Of the three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates), protein is the least likely to get vilified by popular diet culture. We’ve certainly done low-fat (hello, Snackwells of the 90s and increased obesity and rates of chronic disease!), and we go in and out of low-carb waves (Atkins, keto, and the like). But protein gets less focus in popular diet culture.
Today, I want to change that, by telling you about the benefits of protein (they are numerous!), helping you determine how much protein you need per day, and talking about the best sources of protein to help you meet your needs.
Benefits of Protein
First, why focus on protein at all? Protein is a building block for virtually your entire body – your muscles, tissues, ligaments, organs, skin, hair, nails, and more are made up of protein.
Protein doesn’t actually give us much energy – our bodies prefer to burn carbohydrates (in the form of glucose, a sugar) or fat (a more “slow burning” fuel). It is technically possible (through a process called gluconeogenesis) to convert protein into glucose that can be used as energy, but it’s a really inefficient process, so we mostly rely on carbohydrates and / or fat.
If you have body composition goals (meaning, you want to change your appearance), protein has some particular benefits:
- For those looking to lose weight: You most likely want to lose fat, not just weight. Losing fat but preserving your muscle will give you a more defined, toned look, and consuming adequate protein is essential to make sure you’re not breaking down and using muscle tissue for fuel. Plus, research shows that high protein intake improves appetite control and satiety during attempts at weight loss, and increases metabolism by increasing your calorie burn even at rest.
- For those looking to build muscle: Protein is made of amino acids, which are the building blocks for muscle. It’s very difficult to build muscle without adequate protein intake, because when you exercise (particularly strength training), you’re getting tiny muscle tears that need to be repaired (and rebuilt stronger) with amino acid building blocks. See this post for more on muscle recovery!
Other benefits of protein include:
- Bone health: studies show that adequate protein intake can boost bone health and reduce risk of fractures. This study says that protein is “as essential as calcium and vitamin D for bone health and osteoporosis prevention”).
- Immune health: protein helps activate your T cells, B cells, and antibodies, all critical components of your immune system
- Blood pressure and heart health: Research shows benefits of a higher protein diet, specifically one rich in plant proteins, for blood pressure and heart health.
- Wound healing: Protein stimulates tissue repair, which is essential if you’re recovering from surgery, an injury, or any other type of wound.
How Much Protein Do I Need per Day?
The National Academy of Medicine specifies that adults get a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which equals about 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight. This means that a 160-pound person would need 56 grams of protein per day. This is the bare minimum in my opinion, and is the amount that will keep you alive, but not thriving.
The National Academy of Medicine also suggests that between 10-35% of total caloric intake should come from protein. For a person consuming 2,000 calories per day, this equals 50-175 grams of protein daily, which is a pretty big range.
From there, I recommend tailoring the recommendation a bit based on your goals:
- If you’re looking to build muscle and are lifting heavily, I’ve seen recommendations range up to 1.3 grams of protein per pound of body weight. My personal recommendation would be to top off at about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight in this case.
- If you’re looking to “tone up” and burn fat while maintaining or slightly growing muscle, I recommend with the American College of Sports Medicine recommendation of about 0.5-0.9 grams of protein per pound (meaning about 80-144 grams for the same 160-pound person referenced above)
- If you’re highly active (defined as an hour or more of activity daily), go for the higher end of the above range.
- In general, if you want to improve body composition, are more active, or are looking to reduce cravings, more protein is better.
- If you want to make it simpler, aim for one serving per meal. Have a scoop of protein powder in your smoothie at breakfast, some beans or tuna on your salad at lunch, and chicken in your stir-fry at dinner? You’re golden!
A few other notes on optimizing your protein intake:
- It’s important to space protein intake throughout the day, as our bodies can’t absorb too much all at once. So, aiming for about 20-35 grams at a time (about the size of a medium to large chicken breast, or a cup of yogurt or cottage cheese) is a great way to minimize the overload on your body and ensure your muscles have what they need.
