What’s so Fab about Protein?

By Caroline Young Bearden, MS, RD, LD, RYT

How often do you hear anyone say, “Oh I ate too many high-protein foods over the weekend.”? Unlike its macronutrient counterparts carbohydrates and fats, protein has always glowed with a health halo.

And not surprisingly, most Americans are eating enough protein, per the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. But in the protein-crazed world of shakes and bars, how much protein is “enough” at each meal and why do we need it?[1]

Know Your Needs

Protein needs vary person to person, depending on age, sex and activity level, but most healthy adults need .8 grams protein per kilogram (kg) of body weight. For example, if a person weighs 150 pounds (or 68.2 kg), he/she needs around 55 grams protein daily.

To calculate your gram protein needs, divide weight in pounds by 2.2 kg, and multiply by .8.

An ounce of a good protein source (i.e. 1 Tablespoon peanut butter, 1 egg or ¼ cup cooked beans) packs about 7 grams of protein, so eating 2 to 3 ounces (14 to 21 grams) of protein per meal should give you what you need.[2] [3]

Understand Why You Need It

Adequate dietary protein is important for the health of our bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood. Amino acids are protein’s building blocks, necessary for production of hormones, coenzymes, and other physiological components essential for a healthy body and mind. There are two categories of amino acids, including non-essential and essential, meaning our bodies can produce one kind and it must get the other from outside sources (protein foods).[4]

Additionally, protein can keep you feeling full, stimulate hormones that slow digestion, and decrease Ghrelin levels, the “hunger hormone” or the hormone that tell us to keep eating.[5] [6]

Think Quality over Quantity

Instead of opting for high protein shakes or meal replacement bars, stick to whole foods for most, if not all, of your protein choices. According to the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, most Americans get their protein from animal proteins (meat, poultry and eggs), which are excellent sources of complete proteins. However, plant-based proteins are becoming increasingly popular. Although they are not individually sources of complete proteins, meaning they do not have all the essential amino acids our bodies need, it is still possible to consume all essential amino acids by eating a wide variety of plant-based protein foods, including beans, legumes, nuts and soy.[7]

Peanuts can serve as alternatives to other common protein foods when they are incorporated into a balanced diet, per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.[8] Plus, plant-based foods often come with less saturated fat (found mostly in beef and pork) and more good (unsaturated) fats than their animal protein counterparts. Eating more unsaturated fats than saturated fats can lower the risk of heart disease and improve healthy (HDL) cholesterol levels, per My Plate, the Department of Agriculture’s Nutrition guide.[9]

Plant-based foods, such as beans and nuts, have fiber that is not found in animal proteins. Eating high-fiber foods can play a positive role in digestive health, and reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, some types of cancer, type 2 diabetes and weight gain, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ position paper on fiber.[10] In fact, a one-ounce serving of peanuts (about 28 nuts) will give you 10% of your Dietary Value for fiber.

Mix it Up

Bottom Line: When it comes to protein, know how much you need, and stick to high quality sources and a variety of both plant- and animal-based sources. This will ensure you receive the essential vitamins and minerals protein foods offer, including B vitamins, zinc, vitamins D and E, and both necessary forms of iron.[11] Remember, protein is just one piece of the nutrition puzzle. Shoot to get enough protein for your body from nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, soy, meat, poultry and seafood, but balance the rest of your plate with starches and veggies to make sure you don’t skimp on other key nutrients. Try out Peanut Butter Veggie Waffles for breakfast, Nutty Thai Chicken or a Prawn & Peanut Wrap for lunch or dinner, and a Peanut Butter Chia Power Bar for a snack.


[1] Part D. Chapter 1: Food and Nutrient Intakes, and Health: Current Status and Trends - Continued. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/06-chapter-1/d1-3.asp. Accessed November 10, 2016.

[2] Dietary Reference Intakes: Macronutrients. https://fnic.nal.usda.gov/sites/fnic.nal.usda.gov/files/uploads/macronutrients.pdf. Accessed November 10, 2016.

[3] All about the Protein Foods Group. Choose MyPlate. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/protein-foods. Published 2016. Accessed November 10, 2016.

[4] Dietary Proteins: MedlinePlus. Dietary Proteins: MedlinePlus. https://medlineplus.gov/dietaryproteins.html. Accessed November 10, 2016.


[5] Blom WA, Lluch A, Stafleu A, et al. Effect of a high-protein breakfast on the postprandial ghrelin response. Am J Clin Nutr. 2006;83(2):211-20.

[6] Dhillon J, Craig BA, Leidy HJ, et al. The Effects of Increased Protein Intake on Fullness: A Meta-Analysis and Its Limitations. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(6):968-83.

[7] Part D. Chapter 1: Food and Nutrient Intakes, and Health: Current Status and Trends - Continued. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Available at: https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/06-chapter-1/d1-3.asp. Accessed November 10, 2016.

[8] Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/resources/dga_recommendations-at-a-glance.pdf. Accessed November 10, 2016.

[9] Choose Foods and Beverages with Less Saturated Fat, Sodium and Added Sugars. Choose MyPlate. Available at: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/saturated-unsaturated-and-trans-fats. Accessed November 10, 2016.

[10] Dahl WJ, Stewart ML. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Health Implications of Dietary Fiber. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015;115(11):1861-70.


[11] 10 Tips: Vary Your Protein Routine. Choose MyPlate. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/ten-tips-with-protein-foods-variety-is-key . Published 2016. Accessed November 10, 2016.


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