protein bars

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

Introduction

The topic of protein can be a confusing one. One day you might read an article about the latest high-protein diet fad and wonder if you should join in, the next you might watch a documentary about plant-based diets and question if you are actually eating too much protein. If this resonates with you or if you are simply an active individual wondering what you need to know about protein, read on!

Nutrition 101: Everything You Need to Know About Protein

Purpose & Function of Protein

Dietary proteins are essential for human health and responsible for things like immune function, enzymatic reactions, cell growth & development, transport and "communication" (as in the case of hormones). This table provides a good overview of each of those "jobs" if you're curious for some specific examples of each.

You have most-likely heard at some point throughout schooling that protein acts as the "building blocks" of our bodies. It's especially important post-workout for repairing/rebuilding muscle tissue. 

Another more subjective reason for including protein is the satisfaction factor. It adds staying power to meals and snacks so you aren't thinking about food again an hour later. I often find that when people skimp on protein at breakfast, it has a cascade effect and can lead to increased cravings throughout the day along with a feeling of never being *truly* satisfied. 

Complete vs. incomplete

You may have heard the words "complete" and "incomplete" in regards to protein. These terms indicate whether or not a particular food contains all of the essential amino acids (complete) or only some of them (incomplete).

Why is this important? 

There are 20 different amino acids and 9 of those are considered "essential" meaning that our body doesn't synthesize them and we need to consume these through our food. If you eat a plant-based diet (and subsequently incomplete protein sources), it's important to consume a variety of proteins to make sure you are getting each of those amino acids throughout the day. 

chicken and zucchini kabobs

Am I Getting Enough?

It's very rare to see protein deficiency in any developed country (except in the clinical setting when patients are either unable or refusing to eat for extended periods of time, at which point nutrition support is initiated). Basically, if you are meeting your energy needs, you are likely meeting your protein needs too. 

That said, many of my coaching clients tend to go a little low on dietary protein intake, especially if they follow a vegetarian eating pattern, without even realizing it. It's not hard to meet your needs with a plant-based or mostly plant-based diet, it just takes a little bit more planning. It's also important to know the difference between meeting protein needs for general health, and meeting protein needs if your goal is to build lean body mass and optimize a workout.

I often find that when people skimp on protein on breakfast, it has a cascade effect and can lead to afternoon sugar cravings along with a feeling of never being truly satisfied. 

— Leanne Ray, MS, RDN

The Recommended Dietary Allowance or "RDA" for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight (source).

So to calculate this, take your weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2 (to get your body weight in kilograms) then multiply that number by 0.8. This is the minimum amount of protein you should shoot for each day, but it's not necessarily the optimal amount. 

A registered dietitian can help you determine a protein range that will best meet your needs (based on things like activity level and fitness goals), but this can be a starting point. In addition to amount, there are two other important factors to consider: timing & variety. 

  1. Timing. Spread out your protein intake throughout the day (as opposed to moderate amounts at breakfast/lunch followed by a huge steak at dinner). This seems to promote muscle protein synthesis better than the alternative. (source)

  2. Variety. As mentioned above, make sure you get a variety of sources especially if you eat plant-based so you can diversify your amino acid intake. All food provides different benefits so this is a good rule of thumb no matter what the macronutrient - there is no "best" choice.

Dietary Sources of Protein

By now you might be wondering about protein-rich food sources. Most people are well-aware that meat has protein, but some other options may surprise you. Here is a short list of where you can find it and about how many grams one serving contains:

Food (protein):

Chicken, 3 oz (20 grams)

Siggi's 2% Yogurt, 5 oz (15 grams)

Tuna, 2 oz (14 grams)

Cottage Cheese, 1/2 cup (14 grams)

Red lentils, 50 gm serving (13 grams)

Hemp hearts, 3 Tbsp (10 grams)

Peanut butter, 2 Tbsp (8 grams)

Black beans, 1/2 cup (7 grams)

Whole wheat pasta, 2 oz (7 grams)

Egg, 1 whole (6 grams)

Old-fashioned rolled oats, 1/2 cup (5 grams)

smoked salmon toast with zucchini

What about protein supplements?

Supplements can be a great option for active individuals who have higher protein needs and find it challenging to meet them through food. From a volume perspective it's a lot easier to take in 20 grams of protein through a smoothie with some whey powder added in, than it is to consume a full plated meal. 

I still advocate for using "food first" whenever possible. Supplements can be expensive and they don't contain any magical components compared to food. The nutrients in whole food often work in synergy in the body so by isolating single components, we might be missing out on some of the benefits of the original source. Here's an example:

Smoothie #1

  • 1 cup vanilla almond milk

  • 1 serving whey protein

  • 1 banana

Nutrition // 290 cals, 18 g protein

Smoothie #2

  • 1 cup 1% milk

  • 1/2 frozen banana

  • 1 Tbsp peanut butter

  • 1.5 Tbsp hemp hearts

Nutrition // 318 cals, 18 g protein

Both provide the same amount of energy and protein but smoothie #2 gives you all of the nutritional benefits of milk, plus added heart-healthy fats, fiber, iron and omega 3s from a combination of the peanut butter and hemp hearts. Remember that this isn't to say one is "better", but one might be more appropriate based on your situation.

Me + A Bunch of Other Dietitians Share Our Go-To Convenience Foods

Is it just me, or do processed (aka packaged or "convenience") foods get a bad rap? As someone with a goal to make cooking more practical, one of my favorite things to talk about is how to incorporate kitchen shortcuts as a way to make the whole routine faster, more manageable, and more doable. 

