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.

Homemade Date Paste: A Healthy, Natural Fruit Sweetener

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As a dietitian, I try to keep my consumption of added sugars as low as possible. And I’m not just talking about table sugar here. I’m talking about brown sugar, agave, maple syrup, and yes, even honey. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugars a day for adult women, and no more than 9 teaspoons for adult men. If you are looking to keep added sugars to a minimum, dates and mashed bananas become your best friend.

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First, a little primer on dates. Dates are kind of like giant raisins, but much more sticky and much more sweet. They are about 20 calories each. I usually buy pitted medjool dates in the bulk section at whole foods (surprise, surprise). However, on a particularly desperate grocery outing,  I was able to find dates at the little international market next to my apartment building. Score!

Some of my favorite recipes call for chopped dates as a sweetener, but because the dates are chopped, I find that the sweetness doesn’t distribute evenly throughout the final product. This leaves me with unsweetened food with chunks of date… not quite what I was looking for. Plus, who wants to meticulously chop up a sticky fruit every morning? Not me! Which brings me to date paste.

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Date paste is a simple idea really. Just soak dates overnight, blend the softened dates (I used a knock off Magic Bullet) with a bit of the soaking water, and voila… you have a sweetener that distributes much more evenly throughout. (For a more descriptive recipe, see here).

I usually substitute 1 tablespoon of date paste for every teaspoon of table sugar that I would have used. I mostly only use date paste in my morning oatmeal, but it also works great to sweeten muffins and other treats. 1 tablespoon of date paste has approximately 25 calories, 6g sugar, and 0.5g fiber. Compare that to the 16 calories, 4g of sugar, and 0g fiber in only 1 teaspoon of table sugar. Not bad!

Have you made date paste? What are your favorite healthy sweeteners?

– Kelly

Protein: How much do we really need?

Eating a vegetarian diet has had me thinking about protein lately. Am I really getting enough? It’s been said that most Americans eat more than enough protein, but is that really true of vegetarians? And how much do we actually need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8g protein/kg body weight. The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for protein is 10-35% of calories. This means that for me personally, my protein RDA is about 40g/day, while my protein AMDR is anywhere from about 40-150g/day. That’s a huge range! Why are they so different? And which one of the recommendations should we go by?

The RDAs were developed in 1941 (during World War II) because food was scarce at the time, and the government wanted to know the minimum level of nutrients that Americans needed without experiencing negative health consequences. Therefore, it is important to remember that the RDAs were developed as the baseline amount to prevent deficiency, not as a goal number for optimal health. Years later, the AMDRs were developed as a range of intake for promoting optimal health. So while it’s definitely true that most Americans eat enough protein, the AMDR range is pretty large, and I would argue that few Americans actually eat too much.

As far as I’m concerned, RDAs are outdated and old news. The AMDR is a much more current number with an identifiable high end and low end. As with most nutrients, it is important to spread protein intake evenly throughout the day to receive maximum health benefits. So try to have at least 1 protein source at each meal, whether or not you are vegetarian. Looking for ideas? See the amount of protein in various foods below.

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

Note: Protein levels above were calculated using the USDA Food and Nutrient Database, as well as reading nutrition labels from foods at my house. Also remember that the RDAs and AMDRs are designed with the average healthy adult in mind. Everyone has a different body with unique needs, and your physician or dietitian may recommend otherwise based on your individual circumstances. For a personalized health plan, see your physician or dietitian.

– Kelly