Are You Eating Enough Protein?
When you hear the term "protein intake," you might just think about building muscle, but it's much bigger than that. Protein is essential for our bodies to work properly from head to toe. Getting the right amount of protein is important and depends on each individual.
You can think of protein as the worker bees of your body. The body doesn't store protein at all. The proteins of your body -- made up of individual components called amino acids -- are acting as the manpower of movement, the hard-working immune system, and carriers of oxygen in your blood, just to name a few roles. Each protein has a job and is doing that job pretty much all the time. Protein rarely just sits around idle in your body, nor is muscle simply "stored" protein.
When it comes to muscle, dietary protein is essential for ensuring your body has the necessary building blocks (amino acids) to maintain and build lean body mass. Without a surplus of available amino acids, muscles will not grow in strength or size. Of course, protein in the body is not enough to build muscle; adding resistance exercise to your daily routine gets you on the fast track to muscle growth.
Nine out of the 20 possible amino acids are essential, meaning the body cannot make them on its own; they must be ingested. Animal proteins are "complete" proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids. Plant-based proteins (such as legumes) are not all complete proteins, but as long as you eat a varied diet with lots of sources of protein, you can meet your complete amino acid needs. The exception to this is tofu, which is a complete protein.
but can be paired together to easily meet your amino acid needs. For example, eating beans with brown rice would fit the bill, and tofu is another great plant-based complete protein.
Protein has a Recommended Dietary Allowance level of 0.8g/kg of body weight. However, this is technically the minimum daily average intake level to meet the requirements of 97-98% of Americans. So while this is a good starting place, there is certainly a lot of wiggle room based on individual lifestyle and personal goals.
You may have heard that you need 0.8-1g/kg of body weight for protein. This recommendation is based on the minimum amount of protein to preserve the muscle mass you already have during weight maintenance. However, if you are active, trying to lose weight, or gaining muscle, you likely need more protein to reach your goals. For example, "strength and endurance athletes [may consume] 0.5-0.8 grams per pound of body weight per day," says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RDN, a registered dietitian based in Pittsburgh. "Those trying to decrease body fat but maintain muscle [may consume] 1.0 grams protein per pound of body weight per day." That's why tracking your protein intake with an app like MyFitnessPal is ideal, since you can see how much you're presently consuming and make changes from there.
Many eating styles suggest using a percentage of your total calories to determine your protein needs is sufficient. While this is a decent guideline, it doesn't account for your unique body and personal goals. Therefore, determining your general protein needs is best defined by using your weight.
Most formulas use kilograms as the bodyweight measurement. You can easily convert your weight in pounds to kilograms with this formula:
Weight in pounds / 2.2 = weight in kilograms
For example: 150 lbs / 2.2 = 68.2kg
The range of recommended protein varies for different populations. You should consider protein intake as a range to experiment with, not a set-in-stone, never-miss number. Working with a range gives you flexibility based on the day's activity levels, hunger, the way your body feels and desired outcomes.
These guidelines are based on several sources of expert associations in fitness and nutrition. While this is a useful guide, it's best to consult a physician or registered dietitian nutritionist to determine your ideal protein range.
Newer research is beginning to look not just at how much protein is needed daily but also how and when it is consumed. It seems to make a difference on body composition, satiety and even athletic performance if protein is spread throughout the day instead of eaten more heavily at one time of the day (e.g., dinnertime). Research has shown interesting results that spreading total protein needs over the day evenly (about 1/4 of your body weight in grams per meal) is more effective at stimulating muscle synthesis and may translate to an overall healthier body long term.
If you're feeling sluggish, hungry all the time, or noticing you are prone to injury and have brittle nails -- these are signs you may not be getting enough protein. In fact, recent research suggests nearly half of older adult Americans aren't getting enough protein. If you're trying to manage your weight better, adding protein to your diet may help. "You burn more calories consuming protein over carbs or fat," says Maverick Willett, an International Sports Sciences Association-certified fitness nutritionist and personal trainer based in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Here are 10 ways to add more protein to your diet:
1. BUY PROTEIN-RICH VARIETIES OF FOODS YOU LOVE
When you're in the mood for pasta, you don't have to eat the refined carb-heavy noodles you grew up on; supermarkets now stock alternative protein-based options made from chickpeas, red lentils or other ingredients.
