Focusing on eating more protein was a game changer for me in terms of my health, fitness, and relationship with food. There are many different opinions out there about the best diet, but let me tell you a little bit more about the importance and benefits of eating a higher protein diet.
What are proteins made of?
Amino Acids are the building blocks of protein. Every protein is made up of a combination of 20 amino acids. Nine of those are called essential amino acids because your body cannot make them. This means you must consume those from your diet. Foods that contain all nine of the essential amino acids are called complete proteins. Examples being beef, pork, poultry, eggs, dairy, quinoa, and soy. Because most compete proteins are from animal products, it is crucial for people following a vegan or vegetarian diet to be mindful of what they're eating to ensure they're getting all of their essential amino acids.
What does protein do in your body?
Enzymes - All of the body's chemical reactions rely on enzymes, which are made up of protein. (think breathing, nerve function, toxin elimination, metabolism, etc).
Building muscle and tissue - All tissues and muscles need protein as they’re constantly turning over, especially in illness or injury, pregnancy, or when pursuing muscle growth.
Hormones - Nearly every hormone is protein based, making protein vital for a healthy endocrine system (hormones are vital for metabolism, homeostasis, growth, sleep, and mood).
Structure - Protein provides structural elements to all cells.
Immunity - Protein supports your immune system by forming antibodies that fight infection and illness.
Energy - The protein you eat is also converted into energy. If you’re not consuming enough energy (food), your body will break down skeletal muscle for energy.
Fluid balance - Protein supports the lymphatic system.
Longevity - Muscle is metabolism boosting, protective against illness, and supports longevity and mobility and independence with aging.
So, why should you eat a high protein diet?
Protein is satiating, meaning it will make you feel full and help you stay full for longer. This will reduce cravings, mindless snacking, and energy crashes. It is really difficult to over eat if you're hitting your protein goal from real food sources.
Protein builds and repairs tissues - your cells are always being replaced, utilizing protein. If you have a goal of gaining muscle or strength, if you're pregnant or you're healing from an injury, protein needs increase.
A high protein diet will support your metabolism through muscle synthesis. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body will burn at a resting state. For this reason, weight loss (specifically fat loss) is more sustainable through strength training and a high protein diet.
Eating a high protein diet encourages eating more of the right things, rather than a diet focused on eating less. This is much more sustainable long term and a healthier relationship with food for most people. Think of your goal as eating more protein, fruits, and vegetables.
Longevity is a very important factor to consider as everyone is constantly aging. Muscle gets harder to build and retain as you age and is key to staying independent, healthy, and active. A high protein diet supports muscle retention, leading to healthier aging.
How much protein should you eat?
This is different for every person, and I recommend discussing your history and goals with a dietitian to get a personalized recommendation that will best benefit you. For most people, 100 grams should be a minimum protein intake per day, which could look like 30+ grams per meal, and including protein with snacks. If you're wanting to build muscle for performance, 1 gram per pound of your goal body weight is a good place to aim.
Can you eat too much protein?
The risk of eating too much protein is really low, especially if you're getting it from real food sources as it's difficult to eat that much protein. Ask your medical provider or dietitian if you have specific concerns about this or your goal is really high protein consumption.
How to start incorporating more protein today:
Aim for 30 grams of protein at breakfast. It is difficult to catch up if you don't start off strong with protein in the morning. Protein at breakfast will also help you feel energized and satisfied all day, and prevent any late night snacking that comes from under eating all day.
Try to eat mostly complete proteins from real food sources. If you're vegetarian/vegan, work with a dietitian to ensure you're meeting your needs in amino acids.
Include protein with your snacks - think peanut butter with your apple, or cheese with your crackers. This will prevent energy crashes and leave you feeling more satisfied.
Meal prep!! Having proteins prepared eliminates the need to think about what to make for meals after a long day of work - pair with a vegetable and grain.
Purchase protein in bulk to save money.
Eat your protein first in your meal, along with your vegetable or fruit.
Choose granola/snack bars with more than 7 grams of protein.
Examples of 30 grams of protein:
1.5 cups greek yogurt (dependent upon brand)
1 cup cottage cheese
3-4 oz chicken or turkey
4 oz salmon
4-5 oz steak
4-6 oz ground beef (dependent upon % leanness)
5 oz shrimp ~ 10 large
2 cups of quinoa
2 cups of black beans
1 cup of edamame
Other high protein foods:
Low fat cheese, nuts, seeds, nut butters, tofu, beans, lentils, egg whites, protein powders/bars.
This information does not replace medical advice, and you should always consult your medical provider for individualized guidance. Please feel free to reach out or schedule an appointment with any questions!
Frontera WR, Ochala J. Skeletal muscle: a brief review of structure and function. Calcif Tissue Int. 2015 Mar;96(3):183-95. doi: 10.1007/s00223-014-9915-y. Epub 2014 Oct 8. PMID: 25294644.
LaPelusa A, Kaushik R. Physiology, Proteins. [Updated 2022 Nov 14]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK555990/
Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th edition. New York: Garland Science; 2002. Protein Function. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26911/