virtually nothing to a typical American diet of fast foods, then pointing to the different results to support a Vegan ideology?

      • Peggy A Gordon

        Read the 5:2 Diet by M. Mosley. It outlines the research on fasting and calorie restriction. There is also a documentary on it-really interesting. I’m doing the 5:2 myself and love it.

      • judy Wilhelm

        What about fewer calories will mak you gain per weight watchers

    • Richard LaRouche

      China study was debunked. Animal protein does not have ill effects on the body. There are 1000s of studies stating that animal products are healthy. Meat is a great nutritional source especially lean meats

      • Richard LaRouche

        Forks over knives is also another shrill book looking to scare people. Very little of it stands up against nutritional experts and science

      • Dick Tracy

        there are simple test you can do yourself, curated artery, pH balance. if you are building plaque and/or you blood platelets are sticking together you are headed for heart disease. If you system is acidic you are headed for cancer. These are the top two killers of all who consume the “healthy western” diet.
        And if you think two identical people where the only difference is plant based or animal based diet will have identical long term health, you are sadly mistaken and ill informed. use common sense

  • science teacher

    How can I get copies of these infographics in poster size. I am a middle school science teacher and would love to have these in my classroom. I am willing to buy them if they could be made available.

    • John Hamblin

      Try the USDA.

  • Manga

    Soy? You have to be kidding.

  • MikeFabrino

    Protein is actually in just about EVERYTHING that you eat. Woke most foods are incomplete proteins, they form complete protein inside your body. As long as you are eating — you’re getting protein.
    Vegetarian proteins are better, No question about it. And yes, leafy greens like kale and spinach are high in protein and pound for pound offer more of it than meat (not that anyone wants to eat a pound of kale).

    Articles like this are a big part of why Americans have such a limited understanding of protein and are almost always getting more than they need. Plant- based proteins are better for people and the environment. Red meat shouldn’t be consumed AT ALL, and cheese, well, Just eat a stick of fat and get it over wIth.

  • hotmamma

    I have hpoyglycemia. If I eat too many carbs without enough fat or protein to balance it out my blood sugar can crash because carbs over stimulate my insulin, so drop in blood sugar. I tend to follow a higher protein diet. How much is too much? Note: I don’t drink juice and am aware that higher glycemic foods are worse.

  • Jules

    How about hemp seeds?!

  • mmmpork

    Your article says to opt for lean cuts of meat because we should avoid saturated fat, but you don’t say why we should avoid saturated fat. There are some outdated studies that suggested there might be a correlation between saturated fat and heart disease, but later research disproved this. In fact, studies of individuals on “heart healthy diets” that replaced saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats like margarine showed fairly high mortality rates. If your reasoning is that foods high in cholesterol are correlated with heart disease, again, this has not been proven out by research. Please clarify why you believe fatty cuts of meat need to be avoided.

    • Richard LaRouche

      You are spot on. Unfortunately comments don’t keep up with the current data

    • Dick Tracy

      you have got to be kidding me. Where do you get your “research” the Beef Counsel? Any processed food will have ill effects as you are merely concentrating a normal healthy nutrient. Corn is great for you when you eat one or two ears, but it takes ten ears to make a tablespoon of oil and you lose all the fiber and other beneficial nutrients. Heart disease and cancers are the top killers in western society, most of which are lifestyle based diseases. Eat a diet of foods in their most natural state, processing of any kind is just concentration of nutrients and almost always with ill health effects, even when it is an animal processing it for you.

      • mmmpork

        I get my research from peer-reviewed science journals 🙂 Where do you get yours from?