- If you’re not going to eat a meal for a few hours after your workout, and you’re looking to build or maintain muscle, I recommend either getting in a protein shake or snack with at least 20 grams of protein, or taking an amino acid supplement (I strongly recommend this one).
- It is possible to get too much protein, and doing so can put a strain on your kidneys. If you’re prone to kidney stones or have a history of kidney issues, check with your doctor and stay on the lower end of the recommended ranges.
Best Sources of Protein
As you’ll see below, most of the richest sources of protein are from animal foods, but there are some vegetarian and vegan options, too! Here are some of the best sources of protein:
- Between their high omega-3 content and high protein content, fish are one of my favorite sources of protein. Sardines are some of the most nutrient-dense, containing 20g protein per 1/3 cup, and canned tuna is one of the most available options, containing about 40g in an average can. I recommend using the Seafood Watch recommendations when choosing fish.
- 3 ounces of 99% lean ground turkey contains 27g protein for only 130 calories. 4 ounces of raw chicken breast contains 23g protein, and a 3-ounce filet mignon contains 23g protein. All meat contains at least some protein, but the fattier cuts of meat contain less protein per ounce (not necessarily a bad thing, just something to consider).
- Did you know that, by calorie, eggs are mostly fat? They do have 6g protein per egg, and the fat and nutrient contents are incredibly healthy, but only 36% of the egg is protein! Still, I recommend eating the whole egg, not just the white (where we find the protein) … you may just need more eggs than you think to reach your protein intake goals.
- I have mixed feelings about dairy , but if you tolerate it well, it’s an excellent source of protein. Cottage cheese has 24g protein per cup, on average, and yogurt has about 22g per cup.
- Beans and legumes. Lentils have 17g protein per cup cooked lentils, black beans have 15g, and peanuts (yes, they’re legumes!) have 8g per ounce. If you’re vegetarian or looking to consume less meat, this is a great option (but see the note below).
- Hemp seeds contain 10g protein per 3 tablespoons, and chia seeds contain 9g for the same amount. All seeds and nuts contain some protein, and especially the aforementioned can be great ways to bulk up protein intake. However, most of my clients consider nuts as a protein source … and they’re really not. As an example, 25 almonds contain 6g protein, but they’re 72% fat by calorie, so I consider them a wonderful source of healthy fat, but not a major source of protein.
- Protein powders and supplements. Of course, I always recommend getting most of our protein intake from whole foods, but sometimes, supplements can help. I adore my nightly protein milkshake, which uses Active Stacks protein and gives me a sweet-tasting treat every night for over 20g protein and about 150 calories. You can see more of the protein powders and bars I like on my Megan Recommends page.
- Other foods. Leafy greens, all vegetables, grains, and many other foods contain trace amounts of protein that add up during the day. However, making these your primary source of protein is not advised.
A note on animal protein vs. plant protein
First, I think it’s completely possible to be a healthy vegetarian, and in some rare cases, it can be the healthier option. However, if you have body composition goals, or if you don’t have a lot of time or energy to spend thinking about your meals, it can be really hard!
For body composition goals, plant-based proteins often come with extra calories. Calories are fuel – we’d die without them! So don’t be afraid of them at all costs. However, be aware that the 17g protein in 1 cup cooked lentils comes with 230 calories, vs. 4 oz of chicken, which has 23g protein per 110 calories. Calories are not everything, but depending on your goals, they may be worth taking into consideration. And to get the same amount of protein from plant-based sources, you’re just going to be getting a lot more calories and carbohydrates.
Second, it’s important to try to balance your protein sources if you’re eating plant-based only. This is because protein is made of amino acids. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential amino acids, which means they must be consumed and cannot be produced by our bodies. Animal proteins contain all essential amino acids, which means they are “complete proteins,” but most plant foods (except soy and quinoa) are not complete proteins. This just means you need to eat variety in order to ensure you’re getting enough of all of your amino acids.
For more on being vegan or vegetarian, I recommend this blog post.
Now it’s your turn … Do you suspect you’re high or low on protein for your needs? What are your favorite sources of protein?