Eating enough of the right kind of protein may help curb appetite, improve heart health, and keep blood sugars in check.
Myth: Low-carb is the key.
Low-carb diets can help control diabetes, but this may not be the right approach for everyone. Some popular low-carb diets are also higher in fats and may not be good for people with type 2 diabetes who are already at risk for heart disease. Look for low-carb diets that emphasize lean proteins and heart-healthy fats. Controlling carbs is important in diabetes control, but a low-carb diet may not be the plan that works for you. See: Are You Getting Enough Protein? (pictured at left)
| Credit: Beau Gustafson

Even if the low-carb diet craze ended up being a bit of a bust, the attention it focused on protein is a good thing. Researchers are taking a closer look at this often ignored nutrient and discovering its hidden health potential. The gist of the latest research: generous amounts of the right kinds of protein–still within recommended levels but closer to the top of the optimal range experts recommend–could curb appetite, improve heart health, and help lower risk for a laundry list of chronic ills. The key to unlocking benefits starts with taking a closer look at the quality and quantity of protein you eat.

The Right Kind of Protein
Sure, a juicy T-bone steak will net you plenty of protein, about 53 grams for 8 ounces. Thing is, that protein package comes weighted down with 52 grams of fat, 20 grams of it the artery-clogging kind. To net the health-promoting benefits of protein, experts recommend tapping into lean, high quality choices: fish, skinless poultry, lean meat, egg whites, low fat dairy, and legumes. How much protein is good? Government MyPyramid guidelines talk about eating about 15 percent of calories (68 grams for someone eating 1800 calories) from protein, a figure that is in line with what most Americans currently eat. The Institute of Medicine suggests as much as 35 percent of calories from protein is safe.

Protein Benefits
It's that upper end of the recommended range, in the neighborhood of 25-30 percent, that's keeping the scientific world all abuzz. At these higher levels, researchers find protein does everything from quench appetite to rev up fat burning to keep blood sugar and insulin levels on an even keel. A study from Johns Hopkins Medical center finds that just shifting your diet to include a little more high-quality protein and a little less potatoes or rice could dramatically impact heart health. Working on the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial to Prevent Heart Disease (Omni Heart), researchers found that people who replace just 10 percent of carb calories with protein (or a healthy fat like the monounsaturated variety) can significantly lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

So far, this new thinking about protein is a work in progress. It doesn't change the fact that protein plays a role in grown and repair of all kinds of body tissues, including bone and muscle. These newer findings simply suggest the impact of protein on health is more far reaching than health experts first realized, and that perhaps protein is a key player in keeping the heart healthy, the blood sugar level, and appetite and weight all under control. As scientists debate the merits of all these provocative new findings, it's almost certain the 2010 Dietary Guidelines will include new advice about protein.

Protein Advice
For now, don't worry about playing percentages or counting grams of protein. Instead, the best advice is twofold. Focus your fork on lean, high-quality sources of protein. And make sure to include them at every meal. Oh, and if weight loss is your goal, a little bigger serving of high quality protein is definitely in order.

Click here for recipes featuring lean, high-quality protein foods.