Despite increased clarity in the medical world about the importance of high-quality protein foods for disease prevention and weight management, a lot of people are still confused about protein. This is partly due to the faulty message that people are eating too much meat.
In reality, it’s not too much meat or too much protein that is hampering people’s health, but too many ultra-processed foods. These refined foods, which include processed meat along with nutrient-poor grains and man-made fats are crowding out the higher quality foods that supply the nutrition we require for healthy weight maintenance and disease prevention.
Therefore, this article will lay down some rules for healthy protein intake that everyone can follow. The benefits include better body composition, lower disease risk, and better overall health and nutrition.
Rule #1: Eat Enough Protein
Nutrition experts at a 2015 Protein Summit want you to know that the U.S. Recommended Daily allowance of 0.8 g/kg of protein per day is often misinterpreted as the amount that most people should be eating. In fact, it’s based on nitrogen balance studies, which largely underestimate human protein requirements. Not only that, the RDA doesn’t consider what is necessary for optimal health, satiety (fullness after a meal), or disease prevention.
Therefore, a baseline of 1.6 g/kg of protein per day, which is double the U.S. RDA, is currently recommended by leading nutrition scientists. Benefits of this baseline amount include the following:
In certain situations you may even want to go higher than the 1.6 g/kg recommendation: People involved in regular intense exercise, those trying to lose body fat with a low-carb diet, and those who are actively trying to put on muscle mass may benefit from a higher protein intake. The elderly may also benefit from erring on the high side of this number since the extra protein can help prevent sarcopenia, which is the natural, fairly rapid muscle loss that comes with aging and increases frailty, physical dysfunction, and risk of fracture.
What does 1.6 g/kg look like in real life? Remember that there are 2.2 lbs per kg, so 1.6 g is equivalent to 0.73 g per lb of body weight. Therefore, a 165 lb person weighs 75 kg (165/2.2); 75 kg X 1.6 = 120 grams per day of protein.
Here’s a very simple suggested rundown of protein sources to hit the 120 g mark:
Breakfast: 3 eggs = 18 g/protein
Lunch: 5 oz. chicken or turkey = 32 g/protein
Dinner: 6 oz. salmon or cod = 42 g/protein
Post-workout Whey Protein Shake: 25 g/protein
This doesn’t account for protein from plant sources such as vegetables and beans that will be included in salads and other vegetable dishes. A brief list of other high-quality proteins that you could substitute include the following:
Plain Greek Yogurt, 8 oz. = 22 g/protein
Cottage Cheese, ½ cup = 15 g/protein
Almonds or Other Nuts, ¼ cup = 7 g/protein
Beans, ½ cup = 8 g/protein
Beef, 3 oz. = 18 g/protein
Rule #2: Distribute Protein Throughout The Day
Eating protein stimulates an increase in muscle protein synthesis and suppresses protein breakdown for several hours so that you end up with more lean tissue. Based on the availability of amino acids in the protein, the body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Any time you replenish that pool of building blocks by eating protein, it’s a good thing, promoting muscle development.
For example, in a study in the Journal of Nutrition, when participants distributed their protein at each meal, eating 30 grams of protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, protein synthesis levels were 25 percent higher than that of people who skewed their consumption and loaded up on protein at dinner. This is key because most people follow the second pattern, favoring carb-heavy foods at breakfast and a big protein meal at dinner.
The bottom line is that you should divide your total protein intake up evenly and eat a minimum dose of 20 grams every three hours. Other benefits include better cognition and focus (amino acids stimulate cognitive brain processes) and less hunger (protein raises gut hormones linked to feelings of fullness).
Rule #3: Balance High-Quality Protein Foods With Veggies
Although there are many health reasons to getting adequate protein (in addition to the benefits already mentioned, a higher protein intake is associated with healthier blood pressure, stronger bones, and better blood sugar management), there are a few potential drawbacks. Animal protein is inflammatory for the gut when an inadequate amount of fiber from high-fiber foods is consumed.
You’ve probably heard that the bacteria in the GI tract feed off what you eat. Plant foods like vegetables and grains provide indigestible fiber that nourishes the beneficial bacteria in the GI tract, but animal products lead to the proliferation of unhealthy bacteria.
Therefore, it’s important to balance your protein with nutrient-rich plant foods, especially, vegetables, fruit, boiled grains, and beans. These foods are often high in the healthy indigestible fiber that aids gut bacteria and they provide antioxidants that help neutralize oxidative stress, which is harmful to cells. Leafy greens and other green vegetables, berries, oats, non-gluten grains, and lentils are a few examples of healthy foods to pair with protein.
Acheson, K., et al. Protein choices targeting thermogenesis and metabolism. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2011. 93(3), 525-534.
Aragon, A., Schoenfeld, B. Nutrient timing revisited. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2013. 10(5).
Loennek, J., Wilson, J., et al. Quality of protein intake is inversely related with abdominal fat. Nutrition and Metabolism. 2012. 9(5).
Rodriguez, N. Introduction to Protein Summit 2.0: continued exploration of the impact of high-quality protein on optimal health. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2015. 101(6), 13175-13195.