One Simple Change: Pay Attention to Protein

Happy Friday and welcome to another week of One Simple Change! Today I want to talk about protein, and why you should pay attention to how much is in your diet.

I learned that it’s best to eat some protein with every meal and snack when I was in naturopathic school; I’ve subscribed to this “practice” ever since.

Protein is really important because it plays a number of structural roles in the body (including the maintenance of your muscle mass). It’s also essential to the formation of antibodies, enzymes, and hormones, and it helps you balance your blood sugar. Need another reason to pay attention to protein? It keeps your metabolism running strong.

Our bodies don’t store protein, so we really must eat some every day for protein to be able to do its work.

I want to zero in on what I said above re: protein helping to balance your blood sugar for a moment. This is a really key point, and it’s the reason why I always recommend you have some protein with breakfast every day (your blood sugar is particularly “fragile” after fasting overnight). If you struggle with sugar cravings- or cravings for any type of carbohydrates, really- then cutting back on refined carbohydrates and having some protein at breakfast (and then spread out through the day) should make a big difference. Having enough healthy fat in your diet will help you balance your blood sugar, as well.

How much protein should you eat at breakfast and your other meals/snacks? I personally try to have about 15-20 grams of protein at meals (including breakfast) and about half that amount when I have a snack. I am 5 feel tall and I am pretty active: feel free to adjust these numbers up or down based on your size, activity level, etc. Some may find they need a bit less, and others will need more. If you are eating a lot less protein than this and you’re not feeling great, you should definitely try adding more protein to your diet throughout the day and see how you do.

Please note that I am not at all recommending you eat a super high protein diet: what I am asking you to do is to make sure you eat a moderate amount. Be particularly careful not to eat a high protein diet that’s very low in carbs and/or fat. A high protein/low carb diet (like “Atkins”) is not good for you (the “ketosis” it causes is not a healthy state for your body), and a high protein/low fat diet isn’t healthy either (it can deplete your stores of vitamin A which will cause a variety of problems).

I know from experience that it’s incredibly easy to mess up your body if you don’t eat enough protein and/or healthy fats (and consequently eat too many carbohydrates). It is my feeling that each of us needs to experiment until we find our own personal sweet spot of protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fat consumption within the larger realm of a whole foods diet. When you find what works for you, good things can happen: your energy level should improve (if it was crappy) and your moods should improve, too. I don’t like to talk about weight loss on my blog (because I like to focus on health, not weight), but if you have weight to lose, this might happen, too. Also, your blood sugar being balanced means your insulin will stay in check, decreasing your risk for a number of chronic diseases.

To give you an idea of what twenty grams of protein looks like, it’s the equivalent of about 3 ounces of meat, poultry, or fish, 2 ounces of hard cheese, or 3 eggs. A cup of yogurt has about 9 grams of protein, and Greek yogurt has twice as much (18 grams!). I don’t actually weigh or measure anything to make sure I am getting a specific amount; I’ve been eating this way for so long that building meals around the amount of protein that works for me is just second nature.

Be aware that if you are choosing to eat meat, you should opt for organic/grass-fed/pastured/wild because the animals are raised in a more humane manner, and because the meat will be free of hormones, antibiotics, etc. Also, the fatty acid profile of these animals is much healthier than that of feedlot raised animals (ex. they have a lot more omega-3s). Pastured eggs are a great source of protein: they are high in omega-3s, as well as nutrients that support brain function. Grass fed organic dairy and wild fish are similarly superior to their conventional/farmed counterparts.

I eat a fair amount of animal protein because it makes my body happy. This could be because I am blood type O: there’s evidence that we just don’t make good vegetarians (folks with blood type A seem to have a better time avoiding animal foods). But I also eat a lot of plant foods that contain protein, like nuts and seeds. Because these contain less protein and more fat (albeit healthy fat) than animal foods, I think they’re really best used as snacks and not as your protein source in meals. Some seeds actually cook up like grains and can be a very nice addition to the diet whether you’re vegetarian or not: 2 tablespoons of chia seeds contains over 4 grams of protein; 1/2 cup of cooked quinoa contains approximately the same amount. Cooked legumes such as beans and lentils contain between 10-20 grams of protein per cup: these are very good sources of vegetarian protein, along with soy foods such as tofu and tempeh (I personally prefer tempeh to tofu health-wise). Whole grains contain some protein and so do some vegetables. One thing I don’t recommend: those vegetarian packaged foods that are advertised as being high in protein (because they are very processed). I also don’t recommend you consume protein powders or protein bars very often. These really aren’t whole foods and often contain a lot of questionable ingredients.