I always tell my coaching clients that sure, it's a good idea to make whole foods the foundation of your diet where you can, but the nature of being busy means that convenience foods can make cooking and eating less stressful, faster, and more enjoyable. And I think we can all agree that those are important factors in good health too! Finding a balance that works for your lifestyle is what really matters. 

A piece of well-meaning advice that misses the mark: "shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the aisles".

The problem with this is that there are so many things tucked away in the aisles worthy of being weekly staples in your shopping cart: think canned beans, whole grains (rice, oats, farro, etc.), and flavor bombs like sriracha, fish sauce and canned coconut milk. Basically it's where all the fun stuff is that allows you to prepare fresh food in a delicious and satisfying way. 

convenience foods blog post (1).png

The List

As a testament to some of the things that you might want to consider grabbing from the aisles, today I'm sharing a few of my favorite convenience foods that make feeding myself way easier.  I also put a call out to some of my fellow Colorado-local dietitians for their favorites and I got some great responses (along with the why and how behind each) so read on for more!

"I am a rice cake fanatic"

-Monica Salafia (Mind on Nutrition).

"They're the perfect vehicle for other nutritious food and they're crunchy, light, won't go bad and are easily found at any grocery store". 

Rice cakes are notorious for being boring or flavorless but that's only if you eat them plain (btw who does that?). Take Monica's suggestion to bulk them up with other nutrient-dense foods to make it a satisfying snack. These are a great option for the gluten-free folks out there too and I like that they can be savory or sweet depending on your craving. 

Just Say No to Being Hangry

I recently mentioned these Nugo Bars on Instagram because I love stashing stuff like this in my purse when I need something to hold me over between meals and am out of the house. Bars aren't always the most fun choice when it comes to snacks but that's the compromise that I make to keep myself energized on the go. Just say no to being hangry in the middle of running errands on a Saturday. Your significant other will thank you!

Nugo nutrition bars with egg whites

Cereal (aka breakfast in a hurry) 

Cereal is a favorite "breakfast in a hurry" for me. I use it as a pre-workout snack on my way out the door because it gives me the fuel I need without weighing me down and is quick to assemble (and requires little brain power for those 6am classes). As a bonus, many options are high in fiber and several essential nutrients too. Some are more dessert-like, so just be selective if your goal is sustained energy as the higher sugar/lower fiber choices probably won't meet that need. 

Some of my favorite varieties are honey nut cheerios, peanut butter puffins, and Kashi cinnamon harvest. When I want to make it more substantial, I bulk it up with things like fresh fruit, nuts and seeds, and more milk for protein. This can also be helpful for those of you who feel out of control around cereal (super common). Make it more filling to avoid feeling like you need to keep going back for refills. 

"Bagged Salad Kits"

-Laura Young (@LiveWellByLaura

"One of my favorite new-ish products in the grocery store is the bagged salad mixes.  They're perfect for a quick evening meal - all you have to do is add a protein like beans, edamame, or some chopped deli meat and you have a complete meal in 2 minutes! And I love the variety they offer from sweet to savory to southwest."

While these are usually pricier than buying all of the individual components - you really can't beat how easy it is to cut open the bag, dump it in a bowl and mix it all together. These are a frequent purchase in my house too!

bagged salad kit with beans

"Frozen Vegetables"

-Haley Hughes of RDRX Nutrition 

She especially loves riced cauliflower and zucchini noodles since they are a "quick and easy way to fit in some extra veggies while offering some versatility and fun to any recipe". 

It's a common misconception that frozen fruits and vegetables are inferior to fresh - this is absolutely not the case (in regards to nutrition at least). And if this hack is helping you to include produce more often then it's definitely a win.

"Minute brown rice"

-Jamie Magdic of YourHappyHealthy.com

Rice is a dinner staple in most households and the whole grain version is a nutrient powerhouse. Unfortunately it takes forever to cook, which can be a huge barrier to including it regularly. Jamie likes to keep Minute brown rice on hand so she can make it in literally one minute. 

"My favorite go-to convenience food meal is Minute brown rice topped with a bag of veggie Steamers - both items that can you can pop in the microwave for 5 minutes and wallah! All you need to do to prepare this meal after microwaving the items is add some olive oil or butter, a little bit of salt and pepper, and/or a sprinkle of your favorite cheese. This is a delicious meal that leaves me super satisfied on those days when I want something quick and easy.  I love to have this meal in my back pocket on those busy days."

"Chicken Sausage"

-Hannah Turnbull of Nourished with Hannah

The protein component of the meal can often be the most time-intensive. Especially if you buy meat frozen and then constantly forget to thaw it out in time for dinner.  

"One of my go-to convenience foods is pre-cooked protein; some examples being chicken sausage and pepperoni." "I love to throw chicken sausage in a skillet to heat it up, then add some some zucchini, cherry tomatoes, onions, garlic, salt and pepper. Plate it up with salad and 90 minute microwavable rice or mac and cheese for a tasty, satisfying meal. Pepperoni goes nicely on a flat bread with tomato sauce, cheese, bell peppers and mushrooms for an easy personal pizza."

Weeknight pizza anyone?

Canned Fish

Last on the list but certainly not least; you will almost always find some sort of canned fish like tuna, sardines and anchovies in my pantry. A friend recently introduced me to smoked oysters and those are fun too - plus a great source of iron. When it comes to protein, small fish are incredibly convenient and versatile. For instance, anchovies (my favorite) can be used to top pizza, tossed with pasta or blended into a sauce for a great salty and umami flavor. Most of us also fall short on meeting the recommendations of eating fish 2-3x per week and keeping some of these options on hand is a great way to help you fill that gap too. 

Do you have favorites that weren't mentioned? Leave us a comment below!