To paraphrase a popular 1980s fast-food ad slogan: Where’s the protein? If you tend to reach for cereal for breakfast and vegetable salads for lunch, you’re shorting yourself on this important macronutrient.
One of the biggest myths circulating about protein is that we already get enough. On a population level, the average American does get enough protein, but an average is just that—an average. This means that some individuals are eating too little protein, others are eating too much, while some are like Goldilocks. They’re just right.
Your body needs enough protein to build and repair muscle, skin, organs and red blood cells. Your enzymes, hormones and antibodies are made of protein, and your body relies on protein to perform many other essential functions. If you’re trying to reach or maintain a healthy weight, protein can also help you feel more satisfied after meals.
We lose about 1 percent of our muscle each year after about age 30 unless we actively take steps to not lose it. To help preserve muscle and stay healthy as we age, adults may need half a gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. A simpler calculation is to divide your weight in half. For example, someone who weighs 150 pounds may need about 75 grams of protein per day.
There’s more to getting “enough” protein than just eating a certain amount in the course of a day. This is one instance where timing does matter, because your body is constantly making and breaking down muscle. You break down more muscle between meals, and make more muscle right after meals. When you don’t make enough muscle after meals to compensate for the between-meal breakdown, it can lead to a loss of muscle over time.
Research suggests that the protein sweet spot is 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal. Your body can only use about 30 grams at a time for the things it needs protein for, but if you get less than 20 grams, you won’t be maximizing your body’s muscle repair and building machinery — especially once you are no longer a “young” adult.
So what does 20 to 30 grams of protein look like, in real food terms? Four ounces of beef, pork, poultry or fish hover around 30 grams. One cup of Greek yogurt has a little more than 20 grams. A breakfast of two eggs, one slice of whole grain toast and a tablespoon of nut butter has about 20 grams. So does 4 ounces of tofu (or ¾ cup of beans) plus a cup of quinoa.
Animal foods — meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy — are the obvious sources of protein. You can also get protein from many plant foods, and there are good reasons for letting plants meet some of your protein needs. Plant-based proteins come “packaged” with extra health-boosting features like fiber, healthy fats and a host of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Overall, beans, nuts, seeds and soy foods are the most protein-rich plant foods, while grains and vegetables contain smaller amounts. Although most plant proteins are not complete proteins (they don’t contain all of the amino acids that we need to get from food), if you eat a variety of whole or minimally processed protein-rich plant foods, you will get all the amino acids you need in the course of a day.