By Laine Bergeson
We can’t survive without protein in our diet. This essential macronutrient provides energy, helps build muscle, promotes healing, and increases feelings of satisfaction after meals. Research suggests that just one daily serving of protein from a plant-based whole-food source may lead to weight loss and better weight management, thanks in part to its ability to help us feel full longer after meals.
Eating healthy, high-quality sources of protein — like the protein found in nuts, legumes, poultry, and fish — is associated with a lower risk chronic conditions, like diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, according to the Harvard T.C. Chan School of Public Health.
As diets low in carbs have increased in popularity in recent years, interest in how to increase your protein intake has surged. Some people also wonder how to make room for adequate protein on high fat, moderate to low protein diets like the keto diet.
Here’s more about this important macronutrient — and 10 easy ways to increase protein naturally to support optimal health and body composition.
What is Protein?
Protein is one of the most abundant molecules in the body (second only to water). It is found in muscle tissue, skin, hair, and bones, and it helps power the chemical reactions that transport oxygen to every part of your body.
In other words, protein isn’t just important for active people and athletes. Sufficient protein intake is important for glowing skin and hair, strong bones, and good circulation.
Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 22 amino acids in total. Nine of the 22 amino acids are known as “essential” amino acids, which means that the body can’t produce them on its own. Humans must get the nine essential amino acids — histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine — from food.
Any food or food combination that contains the nine essential amino acids is known as a “complete” protein. Most animal sources of protein tend to be complete proteins. Foods that don’t contain all nine proteins are known as “incomplete” proteins. Plant-based proteins tend to be incomplete (though not all of them are… more on that below).
How much protein do I need?
It depends! Like so much dietary and nutrition advice, there is no one-size-fits all approach when it comes to getting enough protein, or too much, or too little. Protein intake is personal.
The USDA recommends that women between the ages of 19 and 30 eat 46 grams of protein a day (based on a 2,000 calorie/day diet). For men in the same age range, the recommendation is 56 grams of protein (based on 2,400 to 3,000 calories/day).
The 2015 guidelines suggest that women aged 19-30 on a 2,000 calorie-per-day diet eat 46 grams of protein a day, while men that same age eat 56 grams of protein. That’s identical to the 2010 recommendations.
For people interested in building and maintaining muscle mass, the International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends basing daily protein intake on current body weight. They suggest 1.4–2.0 g protein/kg body weight/day for exercising adults. This is significantly greater than the USDA recommendation. Using 1.4 grams/day for the calculation, a 150-pound person must eat roughly 95 grams of protein per day to meet the low end of the ISSN’s recommendation
If you’re looking to increase your protein for any reason, there are small, simple ways to get more of this essential macronutrient. Here’s how:
Add complete plant-based proteins into the mix.
You can skip the protein shakes if they’re not for you and head straight to quinoa and chia seeds. Both are complete plant-based proteins (meaning they contain all 9 essential amino acids) and both are easy to incorporate into snacks and meals. Try adding quinoa to homemade veggie burgers or using it for texture in a chili recipe. Quinoa can also be subbed for rice in most meals. Chia seeds can be used to create puddings, as an egg substitute in baked goods, and tossed into smoothies (made with greek yogurt for an extra protein boost) to give them a creamy texture. (Bonus! Chia seeds are high in fiber, too.)
If you eat a varied diet, you don’t need to focus exclusively on complete proteins.
Experts say that if you focus on eating a wide variety of foods, including healthy sources of protein like nuts, seeds, legumes (like lentils), whole grains, and vegetables, you are likely to get the amino acids you need from your daily diet.
So one easy, great way to get sufficient protein is simply to focus on eating a wide range of healthy whole-foods with plenty of plant foods in the mix. Healthy eating covers plenty of bases.
Nuts are the high protein food to toss on everything.
Nuts like almonds and walnuts can be tossed on salads, chopped and sprinkled on roasted vegetables like beets or Brussels sprouts (or even roasted in the pan with them), or sprinkled on oatmeal or a bowl of breakfast cereal made from cooked quinoa (for even more protein). Seeds are also high in protein and can be used in the same condiment-style way as nuts. Toss pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and sunflower seeds on salads, hot cereal, or roasted dishes.
Swap your bread
Swap out your current bread for a loaf loaded with seeds, like the Ezekial brand. You can find Ezekial in the freezer section of health foods stores and many regular supermarkets.
Opt for hummus
Chickpeas are a good plant-based source of protein, so when you’re choosing a spread or dip and more protein is your goal, opt for hummus over other choices. Guacamole is a healthy choice, but it doesn’t have as much protein as hummus or another nut or legume-based spread.
Embrace nutritional yeast
Nutritional yeast is a complete protein and it is delicious on popcorn or sprinkled on salads or used in vegan cooking. It gives every food it touches a satisfying umami flavor.
Read more: 5 Nutritional Yeast Recipes For Newbies
Use hard boiled eggs as a snack or a condiment
Hard boiled eggs make a great snack because they keep for a while without refrigeration and can travel with you wherever you go. So consider swapping an egg in for another snack you might normally pack. A hardboiled egg can also be sliced and put on a salad, or put a soft boiled egg on top of your avocado toast.
Give your chocolate indulgence a hit of of protein
Dark chocolate contains healthy polyphenols and abundant antioxidants. If you indulge in chocolate now and then, try dipping a square into a high-quality nut butter, like freshly ground peanut butter or almond butter. The combo tastes delicious, and it’s a delicious way to add in a little more protein.
Grab a high-quality protein powder
Protein powders vary in quality and people can react differently to different types — people with a dairy intolerance should steer clear of protein powders with dairy in them, for example — so read labels carefully. But protein powder can be a good choice if you’re traveling, on the go, stuck at work, or in a squeeze for time. If you don’t love the taste of protein powders, sneak them into smoothies.
Get a little bit of protein at every meal
Instead of trying to get all your protein at one meal, get a little bit at each meal and snack. It will make meeting your protein needs easier and less stressful if you don’t try to cram it all in in one sitting.
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