Getting enough protein? That seems to be the resounding nutrition question among health enthusiasts, media outlets and water cooler fodder. We want to maximize protein’s impact, whether it’s for everyday adequacy, satiety, performance recovery or maybe even disease management. But how do we know where to get it or what amount is needed? Read on.
Protein is a major nutrient that not only helps in the structure of muscle, bone, skin, hair, teeth, organs and tendons, but also in creating enzymes, hormones, vitamins and even neurotransmitters (no pressure). Each protein molecule is made up of a chain of 20 amino acids: 11 are made in our bodies and 9 are supplied to us from our diet. All animal proteins (except gelatin) contain all amino acids, while plant proteins may be limiting one or two (except for soy, quinoa and spinach), but can easily form complete proteins with a varied diet. Although our society has a particular interest in protein, it generally overemphasizes how much is really required for us to be our best.
Let’s figure out where you can get protein. Some of the highest concentrated sources of protein already in our Western diets come from meat, poultry and dairy. Yet, granting more face-time to legumes, beans, fish, nuts, grains and vegetables can boost protein intake. Let’s put this into perspective. Per 100 calories of food, lean beef and chicken provide us with 10-15 g of protein; most dairy milks fit in 8 g of protein; tempeh (fermented soybean) packs in 10 g and cooked beans offer 6 g. Additionally, fish contain about 15-20 g of protein per 100 calories, peanut butter has 4 g, wheat gluten lends us a whopping 20 g, potatoes grant us 3 g and dark green leafy veggies (kale, collards, mustard greens) pack a punch at around 11 g of protein per 100 calories. Protein, as well as the fiber found in several of these foods, also keeps hunger at bay.
The general recommendation is that 10-35% of the total calories you consume should be from protein. If you’re eating a 2,000 calorie diet, that means 50-175 g of protein. Quite a range, huh? A more solid number, backed by a lot of support, is that a healthy adult (male or female) needs approximately 0.8 g of protein per kilogram of body weight to sustain normal daily functions. That equates to about 62 g of protein if you weigh 170 pounds. But let’s say you’re an athlete. Even taking into account moderate to high physical activity, intake above 1.7 g of protein per kilogram bodyweight (it’s a good idea to include about 20 g of protein four hours prior to exercise and within two hours post-exercise) doesn’t appear to give added bonuses like bulky muscles or increased strength. Instead, proper conditioning yields these results. Other clinical implications for altered protein intake includes diabetes management, wound healing and kidney complications. Talk to your physician or registered dietitian to find out more.
You might find that after keeping a food log, you simply are not reaching basic protein requirements. Perhaps you were gifted a gym membership and are suddenly lifting weights regularly, or you finally overcame anxieties and are training for a marathon. Any one of these scenarios could be a reason to supplement your diet with additional protein. One of the easiest ways to accomplish this is with beverage choices. Simple Truth offers Whey and Soy Protein Powders (vanilla or chocolate) that easily mixes with your favorite milk (Simple Truth milks are available from Fat Free to Whole, with Almond, Coconut and Soy varieties also available) and maybe some Simple Truth Organic Creamy Peanut Butter or even Simple Truth Organic Firm Tofu. Although fruit isn’t necessarily a protein powerhouse, a few berries (I find that using Simple Truth Organic Frozen Berry Medley is perfect – no need to add ice cubes!) or slices of banana can really jazz up your drink. Protein powders can even be mixed with food – preferably in foods that won’t be cooked. Or, we can make things easy with some swaps that can put some protein oomph in your favorite foods. How about throwing nuts on your salads for work, topping your toast with peanut butter instead of jelly, stirring lentils into soups, adding meats or “mock meats” (e.g., Simple Truth Meatless Crumbles or Meatless Griller Strips) to your stir-fry, dipping veggies in hummus or Simple Truth Plain Yogurt (mixed with a dry ranch mix) rather than ranch dressing, or substitute quinoa for white rice?
At the end of the day, protein needs are easily met through a balanced diet that includes enough calories to maintain a healthy body weight. Much more simple than you thought! Any interesting takes on protein you have found to enjoy lately?
Molly Hembree is a dietitian for The Kroger Company, providing nutrition, diet, food safety, allergen, and other health education to customers, partners, associates and the community. She obtained her BS in Dietetics from Eastern Kentucky University and is a current graduate student at the University of Cincinnati towards her MS in Nutrition.
Molly is a Certified Food Safety Manager by the FSP National Registry and holds two weight management certificates from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In her free time, she enjoys Zumba, learning about vegan nutrition, and finding new, exciting ways to put fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, grains, and legumes at the center of the plate!