Protein: what you need to know

There is one nutrition concept I come back to again and again with clients: protein, fat, and fiber at every meal. These three food components help to stabilize blood sugar and support the body with the building blocks it needs to be healthy.

When we think of protein, the first image that might pop into our minds is of muscular athletes lifting weights. But protein is not just about building biceps; it’s an unsung hero for overall health, especially digestive wellness.

Why Protein is a Big Deal

  1. Balanced Blood Sugar: Including protein in your meals can help stabilize blood sugar levels. This means less likelihood of those mid-afternoon energy dips and sudden sugar cravings that can sabotage your healthy eating intentions.
  2. Digestive Healing: Experiencing gut issues? Protein could be a part of the solution. It assists in repairing a damaged gut lining, a common concern for many.
  3. Satiety and Stamina: Ever had a meal and felt hungry an hour later? Protein helps keep those hunger pangs at bay, ensuring you remain full and energized.
  4. Building Blocks: Every cell, fluid, bone, muscle, and piece of cartilage in our body owes its existence to amino acids found in protein. It’s fundamental to our very being.

Where to Get Your Protein Fix

  • Animal Sources: (Opt for organic and grass-fed when you can)
    • Chicken
    • Fish
    • Eggs
    • Game meat, ie. venison
    • Beef and bison
    • Bone broth
    • Dairy products, ie. Greek Yogurt
    • Protein supplements, ie. collagen, whey protein
  • Plant-Based Options: (Go organic, and if possible, sprouted)
    • Nuts and nut butters
    • Seeds and seed butters
    • Whole grains, especially quinoa, amaranth, and sorghum
    • Beans and legumes
    • Soy, especially fermented versions like tempeh
    • Plant-based protein powders

And while it’s definitely easier to get 30g protein per meal with animal based sources, it’s possible to do it all plant-based as well. It requires more effort and often more carbs, but it is doable. Using plant-based protein powders is one way to get extra protein in if you’re plant-based. While I prefer whole real food, plant-based protein powders like Four Sigmatic or Vital Proteins Pea Protein (available at a discount to you via FullScript) can definitely give you a boost. It’s important to ensure that you’re getting enough of each of the essential amino acids from plant foods as many are much lower in plant foods like lysine, methionine, threonine, and tryptophan.

Beans are good sources of protein

Serving Suggestions: How Much is Right?

For most, about 30g of protein each meal is a solid benchmark. To give you a visual, that’s akin to:

  • A grilled chicken breast
  • A generous helping of Greek yogurt sprinkled with nuts
  • A substantial portion of tofu stir-fry over quinoa

Remember, individual needs may vary, so it’s essential to tailor recommendations to your unique circumstances and preferences. (That’s what I do as an Integrative RDN.)

Protein-Rich Meal Ideas

  • Breakfast: Imagine a fluffy omelet loaded with spinach, mushrooms, and your choice of feta or goat cheese. Pair it with whole-grain toast (gluten-free if needed).
  • Lunch: A salad with grilled salmon atop mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, finished with a balsamic drizzle.
  • Dinner: A plate of lean chicken, venison, or tempeh stir-fry tossed with broccoli, carrots, bell peppers, and serve over a bed of quinoa.
vegetables and salmon in a bowl

Protein Deep Dive

If you’re wanting a deep dive into the protein conversation, this podcast with Dr. Gabrielle Lyon (~ 2 hours long) is packed with insight related to the importance of both dietary protein and body muscle stores.

Here are some key things to know about protein:

  • Track your protein intake for at least 2 weeks so you know how much you’re getting and what foods have what. My clients have access to the journals (that I review) in Practice Better. Personally, I use Cronometer to track food and love it. For you MyFitnessPal fans, that works too.
  • Aim for 1.0-1.2 g protein per pound of ideal body weight. So, if you want to weigh 150# and that’s a healthy weight for your gender, body type, and height, your goal would be to consume about 150 grams of protein per day. I’ll be the first to say that this sounds like a LOT.
  • Try to eat about 30 g protein at all main meals. 30 g x 3 = 90 g so that’s a good start. You may need more protein depending on your goals and the math above.
  • Eating adequate protein supports both fat loss (where you lose fat, not muscle) and weight maintenance. Muscle is extremely metabolically active. The more muscle you have, the more calories your body burns at rest.
  • Don’t wing it. Make a plan to get what your body needs and stick to the plan. While I have nothing against carbs (seriously), it’s really easy to overeat carbs, especially highly processed refined carbs in meals and snacks.
  • At meals, try eating protein and vegetables first.
  • Protein is made up of amino acids. Of the 20 different amino acids, 9 of them are “essential”. This means that your body can’t make them, you have to get them from food. Plant-based foods are often missing one or more of the essential amino acids. You can get them all eating plant-based, you just have to do it intentionally.
  • Each of the amino acids has specific functions in the body. You can think about each of the 20 amino acids as their own nutrient. Just another reason adequate protein is key to immune, cellular, and gut health.
  • If you’re not hungry enough to eat a whole chicken breast or 1 cup of beans, you’re probably not hungry!
  • There are 2 keys to building muscle:
    • 1. eat enough protein (ie. 30 g/meal)
    • 2. do resistance training 2-3 days/week to stimulate muscle hypertrophy (AKA growth)
  • Since we ALL eat and less than 25% of Americans meet the minimum exercise recommendations, start with increasing protein to stimulate muscle growth (AKA hypertrophy) and then add in resistance training.
  • Muscle is your metabolic sink! The more muscle you have, the better able your body is to handle the food you’re eating (specifically carbs, sugars, and fats). Muscle helps prevent and reverse insulin resistance and helps with glucose sensitivity.

In a nutshell, protein is more than just a muscle maker. It’s a wellness warrior, ready to support you in your health journey. Dive in and enjoy its myriad benefits!

Erin Harner

Erin Harner is an Integrative Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), author, and speaker based in Ithaca, NY. Erin melds functional medicine and culinary nutrition to help her clients uncover their unique diet and confidently cook healthy nourishing meals that meet the needs of their whole family. Learn about Erin's services and connect on Instagram.

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