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Put protein to work for you

How much you really need

Unlike fats or carbs, or many other food-related topics, protein isn't particularly controversial. In fact, it may be the one topic where health experts agree.

However, stroll through your grocery store, and you may be confused about all the pumped-up claims about protein in packaged foods. Do you really need the extra protein promised in that granola bar?

It may seem we’re a nation obsessed with protein. But just how much do we really need?

“Compared to carbohydrates, protein helps keep blood sugar levels steady. Used the right way, it can reduce your cravings, and it can also keep you from unhealthy snacking throughout the day,” says Anna Schroeder, a Hy-Vee registered dietitian in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. “In fact, protein helps your body release a hormone in your gut that tells your brain, ‘I’m full.’” 
“Protein also helps you feel naturally satisfied, because it takes longer to digest. Combined with a whole grain, which includes fiber, it will make you feel full even longer,” adds Schroeder.

How much protein do we need daily?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that inactive women get 46 grams of protein per day and men get 56 grams per day. But this isn’t an exact science. According to the Institute of Medicine, regardless of your gender, you need .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Here’s a simple way to break down your protein needs:

Activity level
Protein needs (grams)
Weight in pounds X .4
Active Weight in pounds X .6
Competitive athlete Weight in pounds X .75
Light body-builder Weight in pounds X . 85

For example, if you are inactive and your weight is 150 pounds, you need 60 grams of protein a day.

How to get the protein you need

The average person needs 25-30 grams of protein per meal.

To get a general idea of how much protein is in your average meal or snack, consider the protein content in these common sources, pictured below.

The key is to spread your protein intake throughout the day, and get your protein from a variety of sources.

For example, you wouldn’t drink three cups of milk in one meal. But, you might want to:

  • drink one cup of milk (8 grams of protein), along with
  • two tablespoons of peanut butter (8 grams of protein), spread on
  • one slice of Ezekiel bread (4 grams of protein).

Here, you’ve got a satisfying 20 grams of protein in one small meal or snack.

Protein can also be found in many other sources, including vegetables, nuts and beans.

A half cup of pinto, black or red beans contains 6–7 grams of protein. A half a cup of edamame has 11 grams of protein. Most nuts, such as almonds, pistachios and peanuts, contain between 6–7 grams of protein per ounce. Pumpkin seeds are even higher in protein, with 9 grams per ounce. Add a cup of peas to your meal, and you’ll get 8 grams of protein. A cup of broccoli will provide you with 2.5 grams of protein.

Overall, your best bet is to get in the habit of checking nutrition labels for foods that are high in protein and fiber, and low in fat and added sugars.

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Start your day with protein

While most Americans get enough protein, we tend to pack it into the evening meal.

However, the body can only use so much protein at a time. That’s why eating about 25 – 30 grams of high-quality protein is important at every meal, including breakfast.

“The best way to start your morning is with protein,” says Schroeder. “Even so, most people skip breakfast altogether or consume about half the recommended amount of protein.”

Starting your day with breakfast that includes protein can maintain or promote weight loss, because protein will keep you full longer. Recent research published in the International Journal of Obesity showed that participants who ate a protein-packed breakfast ate 26 percent fewer calories at lunch than those who ate a calorically identical meal with less protein.

“When we’re trying to get out the door in the morning, we typically don’t have time to make eggs and toast, but it’s easy to grab a container of Greek yogurt and a handful of nuts,” according to Schroeder. She offers additional suggestions on pages 15–17.

Packaged foods, pumped up with protein

Grocery store shelves are lined with all kinds of food items touting added proteins, including cereal, brownies, chips, pudding and granola bars. Schroeder advises her customers to be wary of high-protein packaged products.

“These products are typically for athletes who need protein more than the average person. But they aren’t needed for everyday activity, and they are typically high in calories and added sugars. Always read nutrition labels to see what you’re getting.”

When it comes to protein powders, it’s important to watch the labels for added sugar or sweeteners. “Go with 100 percent whey protein or soy, and get them from a reliable company,” says Schroeder.

As far as packaged protein bars, they can be a healthy option in certain situations:

  • Pair them with fresh fruit or vegetables as a satisfying snack or a meal substitute, particularly if you are on the road and your only option is convenience store food.
  • Fuel up a student athlete who heads straight from school to afternoon sports practice.
  • Help an athlete’s muscles recover after a workout.

Again, be sure to read nutrition labels so you know what you’re getting. Or better yet, make them yourself (see recipes).

Add protein to your snacks

Snacking accounts for 24 percent of what most adults eat in a day and up to 27 percent for kids. As a result, unhealthy snacks can sabotage a healthy diet.

“Indulging every once in a while is OK, as long as you’re making healthy choices most of the time,” says Schroeder. “But when we eat unhealthy snacks often, and do so out of boredom, stress, or out of habit, that’s a formula for weight gain.”

Nuts are a great high-protein snack that will satisfy, but watch portion sizes, as they are easy to overeat. A portion size is typically one handful, or one ounce. Mix nuts with dried fruit or pretzels. Another quick, easy snack is a banana or apple with a tablespoon of natural nut butter. If you crave chocolate, add a spoonful of mini chocolate chips to your trail mix, or drink a cup of chocolate milk.

Advice for smart snacking

Kids and adults alike can benefit from a healthy mid-morning snack and a mid-afternoon snack between smaller meals.

  • In with the good. Keep a bowl of fruit on the counter. Cut up veggies and keep them in the fridge.
  • Out with the bad. Purge your home of unhealthy temptations, such as sugary drinks, chips, and cookies.
  • Don’t be fooled by packaging or gimmicks. Check nutrition labels to find the whole story.