In practice, many of my clients come to me not eating enough protein, which is leaving them hangry and fatigued. Often they tell me they cannot go for long periods without eating, and are constantly snacking or grazing. Plus, they are not noticing any improvement in lean body mass despite increased effort at the gym or on the trails.
Although the RDA for dietary protein is 0.8g/kg per day (about 10% of calories), this is based largely on the MINIMUM needed to avoid deficiency, but not to support optimal metabolic health. The acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR) for protein is 10-35% of daily calories. However, research suggests that 1.2-1.6g/kg (or about 20% of calories) is ideal for metabolic benefits. For an average 130lb woman eating ~1800kcal per day that equals to 75-90g per day.
Interestingly, on average Americans eat about 16% of their daily calories from protein. A vast majority (60%) of that protein is coming in at ONE meal and less than 15g of protein is consumed at breakfast. This practice may not be helping Americans. Researchers have found that a protein intake of ~30g per meal has positive effects on lean body mass and muscle protein synthesis when compared to meals containing <20g per meal. Furthermore, spacing total daily protein out over 3-4 meals is a very positive habit to enforce for many reasons. Find out more below.
So why is protein important?? Protein is required for cellular growth and repair, the production of enzymes that are necessary for sustaining life, for hormone production (thyroid, dopamine, adrenaline, melatonin, insulin, etc), for proper fluid balance in the body, nutrient transport and storage, for healthy immune function, and soooo much more. Plus, protein helps increase our satiety hormone leptin, speeds up our metabolism, improves blood sugar control, and reduces snacking behavior. Therefore, by spacing protein out evenly over 3-4 meals per day, you will feel more energized, free of constant cravings, and better to able to listen to your hunger and satiety cues. Without enough protein, especially quality protein, our health declines.
What is quality protein? The type of protein you choose is definitely important to meet your health goals. Conventional meats and dairy have a less desirable nutrient profile. Therefore, I recommend a variety of grass-fed beef, wild caught seafood, pasture raised poultry and eggs, pasture raised pork, organic beans and legumes, and organic grass-fed dairy if tolerated. Organic whole grains, nuts, and seeds also provide small amounts of protein. Supplements such as grass-fed collagen peptides, grass-fed whey protein, or organic pea/hemp/rice protein powders can be helpful to meet your goal.
Although protein is very important, more isn't always better. Pairing a small portion (4oz) of protein with both carbohydrates and fats is ideal. Not only does this macronutrient balance increase satisfaction (and satiety), it also increases nutrient density, and supports hormone balance.
Meats, Seafood, & Poultry — 3 ounce portions or ~ 1/2 cup (20-25g)
Beans/Legumes — 1 cup cooked (~15g)
Meat Alternatives (Extra Firm Tofu/Tempeh) - 3oz (~15g)
Whole Grains — 1 cup cooked (~8g)
Nuts & Seeds — 1/4 cup whole (~9g), 2 T Nut Butter (~6g)
Dairy Products — 1 cup milk, regular yogurt, or 1 oz cheese (~8g)
Chicken Eggs — 1 egg (6g)
Protein Powders — 1 serving (10-20g) varies a lot depending on the product
To those of you who made it to the end, thank you! Are you mindful of your protein intake? Are you already meeting the goal of 25-30g per meal or is it a struggle for you? I would love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below!
Like to read? Then get your evidence based nutrition information here! All posts written by Selva Wohlgemuth, MS, RDN Functional Nutritionist & Clinical Dietitian