When putting together a nutritiously balanced meal plan, there are a few important factors to consider. The first key element is protein. As many of us are aware, over the past 10 years there has been an explosion of focus on protein, mainly based upon the introduction of the low-carb craze. Still, many people do not include the proper amount of protein in their diet. Protein is so important for wellness and health. It is the building block of the cells in your body. A lack of consuming the proper amount of protein can cause growth failure, loss of muscle, lowered immunity, and weakening of the heart and respiratory system. Whether you are trying to burn fat, build muscle, or just live a life of wellness, you need to incorporate protein correctly and sufficiently throughout your diet. There are two types of protein - complete and incomplete. Complete proteins are the highest quality proteins, and contain all the essential and non-essential amino acids. Most complete proteins come from animal sources such as eggs, meat, and milk. Incomplete proteins are proteins that lack one or more of the essential amino acids that the body cannot make from scartch or create by modifying another amino acid. This is an important point for vegetarians to note. In order for the body to get all of the essential amino acids and keep itself, as a system, in top shape, it is critical for non-meat eaters to get a wide range of incomplete protein rich foods in their diet. For example, combining two incomplete proteins like beans and rice offers all of the essential amino acids for meeting the minimum amino acid requirements for health. However, vegetarians beware, there is a difference between minimum requirements for maintaining health, and requirements for building muscle. In other words, vegetarians may have a bit of a difficult time, if one of their best life goals is to build muscle. Following is a list of protein sources. One point to note regarding animal proteins is that certain types can contain large amounts of saturated fats. It is best to stick to lean varieties, such as poultry breast, lean cuts of red meat, egg whites (limit number of yolks to 1-2 per day), and nonfat or lowfat dairy products. Complete (lean) sources of protein Chicken breast Turkey breast Lean red meats (top round, lean sirloin, flank steak) Fish Shellfish Eggs (and egg whites) Nonfat or lowfat milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt (plain) Protein powders - whey, egg, or rice based Vegetable sources Beans Legumes Nuts Whole grains How much protein do I need? For the average individual looking to eat for wellness, build muscle, or lose fat, it is recommended to aim for at least 30% of your total calorie intake as protein. For example, if you are taking in 2000 calories per day, then you would multiply 2000 by 30% to get 600 calories worth of protein for the day. Now, since 1 gram of protein equals 4 calories, that would mean that you should be shooting for at least 150 grams of protein per day (which translates to 30 grams per meal if you are eating 5 meals per day) in order to reach the 30% ratio. I recommend not going higher than 40%, that should be your limit. The crucial element to remember with protein is this: You must consume a source of complete proteins with every meal. Why? Well, to ensure continuous repair of muscle tissue, to slow digestion and reduce insulin spikes, and to encourage satiety and reduce hunger paigns. Also, protein should be consumed at frequent intervals throughout the day because it cannot be stored for later like carbohydrates can. Do I need to use protein powders in order to lose fat or build muscle? The answer is no. The supplement industry is a big money maker, so there is a lot of marketing and sales push out there that can be confusing at times. You do not need to use protein powder to achieve your fitness goals. It is truly best to eat whole food sources of protein for the bulk of your nutrition. Protein supplements are merely for convenience. The human digestive system is designed to digest WHOLE foods, not liquid forms of protein. By overconsuming liquid protein supplements, you are short changing yourself on the thermic (calorie burning) effects of digesting real, whole foods. My FAVORITE dessert, one that I have almost every night of the week, is a concoction of chocolate whey protein powder and Naturally More Peanut Butter, but I will save that recipe for later in the series, after we talk about fat. ;) I know, I am a tease. In Part 2 of the series we will discuss carbohydrates. Part 3 will focus on fat. After that, we will put it all together and discuss food pairing and some example meal plans. Let me know how you like this series. Don’t be shy folks, I want to know what you think. After all, I am writing for you!