Where’s the Protein?

I talk a lot about protein in the clinic. It’s a major macronutrient; “macro” means that our bodies need it every day because it’s essential for almost every cell in the body to function. Protein is used to make muscles, skin and hormones. In some cases, people get too much protein: maybe fitness-minded folks who take protein powders and bars and eat protein foods at every meal and snack to build muscle while keeping their fat mass low. But for the average person I often see the opposite, even though many nutrition articles claim that Americans get too much.

Sometimes it’s not very obvious because it may be masked by a healthful diet. Consider this day:

Breakfast: oatmeal with fresh fruit, a tablespoon of almonds, unsweetened almond milk

Snack: apple, popcorn

Lunch: large vegetable salad with leafy greens, avocado, and a sprinkle of chickpeas, whole grain pita bread

Snack: bowl of chopped cantaloupe, pretzels

Dinner: whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce and roasted cauliflower

Dessert: 2 squares dark chocolate

Sounds pretty good right? Heart-healthy, lots of fiber and nutrients. But where’s the protein? This sample day provides only about 15-20 grams of protein. For the average-sized woman, her needs are closer to 50-65 grams daily, and more for men. If you miss eating enough protein every day, eventually your body will speak to you:

  • low energy, fatigue
  • brittle hair and nails, dry skin
  • strong cravings
  • loss of muscle, which decreases strength and your metabolism, which can then promote weight gain

When hunger or cravings occur with a low protein diet, people tend to reach for carbs—bread, pasta, chips—not only because they’re easy to eat but because they digest quickly and spike your blood sugar to provide immediate energy. The problem there is that always reaching for carbs means elevated blood sugar, which can lead to the hunger returning shortly. And the cycle continues, possibly leading to weight gain and a neverending feeling of never being quite satisfied.

How Much?

It depends on your body size, age and activity level.

The government’s Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for anyone 18 years and older is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. The RDAs for any nutrient are based on the minimum amount needed to prevent a deficiency, but not necessarily the optimal amount you need. Based on this RDA, let’s say Maria who weighs 150 pounds, or 68 kg, would need about 55 grams protein a day. As our age increases, so do our protein needs because we progressively lose more muscle at the same time that our bodies have a harder time building new muscle. People over 50 years may need 1.0-1.2 grams per kg, and over 65 years may need as high as 1.2-2.0 gram per kg. If someone is carrying excess body fat, the estimate wouldn’t use actual weight but an adjusted weight, and if one has medical conditions that affect protein metabolism, then those needs would also be personalized. In both cases, a consultation with a registered dietitian can be helpful.

Some nutrition experts feel that the RDA of 0.8 gm per kg is too low. I tend to start with 1 gram protein per kg, so I’d suggest about 70 grams protein daily for Maria. If she were meeting the exercise guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more may be needed to build muscle mass. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kg. So if Maria were walking briskly or cycling 5 days a week for 30 minutes and doing strength training twice a week, I’d suggest aiming for 80-115 grams protein daily.

Foods High in Protein

If you need to fit in more high-protein foods, remember that “more protein” does not mean “eat more meat”! Check out the natural plant proteins I included below, because they also contain fibers and a more diverse range of vitamins and minerals than animal proteins. A standard serving for beans and soy foods is 1/2 cup (about 7-8 grams protein), and for animal foods is 3 ounces (20-25 grams protein). Some whole grains offer protein in varying amounts (1 cup cooked: 8 grams in quinoa, 14 grams in farro). Based on these servings, plant sources typically offer less protein than animal souces, so you may wish to increase the portion size of plant proteins.

  • soy foods like tempeh, edamame
  • legumes like any beans, lentils, peanuts, chickpeas, split peas
  • nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds
  • whole grains like farro, teff, kamut
  • lean cuts of chicken, turkey, pork, veal
  • fish and seafood like fish, shrimp, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, scallops, clams
  • eggs
  • lowfat dairy like milk, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, small portions firm cheeses
  • fortified protein foods (beverages, bars, veggie burgers) to supplement the diet, but ideally choose more natural protein foods

It’s a good idea to space out protein among different meals and snacks throughout the day, rather than loading up on a 40-gram protein shake at breakfast but very little later on. Including some protein at each meal helps keep blood sugar more steady and hits that satisfaction level you’re craving. Here’s my revised sample menu that provides about 85 grams protein. It is completely plant-based.

Breakfast: oatmeal with fresh fruit, 2 tablespoons of almonds, 1 cup unsweetened protein-fortified almond milk

Snack: 1 cup air-popped popcorn mixed with 1/4 cup cashews

Lunch: large vegetable salad with leafy greens, avocado, 1 cup diced marinated tempeh, 1 tbsp sunflower seeds, whole grain pita bread

Snack: low-sugar KIND bar

Dinner: whole wheat pasta with tomato sauce mixed with 1 cup kidney beans, and roasted cauliflower

Dessert: 2 squares dark chocolate

I noticed that a fellow dietitian and friend Katie Pfeffer-Scalan from One Hungry Bunny blog also recently wrote an article on protein, with some great tips! Like I said, RDs talk a lot about protein 🙂 Check out her blog and fantastic recipes.

3 thoughts on “Where’s the Protein?

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