You probably know protein is an important part of a healthful diet, but are you really getting enough? Protein is required to keep your body running at an optimal level. Protein is broken down into amino acid building blocks in your digestive tract, which are used to synthesize hormones, support proper organ function, repair damaged cells or generate new ones.
The current RDA (or Recommended Dietary Allowance) for protein, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day for adults over 18 years of age. This intake was defined by the IOM as the level requiews to meet sufficient protein requirements for the majority of healthy individuals. However, this is a recommendation to prevent deficiencies rather than support optimal health.
Additionally, the IOM has established an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for protein. The AMDR for protein falls between 10-35% of calories coming from protein. Interestingly, we consume only about 16% of calories from protein, demonstrating that protein intake actually tends to be on the low end of the scale and that there is quite a bit of room to increase intake.
Because of this, the recommendation is currently under debate in relation to the needs of certain population groups such as athletes or fitness enthusiasts. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that although athletes need only about 1 gram/kilogram/day of protein to maintain muscle mass, to build muscle mass, you need to eat about 1.4-1.8 grams/kilogram/day. A conversion tool can help you change your weight in pounds to kilograms.
Protein foods should be part of every meal to insure you have a consistent supply of powerful amino acid building blocks available in your body throughout the day. Here are some of the best protein food sources to include in your regular diet.
It may be an obvious choice, but meat is a great protein source offering 25 grams in a three-ounce serving (about the size of a deck of cards). In addition, meat contains the important B-complex vitamins necessary for the metabolic process of turning food into energy. Red meat like beef and lamb are also good sources of iron and zinc. Choose lean protein such as poultry—like chicken and turkey— or lean cuts of pork, beef or lamb, which will help keep your calorie total in check. Beef jerky or turkey jerky are also great on-the-go protein packed snacks.
Whether it’s sushi-grade salmon or canned (or pouched!) tuna, fatty fish give you about 20 grams of protein per three-ounce serving, along with a hefty dose of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. But don’t forget other seafood sources. Shrimp, trout, tilapia and calamari offer between 15 and 20 grams of protein in just three ounces. Choose the fish you like best, and try to make seafood part of your diet each week.
One little egg packs 6 big grams of protein. The majority of the protein content in an egg is from the white, but the yolk houses micronutrients like choline that supports cell structure and behavior. So crack open an egg tomorrow morning, snag a hard-boiled one for a mid-morning snack, or toss a fried egg over sautéed veggies for a quick weeknight dinner.
A one-cup serving of plain yogurt contains 11 grams of protein. Since Greek yogurt can pack on about 2 times the amount of protein, you can see why the thicker Greek variety is getting all the protein hype these days. But the truth is, all yogurts are a good source of protein, as well as gut-health supporting probiotics. Yogurt comes in large tubs, in single serving cups, or even no-spoon-required tubes, so choose the one that suits your lifestyle and dig into this protein packed option. Jazz up plain yogurt with sliced or dried fruit, or use Greek yogurt as a substitute for mayo or oil in savory and sweet recipes alike.
Looking for a protein hit with every sip? Whether you prefer dairy or non-dairy alternatives, many milk beverages contain protein. How does your favorite measure up per one-cup serving? Remember, every little bit counts!
- Skim dairy milk= 8 grams
- Plain soy milk= 6 grams
- Plain almond milk= 1 gram
- Rice milk= 1 gram
Plant-based protein sources are vital for vegetarians and vegans, but meat eaters should also include these next few protein sources in their diet.
The trick to meeting your protein requirement from plant foods is to maintain variety. Each animal-based protein source offers all of the 9 amino acids that must come from our diets, but plant foods do not. Eating a wide variety of plant protein sources will help you get the essential amino acids you need.
Also, plant-based foods offer health-promoting phytochemicals. For example, soy contains isoflavones, an antioxidant that along with soy’s protein content is thought to reduce the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease. There are a wide variety of soy foods to consider adding to your protein routine. We already mentioned soy milk, so here is the protein content in other common soy based foods:
- Edamame= one-cup, 17 grams
- Soy nuts= half-cup, 16 grams
- Firm tofu= three-ounces, 7 grams
- Soy-based breakfast sausage= one patty, 10 grams
- Soy-based burger, one patty= 11 grams
A single handful of nuts, about one-ounce, provides 3 to 6 grams of protein (almonds and pistachios are among the highest). Nuts also offer a wide range of antioxidants and healthful fats, which makes them both nutrient-dense and relatively high in calories. So stick to just one-ounce per day as a snack or tossed on a salad. If you choose nut butters, stick to about one tablespoon.
Fiber may be at the top of your mind when you think about the nutritional content of beans, but their protein content cannot be ignored. For a one-cup serving, black and pinto beans offer 12 grams of protein, garbanzo beans have 16 grams, and lentils give you 17 grams! Beans are an inexpensive and filling way to add a hefty protein content to your day. Dry beans can be prepared ahead of time, and stored in the refrigerator for the week.
Grains are often a protein source that can complement the plant foods (listed above) to ensure you are consuming the necessary amino acids in the right amounts. If protein content is your goal, make sure your grains are whole. One-cup servings of grains offer a range of protein totals:
- Quinoa= 8 grams
- Whole wheat pasta= 8 grams
- Buckwheat= 6 grams
- Brown rice= 5 grams
- Barley= 4 grams
- 100% whole grain bread (one slice)= 4 grams
As with all foods, variety is important. Thankfully, grains pair well with almost any food—so get creative. A few plant-based combinations to try: brown rice with black beans, whole grain toast with almond butter, a quinoa salad with edamame, or a wheat roll with lentil soup.
Getting adequate protein is possible (and delicious) if your diet includes protein-rich foods throughout the day. Now you’re equipped to choose combinations you like in order to meet your daily needs.
For more guidance on your specific protein requirements, or how to pair protein sources, check out the resource below:
Kelda Reimers, Dietetic Intern at the University of Maryland, College Park contributed to this piece.