A simple guide to getting enough protein in your diet
If there is any part of the food pyramid that has got some major buzz going on, it’s protein. But protein has been moving up and down on that little pyramid picture as fast as the Energizer Bunny, and some of us are left feeling perplexed about what it all means to our own diet and lifestyle.
Here’s the thing: Protein is a major player in your body—an integral part of overall health and wellbeing. It helps build your biceps (great for the sleeveless summertime), gives you energy, it can make your hair better (which feels heaven-sent!) and—yes, it can help you lose weight. Really! Plus, nourishing your body with the right proteins is just as important as nurturing your mind with positive thoughts. But like exercise and spirituality, it’s not something to take lightly--a diet with adequate protein is foundational for a healthy, balanced life.
The tricky part is knowing how much protein is right for you, and since the experts are divided on this question (with good reason, since it’s different for everyone), you might be a little vague on how much protein you need and what kinds are best for you.
First, it’s not a bad idea to have a basic understanding of what protein does and why it’s important (don’t fret, we’ll help you become a protein pro). Proteins are made out of tiny molecules called amino acids, which are linked together like pearls on a necklace. Some of these amino acid protein chains can be produced by the body, some can’t. The ones we can’t make have to come from our diet and are called “essential amino acids.”
It’s about quality
So, adding protein in your diet is not just about the quantity, it’s about their quality. Most of us grew up getting the protein we needed from animal products (two all-beef patties, eggs and of course, milk). These foods have amino acids in the right ratio because they are from animal tissues, which are similar to our own. But we now understand that too much protein from animals is not ideal and that protein from a variety of sources is beneficial (even cricket protein is in the table these days. Yes, I said cricket!).
The current RDA for protein is .8 grams per kilogram of body weight (that really cleared things up for you, right?—Not!) To put that into easier terms, get out your calculator and multiply your weight in pounds by .36. For the average adult woman, that equals about 46-75 grams of protein a day. For an average adult male, it’s a bit more: 56-91 grams daily.
The point is, there’s no cookie-cutter answer to this question. Your protein needs also depend on how active you are, your age, how much muscle mass you have, and your current overall health. Some experts say the RDA is the minimum needed to keep you from getting sick. If you have specific goals or dietary needs, you might actually require more protein. (And remember, we’re talking about grams of actual protein not the weight of the food-- an eight ounce serving of beef might weigh 226 grams but it only contains 61 grams of actual micronutrient protein.)
If you’re looking to trim some pounds, additional protein can be your best friend. The science is solid. Boosting protein intake to 25% or 30% of total calories (with some studies suggesting that 30% of total calories is optimal for weight loss) can increase your metabolism and help you stay full longer (love that!), which means you eat less. Higher protein intake also preserves and builds muscle mass which elevates your ability to burn calories. Pretty sweet, right?
Adequate protein intake is also essential as you get older (you’re ageless of course, but listening to your body is important). Your body is constantly breaking down and rebuilding muscle mass. If you want to maintain what you have or even beef up, you need a net positive protein balance. Although suggestions differ, a fairly common recommendation to gain or maintain muscle is between .7 and one gram of protein per pound of body weight.
Now that you have some benchmarks on intake, the next question is what’s a good balance of protein foods? Some people automatically jump to the conclusion that adding protein means eating more meat—but you can’t just add bacon to your diet, and expect to get the best results for health or weight loss. You need to consider the total package—look for sources that have less saturated fat and carbohydrates along with more vitamins and minerals.
The table here is a good guide for how much protein different foods contain:
Food Protein (grams):
The great news is that there are tons of alternative and plant-based proteins (like paleo diet foods and vegan foods) to help you profit from protein in a healthful way. Here are some of the best:
Quinoa: You’ve probably been hearing a lot about this rock star grain and maybe even tried to make one of those high protein quinoa bowls. You are on the right track! In addition to 8 grams of protein per cup, it’s also loaded with important vitamins and minerals, like folate and magnesium, and it has all nine of the essential amino acids you need for a complete protein.
Chia seeds: Even though they are tiny, chia seeds pack a powerful protein punch (this tasty ingredient is also included in Shift Bars). There is 9.4 grams of protein in just two tablespoons. They are also whole grains that contain a fair amount of those important omega-3s, fiber for satiety, as well as multiple minerals—calcium, iron, magnesium and zinc. You can add them to just about anything you are already eating from smoothies to salads. You’ll also see them in healthy protein snacks.
Pulses: From chickpeas to pinto beans, these dry edible seeds from the legume family are a great addition to your protein portfolio. Most include significant protein as well as other important nutrients. Take lentils. They are loaded with B vitamins, folate, fiber and contain 18 grams of protein per cup. They are great in soups and stews, and roasted they can give a nice crunchy texture to your favorite healthy snack. Similarly, chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) are full of fiber, they have 14 grams of protein per cup and may even help support healthy cholesterol levels. Look for these pulse favorites in gluten-free food and vegan snacks.
Cutting to the chase, your protein needs may evolve as your lifestyle changes (couch potato today yoga goddess tomorrow), so it’s important to be on top of what works well for you. Eating a balanced diet with adequate protein can help you stay healthy and maintain an active lifestyle as you get older, and there’s nothing that will contribute to your overall long-term wellness more than that.
How much protein do we need every day? Harvard Health Blog. Jan. 8, 2018. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096
How much protein should eat per day. Healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-much-protein-per-day
10 Best meatless protein sources. Prevention.com. https://www.prevention.com/food/healthy-eating-tips/10-best-meatless-protein-sources
USDA National Nutrient Database, 2015 and 41 High Protein Foods, Coach Magazine