So there you go…my thoughts on protein. How do you feel about this info? Do you think you eat enough protein? I’d love to hear what you think about this week’s One Simple Change!

Sources Reviewed for this Post:

Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats
Nutrition-1-2-3: Three proven diet wisdoms for losing weight, gaining energy, and reversing aging
The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean, Energized Body
The Diet Cure: The 8-Step Program to Rebalance Your Body Chemistry and End Food Cravings, Weight Gain, and Mood Swings–Naturally

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22 thoughts on “One Simple Change: Pay Attention to Protein”

  1. I agree, one shouldn’t eat a high protein/low carb diet regime. Keeping your body in balance with carbs, fats and protein is far better.

    When I do eat protein I usually like to get it naturally in my foods, but when necessary I do eat protein bars. Sometimes I make my own or I will buy some, although I don’t like the store bought bars too much as they contain a lot of chemicals and palm kernel oil and sugar alcohols.

    Thanks for posting.

  2. Love your website. I actually noticed that when I began keying my foods into FitDay online, eating only plant foods all day gave me the exact amount of protein for my height. It’s amazing just how much protein is in lettuces, kale and other vegetables. Once we get into a habit of eating meat and/or dairy with every meal, we actually end up with a too high protein diet, and that generally replaces the vegetables and fruits which have the anti oxidants and other phyto-nutrients we need. I was a WAPFer for many years, but I now have serious doubts as to the healthiness of that high amount of animal fat and protein. We have to remember – protein does not equal meat and dairy only. They are just convenient and well-marketed sources. Few people realise kale has as much protein per gram as steak – with all the amazing amount of vitamin A precursor and other good stuff that you miss out on with the steak. Just a thought.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I am glad you have figured out what works for you. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that it’s actually pretty hard to eat too much protein…reports of it being hard on the kidneys are greatly exaggerated. Many women honestly do not eat enough…

    • I do agree with you, though, that meat and/or dairy do not need to be consumed at every meal. I eat many meals that rely on vegetarian sources of protein ;)

  3. I have started adding Hemp Protein Powder in my breakfast smoothies and am loving how satisfied I feel until my mid-morning snack or lunch. I love the brand Tempt…nothing but organic hemp seeds. I also throw in a tablespoon of chia seeds for a little extra superfood protein.

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  7. I definitely notice a difference in my body when I’m eating protein in small amounts throughout the day, my energy level is much higher when I do. I too am very active and have learned to pay attention to my body’s needs and get a good boost when I eat protein. I’m on the vegetarian side of the protein equation (and mostly vegan at that) so I always have plenty of legumes stocked and cooked along with the other proteins you mentioned ready for quick salads, soups, dips, pasta add ins, etc. Great informative post Winnie!

  8. What a wonderful and informative post Winnie, thank you for sharing. I definitely can tell that I need protein, as much as I would love to be on a fully vegan diet and I eat a mostly vegan diet already, I have my moments where I can tell that I need protein. I definitely try to get as much of my protein from plant sources whenever possible, but there are times I feel insanely sluggish and know my body is craving animal protein. Glad to know I am not crazy :)
    Thanks so much again.

  9. Thanks for this post – and many others. I have been reading for a couple of months now and look forward to each new post.

  10. Like you (O blood type too-high five!), I have to eat a fair amount of protein to be satisfied and feel good. I was vegan for 3 years, eating tons of greens and legumes etc, and had to reintroduce some animal-based protein eventually because I knew my body wasn’t happy. Free run eggs and organic dairy came back into my life and I’ve been feeling pretty great.

    Awesome info here, Winnie (as always) :)

    • Hi Laura: Thanks for your comment!!! I once tried to be vegan but did not last very long…so happy you listened to your body and re-introduced animal foods. I think the vegan diet does “work” for some, but I also see a lot of people who hold fast to the diet even when they start to not feel well, and end up harming themselves :(

  11. Great information. I’ve finally found the sweet spot myself, but I’m constantly trying to find ways to get there with my son. Are the guidelines for how much protein needed different for children?

    • Hi Rebecca,
      The guidelines are a bit different (mostly because kids are smaller), but I think many kids really don’t get enough protein because they “prefer” to carbs and sweets and rarely make a connection between what they eat and how they feel :(

  12. I try to have both healthy fats AND protein at breakfast (and at every other meal…but it seems most people have a problem getting it in at breakfast) and it definitely sets the right tone for the rest of the day!

  13. Great tips! I added more protein to my diet in the last year when I noticed I was having low blood sugar episodes. Starting my day with protein at breakfast has made a huge difference!

    • Thanks for this comment Laura! Many people don’t realize how important it is to have protein at breakfast…glad it’s made a difference for you ;)