Protein is a macronutrient that provides the body with amino acids that are used for many biological roles in the body. Processed meat is the worst protein for your heart.
1. What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient that is essential to building muscle mass. It is commonly found in animal products, though is also present in other sources, such as nuts and legumes.
The word protein comes from the Greek “protos,” which “reflects protein’s top- shelf status in human nutrition,” Harvard Health reported.
According to Victoria Taylor, a dietitian at the British Heart Foundation: “Macronutrients are the nutrients we need in larger quantities that provide us with energy. In other words, fat, protein and carbohydrates.” The body requires large amounts of macronutrients to sustain life, hence the term “macro,” according to the University of Illinois McKinley Health Center. Each gram of protein contains 4 calories. Protein makes up about 15% of a person’s body weight.
2. Why is protein important?
Chemically, protein is composed of amino acids, which are organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen or sulfur. Just as amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, proteins are the building blocks of muscle mass, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“When protein is broken down in the body it helps to fuel muscle mass, which helps metabolism,” said Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes educator and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It also helps the immune system stay strong. It helps you stay full. A lot of research has shown that protein has satiety effects.”
For example, research has shown that satiety, or feeling full after a meal, improved after consuming a high-protein snack. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Nutrition, researchers compared afternoon snacks of high-protein yogurt, high-fat crackers and high-fat chocolate. Among the women who participated in the study, consuming the yogurt led to greater reductions in afternoon hunger versus the chocolate. These women also ate less at dinner compared with the women who snacked on crackers or chocolate.
A similar study published in 2015 in the Journal of Nutrition found that adolescents who consumed high-protein afternoon snacks showed reduced appetite, satiety and diet quality. The teens also had improved moods and better cognition.
3. How much protein is healthy?
The U.S Department of Agriculture(opens in new tab) recommends that 10% to 35% of daily calories come from protein. How that equates to grams of protein depends on the caloric needs of the individual. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture(opens in new tab), the amount of protein-rich foods a person should eat depends on age, sex and level of physical activity.
“”A safe level of protein ranges from 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight [2.2 lbs.], up to 2 grams of protein per kilogram for very active athletes,”” said Crandall. “”But most Americans truly need to be eating about 1 to 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.”” The NIH(opens in new tab) has detailed recommendations for the amount of nutrients an individual should consume.
“Most people need 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal,” said Crandall. “For example, that”s 2.5 egg whites at breakfast or 3 to 4 ounces of meat at dinner.” Most American women are not getting anywhere close to adequate protein at breakfast, according to Crandall. “”That could be hindering their muscle mass, their metabolism and their hormone levels.””
Crandall cautioned parents against stressing protein consumption for their children, who typically get sufficient protein. “It’s important to focus on fruits and vegetables for kids, but protein supplementation for kids is going overboard,” she said. When considering how to get protein into kids’ diets, parents should focus on whole foods and natural sources.
4. The #1 worst protein for your heart
Protein is a macronutrient that provides the body with amino acids that are used for many biological roles in the body. You can get protein from both plant and animal foods, but you do have to be more wary of your choices when it comes to animal sources.
With animal protein, you do want to choose lean cuts where you are getting numerous essential nutrients your body needs but with lower saturated and total fat amounts. Processed meats and higher fat cuts are very high in saturated fat, a nutrient that has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. For that reason, processed meat isn’t the healthiest choice for your heart.
How do processed meats affect your heart?
Processed meats are any meats that undergo salting, curing, or smoking, the most common examples being sausage and bacon. By processing the meats in this manner, the resulting protein tends to be higher in sodium in addition to the higher amounts of saturated fats that the meat may already contain.
As touched on earlier, eating too much saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. The PURE (Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology) study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed 134,297 individuals for close to 10 years. The study found that a higher intake of processed meat of at least 150 grams per week compared to zero grams per week was associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease. It should be noted that a significant association between unprocessed red meat and poultry and major cardiovascular disease was not found.
How much should I consume?
According to the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it’s recommended to have no more than 10% of your total calories from saturated fat and a maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium. Data from the dietary guidelines show that close to all Americans consume over the current sodium recommendations.
To put it in perspective, three slices of cooked bacon have about 95 calories, 7.75 grams of protein, 6.54 grams of fat, 2.38 grams of saturated fat, and 345 milligrams of sodium. That’s close to 12 percent of your daily recommended amount of saturated fat based on a 2,000-calorie diet—and remember bacon is usually consumed with other foods that are high in saturated fat and sodium.
If you choose to eat processed meat like bacon, choose to eat it on occasion and smaller portions. There is also uncured bacon available. Uncured bacon doesn’t use sodium nitrites to cure. It tends to be cured with a form of celery, which has natural nitrites plus sea salt and other flavorings. The same goes for other processed meats and poultry—you can often find better-for-you versions with less salt or made with a leaner cut of meat.