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Alissa Rumsey RD, CDN, CNSC, CSCS
High protein is all the rage – from Paleo, to Atkins, to South Beach, it seems as though everyone is jumping on the high protein bandwagon. It’s easy to understand all the attention protein gets – it is, after all, an important component of every cell in the body. Protein is used to make enzymes, hormones and other bodily chemicals. It is a building block of our bones, muscles, skin, cartilage and blood. One of its most important roles is in building and preserving muscle mass. You may hear “muscle mass” and think athlete or body builder, but the truth is adequate muscle mass is even more important to non-athletes, especially as we age. Having enough muscle helps us with everything from walking up a flight of stairs to get up from a chair. Getting sufficient amounts of protein, along with being physically active, will ensure muscle mass is maintained over the years.
How much is enough?
But how much protein do you actually need? Protein is one of the three “macronutrients” (along with carbohydrate and fat), which means that the body needs relatively large amounts of it. The RDA (recommend daily allowance) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound), which amounts to 46 grams per day for adult women, and 56 grams per day for adult men. This may be enough to prevent deficiency in most people, however many factors can increase your needs including age, activity level, muscle mass, and current state of health. Illness and injury can increase protein needs, as can advanced age. The right amount of protein will vary from person to person, but a good rule of thumb is to get at least 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight, up to 0.6 grams per pound. For those people with a lot of muscle mass, high levels of physical activity, or more serious injuries, more protein may be needed.
Choose your protein sources wisely
Along with the amount of protein, type of protein is important – all protein is not equal. Focus on high quality protein sources such as poultry, fish, lean meat, beans/legumes, eggs, dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), nuts, and whole grains. Choose whole foods as much as possible, avoiding processed products such as deli meat and hot dogs. Choose plant-based foods, like legumes or nuts, for a highly nutrient-dense protein source. Need more fiber? Legumes are a good source of fiber along with protein. Looking to add healthy fat to your diet? Nuts and seeds are a good choice, providing heart-healthy unsaturated fats along with protein.
Tips to meet your protein needs:
- Include at least one protein source at every meal. Some ideas:
- 2 scrambled eggs at breakfast
- 6-ounce Greek yogurt with lunch
- 5-ounce salmon filet at dinner
- Snack on high protein foods:
- 2 cheese wedges with an apple
- 4 ounces of cottage cheese with cinnamon
- 1 ounce of nuts (22 almonds, 14 walnuts, 28 peanuts or 16 cashews)
- Greek yogurt with berries
- 3 Tablespoons hummus with cut up veggies
- Banana with a tablespoon of nut butter
- 1 cup of edamame
- Sprinkle nuts on salads, cereal or yogurt.
- Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of chia seeds or flax seeds to smoothies, or mix into soups.
- Top salads with at least 4-5 ounces of lean protein: hard-boiled eggs, grilled chicken, shrimp, salmon or a ½ cup of beans.
- Toss together 1 cup of quinoa, ½ cup lentils and 1 cup steamed vegetables for a meatless, high protein meal.
Stay tuned for next month when I’ll talk about the importance of protein timing.
Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, CDN, CNSC, CSCS is a registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning coach with a private practice in New York City. You can follow her on Twitter @AlissaRumseyRD or visit her website at www.AlissaRumsey.com