Prioritizing Protein
A Dietitian Weighs In
by Jenna Romanelli

Diet culture has demonized both carbohydrates and fats time and time again. But one macronutrient that rarely, if ever, receives this backlash is protein. When protein lands in the spotlight of diet trends, it is often put on a pedestal as the hero. As with most dietary trends, moderation is the last thing that is considered. Instead, the extreme becomes the standard. Society tells us that more is better. More protein powders, bars, cookies, chips, grains…the limit does not exist. As a Registered Dietitian, who whey’d in on protein, I’m here to tell you that more is not always better. I’ve provided you with a plan for prioritizing protein.

What is protein and why is it important

Protein is an essential macronutrient (along with carbohydrates and fat) composed of amino acids, which are the “building blocks” for bones, muscles, tissue, cartilage, and skin. Protein plays an important role in enzyme formation, hormone regulation, fluid and electrolyte balance, and immune function. Adequate protein intake increases lean muscle mass, promotes recovery, and makes us full, supporting weight management.

How much protein do you need

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram body weight. This is the minimum amount to meet basic nutritional requirements for a sedentary individual. For example, an adult weighing 68kg (150 lbs) would need between 55 to 68 grams of protein per day to avoid protein deficiency and maintain health at baseline. Protein needs may increase based on activity level, health conditions, age, and life cycle. For instance, women who are pregnant or lactating should consume 1.1-1.3 grams per kilogram. Athletes had increased protein needs between 1.2 and 2 grams per kilogram body weight, depending on sport specific characteristics and training intensity.

When we look at our overall diet, protein intake should make up between 10% to 35% of total calories consumed. Considering protein has 4 calories per gram, a 2,000-calorie diet should consist of 50-175 grams of protein. If too many calories from protein are consumed, they can be stored as fat. Too much protein for a long period of time can cause liver and kidney problems, but this is rare.

What are the best sources of protein

Bioavailability is the measurement of how well our body absorbs and uses the protein we consume. Complete protein sources, or animal-based products, provide all essential amino acids and have high bioavailability. An egg is 100% bioavailable, meaning our bodies can use all of the protein in an egg to build and repair muscle and tissue. However, diets high in animal products have been associated with adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease. Incomplete proteins, or plant-based products, do not provide all essential amino acids and have lower bioavailability. These are still good sources of protein and provide more fiber and less saturated fat than animal proteins, but they need to be combined with other foods to form a complete protein. For example, beans are an incomplete protein, but form a complete protein when combined with rice.

Considering these differences, as well as the other nutrient components of proteins such as sodium, it is best to look at the overall protein “package” instead of individual protein sources when deciding which proteins are best to prioritize for our health. The following examples compare the protein “package” for different foods.

Sirloin (4oz): good source of protein with 33 grams, but contains 5 grams of saturated fat.
Salmon (4oz): good source of protein with 30 grams, only 1 gram saturated fat, and great source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Ham steak (4oz): decent source of protein with 22 grams, includes 1.6 grams saturated fat, and very high in sodium, with 1,500 mg.
Lentils (1c): decent source of protein with 18 grams, includes 15 grams fiber and no saturated fat or sodium.

What you can see is that protein sources matter. Instead of only focusing on total grams of protein, we must look at the other nutrition components included to determine the best protein options overall.

What about protein powders

Most people get enough protein in their diet through food, but for individuals with increased needs or vegans/vegetarians, a protein powder may be helpful. Animal-based protein powders include whey, casein, and collagen, whereas plant-based protein powders are derived from rice, hemp, soy, or pea. Whey protein is quickly digested and absorbed, making it the best choice post-workout for muscle growth and repair. Casein protein is released slowly, making it a great option for bedtime.

A plan for prioritizing protein

Spread out your protein intake throughout the day by including high quality protein foods at every meal. Aim to fill ¼ of your plate with protein, for a total of 20-25 grams of protein at each meal.
Add more plant sources of proteins to your meals. Consider having meals that include legumes, such as beans and lentils, snack on nuts/nut butter and seeds, and add quinoa or tofu to salads.
Eat fish more often. Bake, broil, or grill salmon, herring, trout, or mackerel.
Choose lean meats and skinless poultry. Remove the skin from chicken or turkey. Good pork choices include pork tenderloin or loin chops. Look for well-trimmed eye of round or sirloin, or extra lean ground beef when choosing beef. Limit red meat to 2 times a week at most, with lower intake for individuals with high cholesterol or heart disease.
Consume dairy in moderation (1-2 servings/day). Remember: Eggs are the most bioavailable protein source and contain a ton of vitamins and minerals – the yolk has all the nutrients!
Protein powder/protein shakes are a good option if you are unable to consume adequate amounts of protein, have increased needs, or need a convenient option for protein after a workout.