Protein. So often we hear that we need more of it. And then sometimes we’re told that we get plenty and need not worry. So what’s the right answer, and how do we determine the necessary amount for our bodies?
Many of us have read mixed information and have questions. So for today’s post, I consulted a nutrition expert who offers practical, research-based direction along with convenient tips and links to her top picks for protein-friendly dishes.
Several months ago, Nicole Hagen shared her insights regarding dieting with us in a piece entitled You didn’t fail the diet, the diet failed you. (That post also has a delicious and incredibly simple recipe for BBQ Chicken Stuffed Potatoes. I personally favor the sweet potato version!)
How much protein do I need to eat each day?
How much daily protein you need depends on your body weight, goal, and level of activity. Daily requirements below are expressed in grams of protein per pound of body weight for adults. (Again, no-math method of tracking follows.)
- Sedentary individuals: 0.54-0.82g of protein per pound of body weight
- Physically active individuals: 0.64–1.0g of protein per pound of body weight
- Individuals at a healthy weight looking to build muscle: 0.64-1.5g of protein per pound of body weight
- Individuals at a healthy weight looking to lose fat: 1.0-1.5g of protein per pound of body weight
- Overweight or obese individuals: 0.54-0.68g of protein per pound of body weight
- Pregnant individuals: 0.75-0.8g of protein per pound of body weight
The U.S.Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.36g/pound, or approximately 54g of protein for a 150 pound healthy sedentary individual. This is considered to be the minimal amount of protein a healthy adult must consume daily to prevent muscle wasting when total caloric intake is sufficient.
According to recent studies, however, the RDA for protein may not be sufficient for certain populations and point to a minimum of .54g/pound or 81g of protein for a 150 pound healthy sedentary individual for optimum health and functioning.
Research has also found that eating more than .81g/pound, or approximately 122g of protein for a 150 pound healthy sedentary individual, does not benefit the body, making 81-122g of protein a good daily protein intake goal range for a 150 pound healthy sedentary person.
Individuals who are physically very active need additional daily protein compared to those who are sedentary. The American College of Sports Medicine, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the Dietitians of Canada recommend 0.64-1.0g/pound to optimize recovery from training and promote growth and maintenance of lean mass when caloric intake is sufficient. This translates to 96-150g of protein for a 150 pound healthy active individual.
How much protein can I eat at once?
Unfortunately you can’t simply sit down to a monster steak and call it a day. Your body needs protein stores to be continually replenished, which means consuming moderate amounts of protein at regular intervals is probably best.
This can sound overwhelming until you break it down meal by meal. If you eat 4x/day and at each meal you prioritize a lean source of protein you will not have any trouble reaching your dietary protein goal.
Do I have to read labels and do the math?
What counts as a protein?
Protein can come in many shapes and sizes. When talking about protein, animal sources readily come to mind. Nicole’s top picks include:
- Boneless, skinless chicken breast
- Turkey breast (cutlets or ground)
- Fish (cod, flounder, halibut, tilapia)
- Bison, elk, duck, deer or other game
- Steak, lean cut beef (grass-fed is best)
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage Cheese
- Eggs and egg whites
- Beef jerky
- Whey protein powder
Plant-based sources of protein count, too. Best options include the following:
- Plant-based protein powder
The ideal approach is finding a combination of the protein sources listed above that taste good, are readily available and fit your health, fitness and lifestyle goals.
What about nuts and cheese?
Often considered a good source of protein, nuts, nut butters, cheese and most dairy products fall into the fat category (with the exception of Greek yogurt and cottage cheese, which count as proteins).
These foods certainly have their place in a healthy diet, but to illustrate the point, consider the nutritional breakdown of one tablespoon of almond butter: 98 calories, 3.4 grams of protein and 9 grams of fat.
Nicole’s top picks for protein-rich meals:
- One-Pan Pesto Chicken and Veggies
- Harvest Bowls
- Easy Zucchini & Ground Beef Dinner
- Sautéed Shrimp & Asparagus with Crispy Prosciutto & Parmesan
- Indian Spiced Broiled Salmon
- Unstuffed Cabbage Roll Skillet
- Pork Carnitas Burrito Bowls
- Zucchini, Potato, and Feta Frittata
- Slow-Baked Roasted Broccoli Frittata
- Smoked Kielbasa, Kale and Cider Quinoa Skillet
- (Slow Cooker) Ginger Curry Lentil Soup with Sweet Potatoes
- Slow Cooked Chicken for the Week (or to Freeze)
- BBQ Chicken Stuffed Potatoes
- Stretch-a-Can-of-Tuna Salad
- Overnight Oats Breakfast Cookie
- 3-Ingredient Protein Cookies (with optional add-ins
- Oatmeal Packet Mug Muffin
- Honey Flax Minute Mug Muffin
What about protein-rich snacks?
As many of us have probably realized, healthy, protein-rich, on-the-go snacks can be a challenge because they’re often perishable. If not, they’re often laden with preservatives and/or other undesirable ingredients.
Nicole’s go-to protein snacks include hardboiled eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, protein shakes, homemade protein snacks (like protein balls/muffins/cookies) and lower sodium turkey or beef jerky. She also encourages people to think outside of the meal vs. snack box. A snack can simply look like a small meal and that’s okay.
When I pressed for her favorite bars, knowing these are favored by many for both taste and convenience, Nicole suggested the widely available RX bars. Not a bar, of course, but she also likes dry roasted edamame.
What about protein-added milk?
I recently tried this somewhat new addition to the refrigerated section of the grocery store and wondered what Nicole thought of this form of added protein. She agreed that protein-infused nut/seed milks are becoming super popular, and she uses a pea protein almond milk.
To provide a definitive answer for any given brand, Nicole said she’d have to see the label. (For the record, after reading up on them myself, I tried Good Karma’s Unsweetened Flaxmilk+Protein and thought it was quite good. In addition to the 8 grams of plant-based protein per serving, I like that flax provides a hearty dose of heart-healthy omega-3s.)