If you give your diet a good, hard (and honest) look, you may realize that you’re missing out on protein. Luckily, working more protein into your diet is simple -- and it can make the difference between feeling satiated and awesome, or like the infamous Grumpy Cat of Internet fame.
First, let’s take a quick detour to recall why we need protein. Proteins make up the body’s cells, which in turn make up our tissues and organs. They're digested into amino acids that are continuously built up and broken down, so we have a constant need. When we eat complete proteins -- animal-based foods like meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs and cheese -- we get the essential amino acids our bodies require. Eating incomplete proteins -- those that are low in one or more essential amino acids -- means that, like Batman and Robin or Lucy and Ethel, it needs a sidekick (a complementary protein) to make it complete, such as beans and rice.
The USDA’s MyPlate suggests that we get a minimum of five to 6.5 ounces of protein per day. “The average adult needs between 0.4 and 0.5 grams of protein for every pound of body weight,” says Jenny Champion, certified diabetes educator in New York City. “Most people have no problem reaching -- or exceeding -- the recommended level with protein being present in so many common foods."
So despite the fact that you may be obsessing about getting enough, remember: Protein doesn’t just come in the form of things that go moo. Each of the following is equivalent in protein to one ounce of meat, chicken or fish: an egg, ¼ cup of cooked beans, or 1 tablespoon of peanut butter. So, why does it feel like we’re always playing catch up?
The takeaway, according to recent research, is that we need to do a better job of spreading the love. We eat a hefty amount during dinner, but breakfast and lunch get left in the dust. One recent study shows that eating 35 grams of protein at breakfast made people less hungry throughout the day, and led to favorable changes in the hormones and brain signals that control appetite. “You’ll feel less hungry throughout the day, and it may even decrease your desire to nosh at 3 p.m.,” says Joan Salge Blake, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and author of Nutrition & You. More research shows that post-menopausal women trying to lose weight maintain a better body composition -- more muscle while losing fat -- when they ate protein throughout the day.
Ready to add protein to your diet and eat it throughout the day? Try this:
Good: Add Protein To Breakfast
If running out the door with a cup of coffee in hand or snagging a handful of dry cereal sounds like your routine, it’s time to rethink it. Adding a protein source to breakfast -- yogurt, cottage cheese, milk, eggs -- is an effective first step on the path, since “most meals are all about carbs,” says Keri Gans, nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet. Get your morning fix by adding milk to your coffee instead of cream -- almond or soy will do the trick, too.
If you have the luxury of a sit-down breakfast, consider egg whites or nuts in your cereal or oatmeal; both are protein-rich and easy to make. Once you get into the groove of having some source of protein for breakfast, make non-fat or low fat milks, Greek yogurt and cottage cheese your go-tos, says Gans. And nighttime carb lovers, rejoice! Studies show that protein-rich breakfasts can help prevent unhealthy p.m. snacking, of which we are so, so guilty.
Better: Make Lunch Lean
Now that you’re making better breakfast decisions (go ahead, afternoon snack attack -- we dare you), make protein during lunch a priority. Most of us might try and get away with a single 80-calorie yogurt or some cottage cheese on a hectic day (we know how it goes), but it’s the lean protein that’s going to ultimately keep you feeling energized -- and less cranky -- until dinner.
At lunch, aim for two ounces of protein, says Blake, by adding some tuna to your salad, or ensuring you include protein in your sandwich (the best bet: grilled chicken, fish or tofu over a fatty lunch meat). Now, mediate your lean protein source by adding another source -- maybe a Greek yogurt. This will not only keep lunch interesting, but also diffuse any sort of single-protein overload you may experience. “This way, you’re not having 10 ounces of chicken every day,” Blake says. That can get old fast.
Best: Choose Fish Twice Per Week
Now that breakfast and lunch are on lockdown, think about varying up your protein sources. Prime rib is pretty flipping awesome as a treat, but not recommended for daily consumption (your heart will thank you). So, next time you go to the grocery store, be sure to choose fish. (Of course, if you have a seafood allergy, don’t risk it! Stick with the many other lean protein options, above.) Some of our favorite swimmers are salmon, tilapia, cod, grouper, and mahi-mahi.
“They’re not only a great source of protein, but research has shown that eating fish twice per week increases longevity,” says Blake. It’s not just for dinner, either -- include a can of salmon on top of your lunchtime salad, or even opt for the occasional lox and cream cheese at breakfast. If you’re looking for a meatier fish, try a tuna or swordfish steak, or monkfish.