Proper protein intake comes down to two important concepts: amount and timing.
The amount of protein you need depends on multiple factors: your exercise type, exercise intensity, current weight, weight goals (i.e. gain or loss), and any medical conditions that may impact those needs. Assuming you don’t have a medical condition that impacts your protein requirements, here are the current ranges I recommend for active adults:
- Light to moderate exercising for general fitness – Approximately 1 gram protein per kilogram, possibly higher depending on exercise and weight goals
- Light to moderate endurance training, weight lifters – 1.2 to 1.7 grams protein per kilogram
- Heavy endurance training and body building – 1.4 to 2 grams protein per kilogram
Note that these are listed in kilograms. In order to calculate your needs, you can take your weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2 to find out your weight in kilograms. Then, multiply by the factor above to get an estimate of your daily protein needs.
The keys to timing are 1) spacing protein intake relatively evenly throughout the day, as well as 2) maximizing your post-exercise recovery period if you are an athlete.
Research shows that in the 30 minutes after exercise, your body may be able to better utilize protein for recovery and repair. If you’re a serious athlete, aim to get protein in that recovery window:
- Endurance athletes should be taking in mostly carbohydrate (specific amounts depend on weight) along with about 15-25 grams of protein after a long training session.
- Strength training athletes looking to build muscle mass should take in about 30 grams of protein in that post workout period.
These recovery snacks can come from food options (which I often recommend, because you also get a lot of other nutrients this way) or can come from commercial drinks.
However, if you’re just exercising for general fitness, please don’t get tied down in recovery meals/shakes. I’ve seen some people at gyms who exercise for 30 minutes and then chug down a protein shake afterward. If you’re using that as a meal replacement for convenience because you won’t have time to grab a meal later, that’s probably fine. But a lot of times people add these shakes or snacks on top of their normal meals, and then end up gaining weight/fat mass from taking in too many calories overall.
As far as spacing protein evenly throughout the day –your body is likely only able to utilize a certain amount of protein at any one point for muscle protein synthesis and recovery. Preliminary research indicates that this is somewhere in the range of 20-30 grams at a time for most people. So spacing out your intake over the whole day is much better than having one monstrous piece of grilled chicken at night.
Many people get enough protein at lunch & dinner, but often skimp at breakfast – so here are some ideas for you to boost protein at breakfast:
- Make oatmeal made with milk rather than water to boost the protein content. Consider adding peanut butter or nuts to your oatmeal for extra protein.
- Eggs – once a nutrition foe – are now your friend! For most people without heart concerns, one or even possibly two whole eggs per day doesn’t seem to affect health risk. There are tons of possibilities for eggs. How about a vegetable omelet? Or a breakfast burrito - scramble eggs and top with salsa in a whole wheat tortilla. Or, if you’re on the run, take some fruit and 1 or 2 hardboiled eggs for a balanced grab-and-go option.
- Greek yogurt provides more protein and less sugar compared to regular yogurt. To cut back on added sugar in flavored varieties, choose plain versions and add your own fruit to sweeten it up.
- Mix cottage cheese with fruit for a mix of healthy carbohydrates and protein.
- Try part skim ricotta cheese! Spread it on whole wheat raisin toast, or on regular whole wheat toast and top with bananas and nuts. Or add it to a whole grain pancake recipe to add protein to a traditionally carb-heavy dish.
- Make a smoothie using greek yogurt or protein powder (in addition to fruit and any other add ins you like!) to increase protein content.
- Consider substituting less-healthy items you might eat at breakfast with protein-rich items instead, like nuts, pumpkin seeds, string cheese, or a glass of milk.
Share with us – how do you include protein at breakfast?