By Curves

By Cleveland Clinic
Originally contributed by Kylene Bogden ,MS, RD,CSSD, LD for Cleveland Clinic.

Protein is popping up everywhere, from bars and shakes to everyday cereals and bread. You can even get protein-fortified water! Since protein is a slow-burning fuel, it takes longer to digest. It keeps you full for longer and helps your body build and maintain muscle.

Do you know how much protein you need and the best ways to include it in your diet? Here are six things to know about protein.

1. Focus on the essentials
A complete protein source is one that contains all nine essential amino acids to support human dietary needs. Not only does a complete protein contain all of the essential amino acids, but it also contains them in perfect proportion in terms of biological function. Great examples include dairy, lean meat and quinoa.

2. Stay consistent
Protein amounts can vary, depending on your overall health and activity level. More importantly, don’t forget to eat a consistent amount of protein throughout the day, instead of loading up on it at dinner each night. Our bodies crave consistency when it comes to protein intake. It’s best to eat a variety of protein throughout the day.

3. Read labels: Even on fresh meat
You may be an avid label reader when it comes to your granola bars and yogurt, but it is equally as important to read the label on your “fresh” protein sources. You may be purchasing your chicken and fish from a refrigerated section at this grocery store, but this does not necessarily mean you made a better choice. If the ingredient list on your protein source contains words other than the actual food source i.e. “chicken” or “fish,” search for a different brand. Watch out for additives such as artificial colors, high fructose corn syrup, MSG or nitrates, because they can be added to animal protein the same way they are added to your snacks!

4. Animal proteins are most ‘bioavailable’
Proteins consumed from animal-based foods are the most easily harnessed and used by your body. For instance, 20 grams of protein from egg whites delivers more of a protein punch than the same quantity of protein from plant sources. You can still get the protein you need from non-animal sources, however, protein from animal sources is absorbed more readily by your body. Having a varied diet that incorporates plenty of plant based protein and low fat dairy in addition to lean animal protein, is a great way to promote heart health and lean mass.

5. Try unique sources of protein
Everyone is familiar with basic protein sources such as beef, chicken, and fish, but there are many other great options for protein, including dried beans and peas, tofu, quinoa, nuts and nut butters, seeds and Greek yogurt.

6. Protein can help ‘get your burn’
Protein is thermogenic; this means that it creates a slight calorie burn as it’s digested. When compared to many carbohydrate-rich foods, protein has a greater thermogenic effect. It’s like giving your digestive system a good, hard run.