Get Adequate Protein For Optimal Health


Have you noticed all the products in the grocery store with added protein?  It really struck me the other day as I was picking up my whole wheat English muffins and saw Thomas’ “Double Protein” English Muffins.  There are also high protein cereal bars and cereal, bottled smoothies, and snacks…the list goes on.  Protein seems to be the new buzzword that the food industry is using to catch the consumer’s eye.

But do we need to boost protein in foods like English muffins and cereal bars or can we get enough for optimal health just by eating “real” foods that naturally have protein?  With all this attention and talk about protein, have you ever wondered what is an appropriate amount of protein for optimal health?

As a society we tend to think if some is good then a lot must be better and, like so many things regarding food and nutrition, recommendations vary when it comes to protein.  Recently I had a client come to me who had been told by her personal trainer that she needed 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, which for her would have been about 136 grams of protein per day!  This is A LOT of protein and she was trying very hard to reach that number and follow what she thought was good advice, but was frustrated because she was having trouble getting there.

Currently the RDA, or Recommended Dietary Allowance, for protein is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight or 10-35% of calories.  The RDA is the estimated amount of a nutrient (or calories) per day considered necessary for the maintenance of good health set by the Institute of Medicine.  This works out to be about 45 grams a day for someone who weighs 125 pounds and 70 grams per day for someone who weighs 195 pounds.  Recently, though, researchers are questioning whether the current RDA is enough for all age groups, especially older adults over the age of 60.  This may be the impetus behind added protein showing up on every aisle of the grocery store.

In the last year, two well-respected medical organizations – the International Osteoporosis Foundation and the European Society for Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism – brought panels of experts together to review the available scientific evidence and look into what is the optimal protein for adults over 60.  These panels came to similar conclusions ultimately finding that to preserve muscle and stay healthy longer, older adults should eat not 0.36 grams of protein per pound but closer to 0.45 – 0.54 grams per day.  So instead of 45 grams a day for someone weighing 125 pounds, the recommendation would be closer to 56 – 68 grams per day.

So why is protein important?  We know that after the age of 30 we lose about 1 percent of our muscle each year.  Having adequate muscle is important as we age to not only maintain strength, but also to help us perform everyday tasks like getting up out of a chair or car, walking up stairs, or carrying our groceries.  Eating enough protein is one important component of that.

Besides muscle maintenance, there are other benefits of getting enough protein that are currently being studied, such as protein’s possible role in weight loss and increased satiety or fullness.  Maintaining lean muscle tissue as you lose could be key to keeping your metabolism functioning at its highest capacity and a meta-analysis of studies showed that dieters eating higher protein lose less lean tissue than those eating less protein.

In addition to what we eat, incorporating strength training or resistance exercises is also critical for building and maintaining muscle and strength and keeping us healthy as we age.

So what is the bottom line when it comes to protein and optimal health?  Here are some tips:

Get enough from “real” foods.
Shoot for 0.5 grams per pound of your body weight.  Just divide your weight in half and that’s your target per day in grams.  So if you weigh 150 pounds, aim to get 75 grams of protein per day.  You can use websites like and to look up how much protein is in certain foods.
Here are a few:

  • 4 ounces cooked, skinless chicken or turkey breast (about the size of the palm of your hand) = 34 grams
  • 3 ounces cooked salmon = 22 grams
  • 6 ounces plain Greek yogurt = 17 grams
  • 1/2 cup cottage cheese = 14 grams
  • 1 cup beans = 16 grams
  • 1 cup quinoa = 8 grams
  • 1 slice whole wheat bread = 5 grams
  • 2 Tablespoons peanut butter = 7 grams
  • 1 large egg = 6 grams
  • 1 cup milk = 8 grams
  • 1 cup almond milk = 1 gram
  • 1 cup cooked spinach = 5 grams

Spread your protein out over the day.
The typical person tends to eat a very low protein breakfast (or no breakfast at all), moderate amounts of protein at lunch, and higher protein at dinner.  So if you need around 75 grams of protein per day, try to shoot for a more equal distribution, like 20-25 grams at breakfast, 25 grams at lunch, and 25 grams at dinner.  Recent research done by Douglas Paddon-Jones, PhD suggests that spreading protein out throughout the day, starting with breakfast, may be beneficial.

Mix in an egg and some egg whites or some yogurt or smoked salmon for an extra protein boost in the morning.  As I have written about in the past, increased protein at breakfast has been shown to increase satiety and curb snacking later in the day.  Want to read more about how to get more protein at breakfast, read this blog:

Focus, not only on quantity, but quality too.
When we think protein we automatically think meat, but there are many non-meat, vegetarian sources of protein too.  For optimal health, we don’t necessarily need to go full-fledged vegetarian, but could definitely benefit from a lean toward more plant-based options.  Some good plant-based protein choices are: legumes and lentils (peas, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and black beans), nuts and seeds, foods from soy like tofu and edamame, and even veggies have a little protein.

Incorporate Strength Training.
The best way to build and maintain muscle as we age and to continue to be able to do the activities we want to do is to incorporate some strength training.  We should all be doing at least 30-45 minutes two days a week of some type of strength training that works all major muscle groups.  Find what you enjoy – whether it is with free weights or in a weight room or with your own body weight in yoga or Pilates.

So do we need “Double Protein” English Muffins and high protein cereal bars?  I say probably not.  With some effort and pre-planning it is possible to get all the good quality protein we need in “real” foods, not created by some food manufacture in a factory, but by nature.