UNC Health Care
Nutritionist

The Power of Protein

Nutritionist, Shelly Wegman
Nutritionist, Shelly Wegman

Post by Shelly Wegman, MS, RD, LDN. Shelly Wegman is a registered dietitian with Rex Wellness Centers of Raleigh and Garner.

As a dietitian with Rex Wellness, I spend time working with clients to help them determine their specific nutrition needs and how to best meet those needs. For some, it’s about training for marathons or other events. For others, it’s about preventing heart disease or diabetes or treating diseases like these. Some are trying to lose weight, some are trying to gain weight, and some just want to maintain.

One thing I’ve found that many clients have in common is their inconsistent protein intake. Sometimes they get too much at one meal and not enough at another meal. Sometimes they don’t get enough in the entire day. So why is this so important? Let’s start with what protein does. Protein is made up of amino acids. When you eat protein foods such as lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, soy products, cheeses, cottage cheese, and nuts and beans these amino acids break down and are sent off to reform in different ways. Some are used to repair and strengthen muscle tissue, others to repair cells, some make hormones and red blood cells. All of the functions are vital to good health. If you don’t get the right amount of protein you’re at risk for muscle loss which can result in increased fat deposits. As we age we lose muscle mass, up to .8% a year for people over the age of 40. Gradual loss of muscle without weight loss means you’re gaining fat cells. This slows your metabolism and puts you at increased risk for other health issues such as diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease.

So what do you do? First, find out how much protein you need. On average, if you don’t have any specific health issues, you need about half your body weight in grams of protein. For example- a 150 pound person needs 75g of protein. That’s about the equivalent of 8-10 ounces of protein foods spread throughout the day. The key here is to spread it throughout the day. If you eat or drink your protein foods/beverages all at once your body will excrete the protein it doesn’t immediately need and that’s just a waste of good protein! You can see a registered dietitian at any of our Wellness Centers to help you determine your exact protein needs as they may vary depending on your medical concerns.

Lyle got strong, you can too!
Lyle got strong, you can too!

Second, get strong! Do some strength training. We have the best fitness instructors and trainers who will be glad to help you set up a personalized program to start building muscle. I’m not talking about becoming a body builder (unless that’s what you want to do) but rather about preventing or delaying the loss of muscle. Strong muscles mean a faster metabolism which means more lean body mass and less body fat.

So when you sit down for your next meal, take a good look at your plate. Is your plate half full of vegetables to repair cell damage, one-quarter full of lean protein for building muscle and making hormones and red blood cells, and one-quarter full of carbohydrates like whole grains or fruits to give your brain energy?