In the 1970s, weight lifters — now called bodybuilders — bragged about eating a dozen egg whites every morning to help them get enough protein to build muscles. On TV, you would see them devour slabs of meat, stacks of toast, and giant milkshakes in preparation for the first workout of the day in late morning.
In the 1980s and early '90s, protein supplements in the form of powders, gels, and pills skyrocketed in popularity.
Things have changed.
Many of the next generation of musclemen are now told flatly by nutritionists and bodybuilding experts that well-balanced meals will offer enough protein for all but the most intense exercisers. Unfortunately, few are listening.
What is protein?
Proteins are complex organic compounds that are the main component of the body's muscles, tendons, ligaments, and organs. Proteins are made up of amino acids. The human body needs about 20 amino acids to make its proteins. Of these 20, the body can make only 13; the remainder, the essential amino acids, must come from food. Foods that supply all the amino acids needed by the body are called complete proteins. These foods include meats, poultry, milk, eggs, and fish. Amino acids are also found in plants, but plant proteins are not complete. No plant proteins offer all the essential amino acids our bodies need. If a person's diet has more protein than the body needs, the excess protein is used for energy or stored as fat. The amount of protein required each day depends on a person's age, health, and diet. Two to three servings of protein-rich food will meet the daily needs of most adults.
It is true that those who exercise need more protein to maintain or build muscles, but just modestly increasing portions of meat, poultry, pork, fish, and certain vegetables will provide virtually all athletes with enough amino acids.
About 15 percent of your daily calories should come from protein; 12 percent if you are an older adult. Bodybuilders need 20 percent of their calories from protein. Fat intake should be no more than 30 percent of your daily calories and no more than half of that should be from saturated fat.
Egg whites and milk lead the way in having high-quality, biologically available protein, followed by meat, fish, and poultry.
Red meat is not the bugaboo it once was — partly because grocery stores and other specialty shops now offer extremely lean products (30 percent fat). In fact, most nutritionists — and even the American Heart Association (AHA) — say that lean red meat is an acceptable part of most diets. Be aware that some "lean" meats, such as mutton, are fatter than other meats, such as beef. Many restaurants do not use lean meat, so experts suggest asking questions before ordering.
The lean cuts of meat include flank steak, London broil, and extra-lean ground beef. In addition to containing large amounts of protein, lean red meat is an excellent source of iron and zinc.
For poultry, take the skin off and don't fry it. Removing the skin removes most of the fat.
Fish is not only high in protein, but also very low in saturated fat (the "bad" fat). If you eat locally caught fish, however, check with your department of health to see if any kinds should be avoided because of toxic pollutants.
Go for variety
Try different ethnic recipes, which offer a wide variety of ways to cook meat, chicken, fish, and vegetables. Here are some suggestions: burritos with lean meat; beans and rice; pasta salad with low-fat dressing; and vegetable lasagna made with low-fat cheese.
Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, seeds, and nuts all contain both essential and non-essential amino acids, too. And, according to the AHA, you do not need to consciously combine these foods as "complementary proteins" within a given meal.
Overall, nutrition experts say that a varied and balanced diet of meats, vegetables, dairy, and grains is best.