Fat. Carbohydrates. These two macronutrients are frequently in health news but on varying sides of the “Is it good for you?” debate—think of low-fat diets versus praise for healthy fats, the Paleo diet (which eschews processed carbs) versus the health benefits of whole grains. Protein, the third macronutrient, seems to be immune to this debate and is generally considered a good part of a healthy diet. According to Medline Plus, an information website maintained by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “Every cell in the human body contains protein. It is a major part of the skin, muscles, organs, and glands. . . . You need protein in your diet to help your body repair cells and make new ones.” Everyone needs protein to supply the nine essential amino acids, which our bodies need to function but which the body cannot produce. Protein needs vary based on age and lifestyle habits. Athletes need protein to strengthen and repair muscles after grueling workouts. And adults need more protein than children. (Choosemyplate.gov lists a host of specific benefits of protein.)
Meat, poultry, and seafood are excellent sources of protein, and these foods are typically what we think of when we consider getting enough protein in our diet. Of course, vegetarians do not consume animal protein sources, and these foods can be problematic for people who avoid or limit their intake of saturated fats and cholesterol for health reasons. But many foods contain some protein, including grains, beans, even fruits and vegetables (really!) and can contribute to your overall protein intake.
Your best bet may be to combine a variety of foods, such as lean meats, beans, and whole grains, to meet your unique protein requirements. Of particular importance when getting protein from nonmeat sources is getting enough of the nine essential amino acids, which are substances the body cannot produce but nevertheless needs for optimal health. Although some vegetarian protein sources, such as beans, do not contain all nine essential amino acids, the combination of a few foods, like beans and rice, do give you all nine; this is known as a complete protein. Other examples of complementary foods are: beans and corn (a popular combination in Mexican cuisine), wheat and chickpeas (pair whole wheat pita with hummus), or a sandwich of natural peanut butter spread on whole grain or sprouted grain bread. Check out more examples of compete proteins (plus recipes!) over on Greatist.
Get started with this protein-rich white bean chicken chili. The chicken packs a protein wallop without adding a lot of fat, and the pairing of cannellini beans and corn creates another complete protein source, further boosting the protein content. Even better, it is low in fat and calories.