"Consider a higher-protein version of a familiar food, such as bean-based pastas," Bonci says. "[They're] much higher in protein and fiber," so they'll keep you fuller, longer.
You can also bake with protein-rich alternatives to traditional white flour, including bean- and nut-based flours, or shop for ready-made products, "such as higher-protein cereal/oats, higher-protein bread [or] higher-protein pancake mix," says Bonci.
2. DOUBLE UP ON PROTEIN-CONTAINING INGREDIENTS
When you're trying to up your protein intake, adding extra protein to your meals makes it easy to increase the amount you eat without having to prepare extra dishes. For example, "add an extra egg to a pancake mix," says Bonci or add an extra dollop of Greek yogurt to your hearty chili.
3. SNEAK PROTEIN INTO EXISTING DISHES
You can increase your protein intake without making protein the focus of your meal or snack. Find ways to integrate protein-rich ingredients into your current diet. "Start with familiar foods, and embellish with more protein," Bonci says. "Puree cannellini beans and add them to macaroni and cheese." You can also add nutritional yeast to popcorn or mix pasta sauce with plant-based sausage or veggies.
4. UP YOUR BEAN INTAKE
"One of the most bioavailable sources of protein that is often underappreciated is legumes," says Mike Clancy, a Precision Nutrition-certified lifestyle coach based in New York City. "Black beans, in particular, offer 13 grams of protein per serving." They're high in protein and fiber and an inexpensive pantry staple you can buy in bulk. If you need somewhere to start, here are five easy ways to use beans (no recipes required).
5. INCLUDE DAIRY
You may think of calcium when you think of dairy products, but don't forget milk, yogurt and cheese also contain protein. "Make oatmeal with milk instead of water, and add peanut butter and/or nuts [for even more protein]," suggests Bonci. "[Or] add nonfat dry milk powder to peanut butter to boost the protein." If you're sensitive to lactose, you can also try plant-based options like soy and pea milk, which also contain protein.
6. EMBELLISH DISHES WITH NUTS OR SEEDS
Many people eat nuts and seeds by the handful as a snack, but they're versatile ingredients that go well with many entrees and contain protein and micronutrients. Consider adding whole or chopped nuts or seeds to main courses. Unsweetened, unsalted varieties work best. "Sprinkle nuts or seeds in salad, grain bowl, added to a pasta dish or chopped in a stir-fry," recommends Bonci. Since nuts are energy-dense, make sure to pay attention to portion size.
7. THINK BEYOND GREENS FOR SALADS
Instead of focusing exclusively on vegetables, make sure to add protein-rich ingredients to every salad. Grilled chicken or salmon are obvious choices, but you can also add tofu, beans, tuna and shredded cheese, says Bonci.
8. MAKE SMART CONDIMENT SWAPS
Using healthy substitutions when preparing certain dishes can save calories and up the protein content. Cottage cheese and Greek yogurt are two reliable ways to lower the fat content while maintaining or increasing the protein content of your food. For example, "use plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream for dips or sandwiches," says Bonci.
9. ADD NO-COOK OPTIONS
Adding protein to your diet doesn't have to be time-consuming. It can be as simple as dipping some veggies in protein-rich hummus or filling your grocery cart with "no-cook items such as canned fish, canned beans, veggie crumbles, yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese and milk," Bonci says. Pre-sliced deli meats can also be an easy protein-rich snack or sandwich filling, but just make sure to watch the sodium content.
10. MAKE IT PORTABLE
You don't have to limit yourself to a bag of chips or an energy bar when you're hungry for a snack. Many protein-rich foods are easy to take along and quick to eat. "Consider portable protein options for snacks, [like] jerky, cheese sticks, yogurt, nuts, roasted chickpeas, edamame [or] hard-boiled eggs," says Bonci.
Originally published September 2017, updated January 2023
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