Do you eat enough protein?
Most people in the US eat enough protein. BUT working one-on-one with more and more busy people who are trying to establish healthier lifestyles, I notice that a lot of women who are trying to eat healthy or lose weight have a tendency to eat too little protein.
Indeed, they often reduce their fat intake and decide to cut out red meat or cheese. Or, if they are counting calories, they have a tendency to forego calorie-dense foods, and end up reducing drastically their intake of dairy and again, meat. Sometimes, they switch to a vegetarian or a vegan diet and, and if they are not well informed and dedicated to their long-term health, end up forgetting about protein altogether.
Don't get me wrong, it’s totally fine to choose a vegetarian or vegan diet! Protein doesn’t need to come from animal food. But there are a few things to be aware of if we don’t want to eat too little protein, which often leads to a constant feeling of hunger and deprivation, and can also lead to metabolic issues.
I am not going to get into the details of what protein do to our body and why we need them. That can be the topic of another article. I just want to focus on how much protein most people usually need, and where you can find them easily.
First it is important to know that...
There are 2 types of protein.
A complete protein contains all the essential amino-acids our body needs. Complete protein is also often called “high quality” protein.
An incomplete protein has at least one amino-acid missing. It doesn’t mean that this protein is useless. Far from it! It is just that incomplete protein need to be combined, over the course of a day, with other incomplete protein, so that in the end, you end up with all the essential amino-acids you need, and in good proportion.
For instance, if you combine protein from beans together with protein from whole grain, those are 2 types of incomplete proteins. Yet, because they are each missing a different amino-acid, they can complement each other so you get all the amino-acids you need for your body to be nourished properly. This usually happens naturally when we have enough variety in our diet. But if we always eat the same foods and don’t mix things up, we might end up missing some amino-acids, even more so if we are vegan.
Second important thing to know:
Our body cannot store protein.
We store carbs and we store fat, but we don’t store protein. As a result, if you eat more protein than needed on a specific day, your body will store it as fat. It might also sometimes use it for energy, but it’s a very inefficient process. On the other end, if you go too long without eating protein, your body won’t have any stores to tap into and It might start “burning” muscles. Which of course you don't want, right? At least, I have never met anyone who was trying to lose muscle mass!
Bottom line: don’t binge on protein and don’t go several meals without!
How much protein should I eat?
American Dietary Guidelines recommend that 10% to 35% of our total daily calories come from protein. That's a pretty wide range! For an average person consuming about 2000 calories per day, that would be between 50 g and 175 g of protein, since 1 g of protein produces 4 calories.
The good thing about those recommendations, is that they set a minimum amount of daily protein under which we should not go.
The American Council on Exercise recommends 0.4 to 0.5 g of protein per lbs of body weight for the average person, and 0.5 to 0.8 for athletes. Older people and people who are fighting disease might need more as well.
Of course, protein intake also depends on activity levels, age, goals, etc. But at least this is an easy “rule-of-thumb” that is easier to use that the American Guidelines and also slightly more individualized.
To make things simpler, you can keep in mind 0.5 g of protein per pound of body weight, or, for those of us who think in kilograms, 1 g of protein per kg of body weight each day.
So, an average person whose weight is 200 lbs (that is about 90 kg), could shoot for about 90 g to 100 g of protein per day. This is just to give you an idea. I am not saying that we should start counting macros and calories, this is not the way I work long-term. But sometimes, it is worth evaluating things for a few days, in order to too see if you need to adjust your food intake.
A few years ago, I did that for myself and realized that I was barely eating 30 g of protein each day. I had to make some changes and pay attention to my numbers for a couple of weeks. It didn't take very long, but it was necessary for me to become intentional about my protein intake and establish new eating habits. I started eating boiled eggs for snack and breakfast and adding cheese here and there when needed.
When should I eat protein?
Now when it comes to frequency, the easiest way to make sure you get protein regularly is to have protein with every meal. And if you have 1 or 2 snacks each say, add protein to those as well.
Eating protein throughout the day has 4 main benefits. Not only will it allow you to meet daily your needs more easily than if you only think about protein at diner time. It will also give you a chance to take in a larger variety of protein types. But very importantly too, it will allow you to control your blood sugar much more easily and avoid spikes and crashes. Finally, you will feel more satiated as the day goes by, which can make all the difference if you are trying to lose weight.
Four excellent reasons to focus some attention on protein, whatever your wellness goals might be.
Where can I find protein?
Complete protein is found in:
- fish and shellfish;
- poultry such as chicken, turkey, etc;
- meat: beef, lamb, pork, goat, venison...
- eggs: excellent option, especially if you eat them boiled or poached rather than fried;
- dairy: milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese…
- soy: preferably non-processed such as soybeans and edamame, but tofu and tempeh are also good alternatives, for more variety. Be aware of GMOs with soy though, read the labels!
- amaranth: you might like it and it’s definitely worth trying. Personally, I have tried a couple of times and find that it tastes like the smell of a horse stable… Yuk!
Check out a delicious protein-rich appetizer in the 1-minute video below!
“Incomplete” protein is found in:
- seitan (vegan protein made from wheat gluten)
- beans: chick peas, black beans, lentils... Bean dips too, of course!!! Try to dip veggies though, not chips!
- seeds: hemp, chia, pumpkin, sunflower...
- nuts: peanut, almond, pistachio… Think nut butter as well;
- whole grain: oats, wild rice, brown rice, whole wheat, couscous, millet...
- vegetables: mostly dark green vegetables such as spinach, kale, broccoli, but also peas, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts...
Plants are an amazing source of protein!
Even if most plant-based protein is actually incomplete protein, plants are great for our health since they don't come with all the saturated fat and cholesterol found in animal products. It is very possible to get all the protein we need without eating animal products at all, so don't feel like you should focus on complete protein only; that would be a big mistake.
Protein-rich meal and snack ideas
A balanced meal contains a protein, a healthy starch, plenty of vegetables, and a little bit of healthy fat.
Here are some easy-to-prepare combinations suggested by the American Council on Exercise:
Protein-Rich Breakfast Idea:
- 8 oz. plain Greek yogurt mixed with 1/2 cup berries, 1 Tbsp. each of chia, hemp and ground flax seeds. You can eat it with a whole wheat toast, or with some granola.
Protein-Rich Lunch Ideas:
- 2 poached eggs served on top of 2 slices whole-grain bread and 1/2 smashed avocado. Fruit for dessert.
- 2/3 cup cooked black beans served over 1/2 cup cooked quinoa and topped with salsa and guacamole.
Protein-Rich Dinner Ideas:
- 4 to 5 oz. wild Alaskan salmon, sauteed asparagus and wild rice, topped with slivered almonds.
- 4 turkey meatballs served over whole-grain pasta or spaghetti squash with marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese.
1 banana spread with 2 Tbsp. all-natural almond butter and topped with 1 Tbsp. chia seeds.
If you want more ideas, you can read my article “Protein-Rich Snacks Without Nuts”.
And for continuous support, feel free to join my FREE Private Facebook Group, where you can ask your questions and get tips, inspiration, and resources daily.
Good luck and don’t forget: together, we are healthier, so share this article if you found it helpful!
None of my content, articles, services, or porograms are intended to diagnose, treat, prevent, or cure any illness or disease. The information provided in this article and others is not intended to take the place of advice from your medical professional, licensed dietitian, or nutritionist. You are solely responsible for your health care and activity choices.