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The Proof is in the Protein

Did you know that our bodies naturally produce cholesterol?  Our bodies only need about 200 milligrams of cholesterol from food per day (This is equivalent to one egg yolk).  Studies show that genetics can play a role in naturally-occurring cholesterol levels, which is why it’s important to know your family’s health history.  If there is a history of elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol or related diseases known in your family’s health history, you too may run a potential risk.  Good news is, there are steps you can take towards prevention.  Reduce your intake of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat.

First, a little background:

Protein is a macronutrient that provides us with building blocks that facilitate most of our body’s functions, including muscle and tissue repair, bacterial-fighting antibodies, energy-yielding capabilities, digestive enzymatic reactions and nutrient transport, and the list goes on.  Protein is a defining factor that prevents us from becoming malnourished.  What makes protein differ from its fuel-providing counterparts? (I’m talking about carbohydrates and fats) Scientists and medical researchers say there is a strong link between over-consumption of animal-derived foods and our nation’s most prevalent, non-communicable diseases: heart disease, kidney disease, osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer.

The USDA’s recommended daily intake of protein is only about 10-15% of our total daily caloric intake (fat= 10-35%, carbs= 45-65%). Is this news to you? It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this information remains relatively quiet, considering meat production and distribution is an extremely prolific industry; one that could also rescue many hungry, disease-ridden societies, if our funds and resources were put to better use. Instead, our inherent nature causes us to consume what’s available.  Are we reverting back to Darwin’s theory on survival of the fittest? Surely not, if overweight and consuming a 10-ounce filet mignon or even a quarter pound cheeseburger more than once a week.

Pretty shocking to think about implementing a mere 10% limitation on calories coming from protein per day.  Based on the average 2000 calorie diet, 200 calories a day from protein, animal-derived or plant-based, is all that is required to maintain our cells adequate functioning.   This would include about an ounce and a half of a rib eye steak OR a 3 ounce piece of chicken breast/cooked salmon OR a cup and a half of cooked kale. Take your pick! In a perfect, completely heart healthy world, this might be feasible for many of us; in the real world, not so much.  The fact is that foods rich in protein are nutrient dense and incredibly tasty.  I myself have never taken a vow to vegetarianism.  Realistically speaking, if your smart about your intake, there’s no need to deprive yourself.

As of now, there is no Tolerable Upper Intake established for protein, specifically animal-derived foods. That being the case, applying moderation to protein consumption is the best approach in keeping your cholesterol levels in check.  Eating healthy should not require dependence on calculated calories and grams (unless you’re on a weight loss regimen, then let your dietitian take care of all the math).  Instead, it should be a set of principles to be followed that guide you in the right direction.

Here are some tips that I use to moderate meat and cholesterol-rich food consumption. Give one or all of these suggestions a whirl and find what works best for you.  Start small and work your way up.

1. If you’re gonna go for it, go lean! On the day-to-day, choose lean meats like turkey and white meat chicken.  Save your fatty meats, like beef, veal, and lamb, for special occasions.

2. Dedicate 1-2 days a week where you refrain from consuming meat.  The Food Network’s Healthy Eats blog practices “Meatless Mondays.”  For some, one to two days a week without meat is totally easy.  For others, Tip#2 might be a good place to start.

3. Try to limit meat and dairy to 1-2 meals day. If you usually consume chicken or fish at dinner, choose foods from the grain, fruit and veggie groups for breakfast, lunch and snack time.  For example, a hearty oatmeal for breakfast, salad for lunch and trail mix for snacking.  You might also want to try to keep meats and dairy as the lesser ingredient in your dish.  Add a small amount of bacon to your salad or sandwich, rather than topping it with a large piece of chicken.

4. Replace meats with fish 3-4 days a week.  It’s recommended that we consume at least 2 servings of fish per week. Truth is that fish lacks artery-clogging cholesterol.  Instead, fish provides us with omega-3 fatty acids, which have significant effects on our LDL cholesterol levels (the bad ones) by increasing our HDL’s (the good ones).  If you are a fish lover, than this strategy should be simple.  Load up on the fish! Keep tuna fish around and make it in bulk.  Prepare salmon fillets to use for up to 3 days (as an entree, in salad, on a sandwich).  Fish can be a versatile item to prepare, much like chicken, so that your palate doesn’t bore.

5. Incorporate protein-rich legumes in your diet. What’s a legume? Legumes are plant-derived foods that usually come from beans, seeds, nuts and peas.  Health-wise, they offer the best effects on lowering blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol.  Their rich nutrient composition contributes lots of protein and fiber, and consequently, satiety and long-lasting energy.  You may have heard of adding flaxseed to oatmeal, alfalfa sprouts to sandwiches, or snacking on raw almonds.  Even eating super grainy bread adds an extra boost to your diet.

6. Make some healthy swaps to your favorite meals.  Try a hummus sandwich! Seriously, folks. You won’t miss the turkey, if you replace it with a roasted garlic hummus, red peppers, cucumbers, basil and sprouts. Don’t fear the veggies.  The more you top on, the better tasting and more satiating!  Again, fruit-filled oatmeal is great, especially if you jazz it up with some dried cranberries or if you use some protein-rich quinoa as the grain-base rather than oats.  For dinner? Make a veggie stir-fry, stew or a pasta dish.

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