Protein: Recommended Amounts, Balanced Meals and Challenging Diet Culture and Disordered Eating

We all know how much I love carbohydrates, and I often encourage people to eat more of them.  That’s because diet culture has taught us that carbs are bad and associates them with overeating, weight gain and increased risk for developing chronic diseases like diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and even cancer.  It’s sensationalized propaganda to sell diets and very misleading information. This is especially true when discussing wholesome, unprocessed carbohydrates like whole grains, beans, fruit and starchy vegetables.  But of course, ALL foods can fit when looking at overall food patterns that are nourishing, flexible and satisfying.  

But I’m not here to talk about carbohydrates.  As much as I love them, I always encourage balanced meals and snacks complete with protein and fats too.  Let’s chat protein today, but check out THIS link for more about fat.  

It’s really difficult to be deficient in protein.  Most of us get plenty, but it turns out that protein timing is more important than total amount.  The most amount of protein you are able to effectively use at one time is any where between 20-35 grams (range depending on your own individuals needs and will vary depending on body size, activity level, age, gender, etc).  The body wants to have an amino acid pool in the blood stream at all times from which it can pull what it needs when it needs to (just like it also wants a pool of glucose, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, etc - a good reason to make sure you are eating regularly and consistently).  If protein intake is inadequate at certain times of the day, the body may need to dip into stored protein, meaning lean body mass.  Doing so can also impact bone health, immune system function and hormone production to name a few.  

I typically recommend about .3 grams of protein per kg body weight at least 4 times a day.  This will translate to 15-30 ish grams of protein for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a snack (or second breakfast or 1st lunch or 2nd dinner, etc…as I like to call it).  In total that means anywhere from 60-120 grams of protein (again range depends on your own individuals needs) per day.  That doesn’t mean you will only need or want to eat 4 times a day, but aim to include an adequate amount of protein at least 4 times.  

There really isn't any reason to get overly worried about numbers (only share to provide perspective).  The take home message is to intentionally include a protein source in your meals/snacks 4 times a day.  So what are some examples of adequate protein sources?  

  • Peanut butter (Since peanuts are actually a legume, they have a bit higher protein content than other nuts and seeds, but any will have some!)
  • Beans/legumes
  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Soy Milk
  • Milk (there are some higher protein milks on the market too)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Turkey
  • Chicken
  • Pork
  • Beef

For help in determining your own protein needs and nutritional balance, I really encourage seeking the help of a (non-diet) Registered Dietitian!

You can be vegan and vegetarian and meet your protein needs just fine.  No worries there.  Unless you are vegan or vegetarian because you feel like you should be for nutritional or weight related reasons.  While no one will dispute the benefits of a plant based diet, those benefits can function independent of your choice to include or not include animal products.  Emphasizing plant based foods is a great idea, unless it gets taken to the extreme and enters disordered behaviors of anxiety, preoccupation, obsession and lack of flexibility.  

I spent about a year as a vegan back in my Orthorexic days.  I feel much better being able to eat anything, probably more because I have full permission to eat anything rather than because I am or am not vegan.  But my point is that my decision was not based on any ethical consideration and only because I was obsessed with perfect eating.  Unfortunately, that mentality runs rampant in the vegan community with everything from no oil to all fruit.  And a lot of it feels really elitist (but that could have just been my own personal insecurities talking given I was all about perfection).  I really, really encourage you to be careful about starting down the rabbit hole of more and more restriction.  It is SUCH a slippery slope.  Any form of food manipulation IS a diet (so all those warning against the dangers of dieting apply here too and any other form of “healthy” eating).  I feel really good about eating all animal products and share for no other reason than to give you full permission to fuel your body in a way that helps you feel holistically (physically, mentally and emotionally) well.  There are lots of ways to do so!

Mainstream dieting tends to be high protein/low carb.  Hopefully the recommendations and discussion here help you see that adequate protein is anything but extreme, and functions best when combined with carbohydrates and fats in balanced meals.  

Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD