Let’s talk about protein. Protein is a macronutrient (see also: nutrients used in large amounts) that is essential to building muscle mass. Found in many animal products, protein can also be found in nuts and legumes. Protein has a higher thermic effect than fat or carbs. This means it significantly boosts metabolism and increases the number of calories you burn. A modest increase in protein intake has been shown to help with weight maintenance. What else do we need protein for?
Reasons to Eat Protein
- Helps you feel full longer
- Helps increase muscle mass and strength
- Prevents muscle loss during weight loss and helps maintain bone mass
- Higher protein intake is associated with lower risks of osteoporosis and fractures
- Makes and repairs cells
- Fights infection
- Carries fats, vitamins, minerals, and oxygen around the body
- Keeps body fluids in balance
- Clots blood
Types of Protein
Dietary protein is needed for the synthesis of the structural and functional components of living cells. Humans are unable to naturally produce some amino acids (the base units in protein), so they need to be consumed through our food! Amino acids that can only be acquired by eating food are called essential amino acids. It’s important to consume a variety of protein sources in order to get all of your essential amino acids, especially if your diet relies on plant-based proteins like legumes and grains. Food protein quantity and quality are both important for balanced health. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs) published an “ounce equivalents” recommendation to help you meet protein requirements with a variety of protein food sources.
For example, the DGAs present a variety of “ounce equivalents” in the protein food groups stating that one ounce of meat is equivalent to:
- One cooked egg
- 1/4 cup red kidney beans
- One tablespoon peanut butter
- Two ounces of tofu
- 1/2 ounce mixed nuts
Plant-Based Vs. Animal-Based
In general, animal proteins such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy have higher protein digestibility and a better essential amino acid profile relative to dietary requirements. These measures of protein quality indicate that animal proteins can more readily provide the daily requirement of essential amino acids than plant proteins. Does this evidence mean we should be eating more animal protein sources? Some sources of protein are considered better choices than others due to their influence on heart health. Eating plans that include skinless poultry, fish, beans, and lentils may help improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Animal-based sources have higher protein bioavailability and digestibility compared to plant-based proteins but are also higher in saturated fat. High intakes of saturated fat may increase the risk for heart disease; too much protein from these sources may be harmful to your heart.
As a general rule, limit proteins that are high in saturated fats, such as bacon, chicken-fried steak, chorizo, fried chicken, hot dogs, lunch meats, organ meats, processed meats, sausage, spare ribs, and any breaded/fried meats or fish. There is evidence that eating high amounts of saturated fat from meat raises low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. It’s recommended that you choose leaner animal-based protein such as poultry, fish, and eggs along with plant-based protein for heart-healthy eating. Check out the chart below for different types of foods, their standard serving size, and their protein content.
|Food||Serving Amount||Grams of Protein|
|Poultry (chicken, turkey)||3 oz (palm of hand)||23-24 g|
|Red meat (ground beef, pork tenderloin, steak)||3 oz (palm of hand)||12-22 g|
|Fatty fish (salmon, cod, trout, bass, tuna)||3 oz (size of checkbook)||18 g|
|Greek yogurt||1 cup (size of fist)||16-18 g|
|Nut butters||2 tbsp (heaping dinner spoon's worth)||8 g|
|Eggs||1 large egg||6 g|
|Beans and legumes (soybeans, peanuts, peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas)||1/2 cup cooked (size of fist)||3-8 g|
|Grains (rice and quinoa)||1/2 cup cooked||4 g|
|Seeds (hemp, chia)||1 tbsp||3-5 g|
|Vegetables (corn, broccoli, asparagus, potatoes, brussels sprouts, and artichokes)||1/2-1 cup cooked||3-7 g|
Getting the Right Amount of Protein
Anywhere from 10-35% of your calories should come from protein. If you need 2,000 calories per day, consider 200-700 of them from protein (50-175 g). According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the recommended dietary allowance to prevent protein deficiency for an average inactive adult is 0.8 g/kg of body weight. People who regularly exercise have higher needs, about 1.1-1.5 g/kg. People who lift weights regularly or are training for a running or cycling event need 1.2-1.7 g/kg. Excessive protein intake would be more than 2 g/kg each day.
A high-protein diet may worsen kidney function in people with kidney disease; protein metabolism creates lots of waste, potentially overworking our kidneys. If you are overweight, experts recommend adjusting your weight before calculating your protein needs in order to avoid overconsumption. We recommend that you see a Registered Dietitian to help you develop a personalized plan.
Varying Protein Routine
Don’t be afraid to include protein in meals and snacks! When deciding what proteins to eat, choose options that are full of nutrients and limited in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium. Start with these tips:
- Protein in snacks: Try peanut or nut butter as a dig for apple or celery slices, or as a spread on whole-grain crackers. A hard-boiled egg with a dash of pepper also makes a good protein snack. Learn how to make hard-boiled eggs »
- Protein in salads: Grilled chicken or shrimp adds lean protein to a salad of mixed greens or spinach. Chickpeas or black beans are delicious budget-friendly options, too! Check out this sweet and scrumptious berry chicken salad recipe »
- Protein on the go: Pack a mixture of unsalted nuts and sunflower seeds for a crunchy snack. Add a small handful of dried fruit like raisins or cranberries for a touch of sweetness. Try this healthy homemade trail mix recipe you can make for any errand »
- Beans, peas, and lentils: Make chili or stew with kidney or pinto beans or enjoy lentils as a side dish. Bean salsa with tortilla chips is also a can’t-lose option! Try it yourself »
- Seafood in the kitchen: Canned seafood, such as salmon, tuna, or crab is quick to prepare and enjoy. Fish tacos are highly nutritious and easy to make – check out this delicious recipe »
- Focus on lean meat: Chicken, turkey, fish, pork tenderloin, and beef (round, sirloin, and tenderloin) are some of the leanest meats. To prepare, try grilling, baking, roasting, steaming, broiling, or slow-cooking. One-pot dishes can be easy and quick, like this taco pasta recipe »
Ready for more nutrition tips and lifestyle recommendations? The YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »
Source: Protein: Harvard School of Health and World Resources Institute, MyPlate
–Mattie Lefever, RDN, LDN