How much protein can your body actually use?

Healthy Chocolate Milkshakes -  No sugar

Protein shakes, protein bars, and protein powders. These seem to be the three major food groups for athletes and body builders determined to bulk up and build muscle. But is all this extra protein really necessary?

In a small 2009 study, researchers at the University of Texas (hook ‘em!) measured the muscle building rates of 34 adult volunteers (half average age 34, and half average age 68) after giving them different amounts of lean beef to eat. The scientists discovered that while a 4 oz portion of lean beef (about 30g protein) increased muscle synthesis by about 50%, additional protein intake beyond that initial 30g made no difference in muscle building in neither the young nor older adults. So if you have trouble stomaching a large chicken breast, half a dozen hard boiled eggs, and a protein shake at every meal, it looks like you’re off the hook!

Seasons 52

^^ A standard sized salmon fillet (this one is from Seasons 52) has more than enough protein for the average adult looking to build muscle

Not only is high protein consumption (beyond 30g per meal) expensive and unnecessary, but in today’s strained food landscape, it’s also a major drain on resources. The most popular protein sources in the US are animal based, and unfortunately, the livestock industry is one of the most wasteful and excess-driven industries in food. In fact, three-quarters of the world’s agricultural land is used for livestock, yet livestock provide only 16% of the world’s calories. Because of the popularity of meat-centered meals in the US and other developed nations, so much land is being used to feed so few people.

How much protein can your body actually use?

^^ No need to upgrade to the 16-oz steak!

Considering that an 8-oz portion of steak is often labeled a petite cut, most Americans can actually afford to eat less protein at dinner (by choosing smaller cuts of meat, or incorporating meatless proteins). However, this research does suggest that it’s healthy to aim for about 30g of protein at each meal throughout the day, a level that many haven’t quite reached. Currently, many breakfast options (and even some lunch options) fall short of this protein goal. (Admittedly, my daily oatmeal bowl clocks in at only 11g protein.) However, with a little nutrition know-how, it’s easy to balance your daily protein intake. See below for the amount of protein in commonly consumed foods:

Healthy Granola

^^ Greek yogurt is an easy way to add protein at breakfast

Carnivorous Protein Sources:

  • 2 oz sliced deli turkey: 13g
  • 3 oz light canned tuna: 16g
  • 4 oz grilled chicken breast: 24g
  • 6 oz grilled salmon fillet: 34g
  • 6 oz filet mignon: 40g

Vegetarian Protein Sources:

  • 1 whole large egg: 6g
  • 1 large egg white: 3.5g
  • 12 oz skim milk: 12g
  • 1 Greek yogurt cup: 14g
  • 1 string cheese (part skim mozzarella) 7g
  • 1 Luna Bar (chocolate peppermint stick) 8g

Vegan Protein Sources:

  • 12 oz plain soy milk 9g
  • 12 oz unsweetened almond milk 1.5g
  • ½ cup cooked black beans 7.5g
  • ½ cup cooked lentils 9g
  • 2 tablespoons peanut butter: 8g
  • 2 tablespoons hummus: 3g

If you’re interested in learning more about sports nutrition, I highly recommend Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook. My copy from college is well worn and highlighted, and I’m not even sporty! Upon moving to Boston, I was also excited to hear Nancy Clark speak at a conference up here, as she is local to Massachusetts and does a few speaking events and workshops from time to time. For a closer look at a similar topic, check out this blog post that explores the protein RDA and how much protein we really need.

– Kelly

P.S. While we’re talking about protein shakes, this 2-minute marketing video from Organic Valley (“Save the Bros”) on the dangers of additives in protein shakes is pretty hilarious! It’s pushing an organic protein drink (which we now know is kind of a waste), but I love that it pokes fun at body-building bro culture, and still highlights the unnecessary chemicals in most commercial protein shakes.

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