Healthy eating is crucial, but it may be a lengthy process: Should I consume organic fruit? Is grass-fed beef required? Is it necessary to use cold-pressed juice for all juices? That’s before you even consider how much of each macronutrient (carbs, fats, and protein) you require on a daily basis. Sigh.
Fortunately, things don’t have to be that complex, especially when it comes to protein, which is undoubtedly the most important macronutrient for active people.
Here’s why protein is such an important element of your diet, how to determine your unique protein needs, and the actual deal on protein calories—plus protein-packed breakfast, lunch, dinner, and everything in between to ensure you’re receiving enough protein each day.
Consider your body to be a never-ending building site. Protein is the number of people needed to keep the project on track.
“You’re always consuming protein to sustain hormones, enzymes, immune cells, hair, skin, muscle, and other protein tissues,” says Cynthia Sass, R.D., a New York and Los Angeles-based performance nutritionist. “On top of that, protein is required to recuperate from training stress.” Protein (broken down into amino acids) is used by your body to repair damaged muscle fibres after exercise, making them stronger than before.
Muscle loss, brittle hair and nails, and immunological problems can all occur if you don’t consume enough protein each day (and overall). But, at the very least, it will prevent you from getting the greatest results in the gym. Fortunately, most Americans consume adequate amounts of protein. According to Alex Caspero, R.D., a nutritionist in St. Louis, “there are some estimates suggesting the average American consumes two times the necessary protein consumption.” However, getting the appropriate quantity of protein is crucial. Caspero explains, “The body can only utilise 15 to 25 grammes of protein at a time for muscle growth.” “The remaining is broken down and converted to fuel or stored as fat.”
But here’s the thing: no two people’s protein requirements are the same.
How Much Protein Do You Actually Require?
While nutritionists disagree on the precise quantity of protein our person requires on a daily basis, there are some general guidelines to follow. According to the National Institutes of Health’s Dietary Reference Intake (DRI), which defines the minimal amount of protein essential for the body to operate effectively, you should consume 0.36 grammes of protein per pound of bodyweight every day. For the average lady, that’s around 46 grammes of protein each day. (To put things in perspective, there are 4 calories in protein, 4 calories in carbohydrates, and 9 calories in fat in your entire macro mix.)
However, many specialists, such as Molly Kimball, R.D., C.S.S.D., a nutritionist at Ochsner Health in New Orleans, believe that many people require significantly more. After all, according to Kimball, that amount simply prevents a protein deficiency—then it’s daily the minimum protein need. It isn’t ideal for muscle regeneration and development, injury prevention, or feeling fuller for longer.
But here’s the thing: no two people’s protein requirements are the same.
Who you ask and who you are will determine how much protein you require. In general, the more you exercise, the more protein you require. “The less stress you put on your body, the less repair work you’ll have to do,” Sass explains. Your age is also a factor. According to some studies, your body functions better with more protein as you become older. According to research published in The American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, adults over 50 who ate roughly double the DRI of protein had superior muscle growth.
If you’re working out hard on a regular basis (think: cardio and strength training), Sass recommends eating roughly 0.75 grammes of protein per pound of body weight per day for muscle gain and maintenance—ideally spread out evenly throughout the day. Aim for 0.75 to 1 gramme of protein per pound of healthy body weight if you’re working hard.
In other words, whatever your weight was when you were at your healthiest and strongest. Because you don’t want to use the numbers on the scale as a guide for your protein consumption if you’re extremely underweight or overweight, the distinction is critical.
If you’re not active or merely moderately engaged, you should consume roughly 0.5 grammes of protein per pound of healthy body weight, according to Kimball. A general protein breakdown for a 130-pound woman (59 kg) would be around 24 grammes of protein every meal, including snacks, or about 97 grammes of protein per day (more or less, depending on your activity level).
If you’re still concerned about your protein requirements (vegans and vegetarians may require special care), a qualified dietitian can help you figure out how much protein you need.
When deciding on your meals and macros for the day, take into account these meals and snacks (one from each group) and their appropriate protein levels.
Breakfast Recipes with a Protein Focus
- 24g omelette with avocado and pea protein “yoghurt” on the side
An omelette has 12 grammes of protein and is made from two whole, big, organic, pasture-raised eggs, according to Sass. Serve with vegetables and avocado, as well as a side of plain pea protein Greek “yoghurt” for an additional 12 grammes of protein.
- 22g egg “muffins” with two whole-grain bread pieces
For an early morning protein boost, Kimball recommends scrambling two eggs in muffin pans and serving them with whole-grain bread.
- 18g of Fage Greek yoghurt
Not a fan of eggs? Fage Total 0% Greek yoghurt ($1, target.com) includes 18 grammes of protein in a 6-ounce bottle.
Lunches with a Protein Focus
- 24 g salad with grilled chicken
According to Sass, a big salad with lush greens, extra-virgin olive oil, and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with 2 ounces of grilled chicken breast, has 14 grammes of protein. You’ll gain additional 4 grammes by adding half a cup of cooked cold quinoa. Another 6 grammes of protein comes from half a cup of chickpeas, for a total of 24 grammes of protein in the salad.
- Smoothie with protein and nut butter: 27 g
If you’re on the go, Sass recommends grabbing a smoothie from a smoothie bar or making your own with a scoop of protein powder (typically about 20 grammes of protein), frozen fruit, a handful of kale, fresh ginger, unsweetened almond milk, and 2 tablespoons of almond butter (which adds 7 grammes of protein).
- 25g old-fashioned turkey wrap with veggies
Don’t write off the old-fashioned brown-paper-bag lunch. About 20 grammes of protein may be found in three ounces of lean meat (in this example, turkey). When you combine it with whole-grain bread, you’re looking at around 25 grammes, according to Kimball. As fillings, use your favourite vegetables or spreads.
Dinner Recipes with a Protein Focus
- 25 g salmon with Brussels sprouts
3 grammes of protein per cup of Brussels sprouts (oven roasted in herbs and extra-virgin olive oil). A small amount of cauliflower adds roughly 2 grammes to your total. For an extra 22 grammes of protein, top it with 3 ounces of grilled Alaskan salmon. Sass recommends finishing the meal with 1 cup cooked spaghetti.
- 22.5g bean bowl
Beans are an excellent source of protein that is sometimes ignored by plant-based consumers. For a quick 22.5 grammes of protein, make a red bean power bowl with mixed greens, vegetables, and fruit.
- 18g Banza mac and cheese
Cooking from scratch isn’t always a viable option. There’s no need to rush. Banza chickpea pasta ($4, target.com) has a high protein content (far more than your traditional types of pasta, which usually clock in around 7 grams).
Snacks with a Protein Focus
- 10g nutrition bar
Protein bars aren’t all made equal, but Protein 10 grammes of protein, 90 calories, and 1 gramme of sugar are all contained in one bar. Plus, they’re small enough to keep in your desk drawer and bring out whenever you have a taste.
- 6 g pistachios
Caspero claims that plant-based protein, such as the sort found in pistachios, gives you more bang for your calorie money. “Nearly all of the fats in pistachios are mono- and polyunsaturated, which are beneficial for you. Plus, they’re high in protein and fibre, a combination that keeps you satiated for longer than simply protein.”
- 25g cottage cheese
As a nocturnal snack, Kimball prefers protein-rich cottage cheese, especially for people who get hungry before bed. It’s high in casein, a slow-digesting protein that will keep you satisfied throughout the night.