We all know that to maintain a balanced, healthy diet, eating a large variety of foods in proper proportions is the key.
But how important is each group of food or nutrient that we consume?
By doing a quick Google search, it’s easy for one to run into thousands of different diet recipes that claim to be healthy, often consisting of a huge list of complicated and expensive ingredients.
That doesn’t suit most people’s financial situation in an economy reeling from inflation.
So, we asked the expert.
Greg Doucette graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from Acadia University, then later got his master’s degree in kinesiology from St. Francs Xavier University. Aside from having a YouTube channel discussing fitness, training and diet, to name a few, with more than 1.7 million followers, Doucette is also well-known for his cookbooks with plenty of recipes to help people achieve their desired physiques.
Among the group of most essential nutrients, including carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, water, or dietary fibre, Doucette emphasized protein is arguably the most important because it’s responsible for building muscle.
“Without protein, you can’t build muscle,” he said. “Also, protein is very satiating, as in it makes you feel fuller than carbohydrates. So, with many people struggling to lose weight (in a healthy way), if they consume more protein, they would find it easier to achieve their weight loss goals.
“Protein also gives energy, so you need it every day.”
It’s important to note that not all proteins are created equally, he added.
“Basically, you can get protein from either animal-related products or plant-based products,” he explained. “But proteins are not created equally, meaning some are better than others. Animal proteins in general are better than plant proteins. The quality of proteins is also higher from animal, so you would need less of it. It’s (plant proteins) just not as potent.”
That doesn’t mean one can’t get enough protein from plants, but you have to eat more of them to have the same benefit, said Doucette.
Some vegetables are rich in protein, he noted. These include watercress, alfalfa sprouts, rapini (or broccoli rabe), spinach, napa cabbage, mushrooms, asparagus, bean sprouts and edamame, just to name a few that can be easily found at any local grocery stores and farmers’ markets.
For those who are trying to eat lower-calorie food, but still need to maintain the right amount of protein consumption, there’s more to know. To be specific, for example, there are about 12 grams of protein per pound of spinach, with about 100 calories. Edamame, on the other hand, has about 50 grams of protein per pound, but comes with more than 500 calories.
“So, if somebody ate about a pound of spinach versus a pound of edamame, they would get five times more calories from edamame than from spinach at the same amount,” Doucette said. “Although they’re both high in protein, somebody who is trying to lose weight would much prefer to have spinach, mushrooms or watercress than edamame. These are probably some of the most famous vegetables that are very high in protein.”
Some other common plant-based foods that are high in protein are nuts and peanut butter. Although they are really high in protein, they are also incredibly high in fat and calories, he added.
“For example, peanut butter is high in protein, but you would have to eat, like, 10 peanut butter sandwiches to get enough protein from it and that means so many calories — there comes the risk of being overweight if you overeat your calories,” he cautioned. “Not that peanut butter is not good for you, but it’s not all about protein.”
While all meats have very similar amounts of protein, they do have varying degrees of fats and calories.
“For example, 100 grams of chicken have about 20 grams of protein,” he said. “But steak would have double the amounts of calories for the same amount of protein because steak would have much more fat.
“So, the best advice would be, out of all the meats, although they all have similar amounts of protein, chicken has a lot less calories and fats than things like hamburger and steak, especially fattier cuts of steak.”
There’s also a difference in calories between eating white poultry meat versus dark meat.
“As in chicken breast versus chicken thigh, chicken thigh has way more fats and calories, although it has the same amount of protein compared to chicken breast,” said Doucette.
Another source of protein is milk, but the weight of the water contained in the food also needs to be taken into consideration.
“This confuses a lot of people,” Doucette said. “Milk is very, very high in protein, but, if you weigh milk, it doesn’t have a lot of protein, because milk is full of water.
“Think about it like this. In comparison, peanut butter, by gram, has way more protein than milk, but, if you have a pound of peanut butter, it’s going to have thousands of calories more than a pound of milk. Or, say, protein shake. The protein powder itself has a lot of protein, but if you mix it in water, then, a pound of protein shake only has about 20 grams of protein.”
Aside from the vegetables listed above that are rich in protein, Doucette suggested some good sources of proteins which are also affordable include tuna fish, eggs, ground beef, chicken, Greek yogurt and cottage cheese.
And tips to make getting groceries a bit cheaper?
Buy things in bulk, advised Doucette, noting that buying a big family pack of a product is going to be a lot cheaper. Buy things when they’re in season — or on sale, of course — is a good idea too because it’s often cheaper than at other times.
Doucetter cooks in bulk too.
“People often will cook one meal at a time, but some just don’t have time for that,” he said. “I normally will cook chicken for four or five days for example.”
It’s aleays important to consider the good source of protein, added Doucette.
“It’s so much cheaper to eat chicken thigh than chicken breast, or to eat regular ground beef than extra lean ground beef,” he said. “The price for everything is so much more expensive now, but the ones that have more calories are often way cheaper.
“Try to get your quality protein from animal sources, unless you’re vegetarian or vegan. And, if you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s harder to get enough protein and it’s going to be more expensive. Just think of how much it costs for spinach now. So, it’s important to take note of which foods or vegetables have more protein in them.”
How much is enough?
“If you eat meat on a regular basis, you have absolutely no problem getting enough protein,” Doucette said. “It’s not a problem unless you’re just eating junk food and rice all the time and avoid meats or dairy products.
“People who lift weights and work out aim to eat close to one gram of protein per pound of body weight, but, in reality, even eating half of this for most people is enough to sustain general health and muscle building. How much is consuming enough protein would also depend on the person’s size.”
Andrea Lagos Lean, 22, a UPEI graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and food science, agrees on the importance of protein consumption on a daily basis.
“Protein is important in every meal and on a daily basis,” she said. “Protein consumption helps renew and repair cells. It helps provide satiety. Protein consumption also helps create hormones, enzymes and antibodies.”
Protein is a substance found in food composed of amino acids. Proteins in food contain essential (amino acids the body cannot create) and nonessential (amino acids the body can create) amino acids. There are foods considered high-quality protein or complete protein, which contain all essential amino acids, and there are foods considered incomplete proteins, which are sources of proteins that are deficient in one or more essential amino acid.
The idea, said Lean, is to try to mix and match sources of protein when preparing a meal.
“For example, (combining) hummus and pita or rice and beans,” she said. “Pulses, legumes and grains are usually cheaper at grocery store and can also be bought in bulk.”
Lean also agrees that the amount of protein needed varies from person to person.
“To calculate protein needs, you use your body weight — in my case 61 kilograms — and multiply it by 0.8,” she explained. “So, I would need around 48 grams of protein per day.”