How Much Protein Do You Need, Really?

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK/AAMULYA

Lately it seems like everyone’s trying to load up on protein — and for good reason! Just about everything in the body needs protein. It helps build and repair muscles and other body tissues. It also helps you feel full after eating a meal. What’s not to love?

Still, I was pretty shocked when I came across some recent statistics about how much protein we’re actually eating. Rather than being protein deficient, many of us are practically swimming in it. The average woman consumes somewhere between 70 and 77 grams a day, while a typical guy inhales 102 to 111 grams. To put that into perspective, that’s 15 to 45 percent more than most of us need according to current guidelines. And although many people think those recommendations are on the low side, it’s still fair to say that we’re hardly protein deficient. 

When it comes to protein, the problem isn’t how much we eat, it’s how we eat it. Most of us start the day with a protein-empty, carb-heavy bagel or muffin. At lunch, we might nibble on a salad or sandwich. Then — boom! — dinner often is a big hunk of meat, chicken or fish. The trouble is, our bodies can’t store protein, so most of that dinnertime protein gets broken down and excreted.

There is a better way. By feeding your body a steady stream of protein at each meal you’ll be able to reap its benefits all day long.  Try to eat roughly 20 to 30 grams at every meal. Here’s a snapshot of what that would look like.

  • Breakfast: one single-serve container of nonfat plain Greek yogurt, 1 cup fresh berries and 2 tablespoons sliced almonds
  • Lunch: Fish tacos with cilantro lime slaw (recipe below)
  • Dinner: Balsamic turkey cutlets with Swiss chard (recipe below)

Easy, right? Just keep in mind that for maximum results you’ll want to combine this with a few sessions of muscle-building exercise such as weight training a few times a week.


Fish Tacos with Cilantro Lime Slaw

Serves 2

Ingredients

Cilantro Lime Slaw:

  • 1½ tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1½ teaspoons lime zest
  • 3 cups shredded cabbage or coleslaw mix
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Fish tacos:

  • 8 ounces firm white fish such as tilapia
  • ¼ teaspoon chili powder
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cumin
  • ⅛ teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon pepper
  • Non-stick cooking spray
  • 4 6-inch corn tortillas

Directions

  1. In a medium bowl, whisk together lime juice, rice vinegar, canola oil, sugar, salt, pepper and lime zest. Add shredded cabbage and cilantro. Toss well and set aside.
  2. Season fish with chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper.
  3. Spray a griddle pan or large sauté pan with non-stick spray and heat over medium-high heat. Add fish and cook 6 to 8 minutes (until fish is opaque and flakes easily), turning halfway.
  4. Divide fish among tortillas. Top with coleslaw and serve.

Balsamic Turkey Cutlets with Swiss Chard

Serves 2

Ingredients

  • 4 teaspoons canola oil, divided
  • 8 cups Swiss chard, stems removed and roughly chopped
  • ¼ cup low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • Dash nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon salt, divided
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper, divided
  • 2 5-ounce turkey breast cutlets
  • 1 clove thinly sliced garlic

Directions

  1. Heat 2 teaspoons canola oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add Swiss chard, broth, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, raisins, nutmeg and half the salt and pepper. Sauté until wilted, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
  2. Season turkey cutlets with remaining salt and pepper.
  3. Heat remaining oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add turkey and cook 6 minutes, turning halfway, until turkey is golden brown and cooked through.
  4. Add garlic to pan and stir briefly for 30 seconds. Remove pan from heat and add remaining balsamic vinegar. Stir well until turkey cutlets are coated with vinegar.
  5. Divide Swiss chard between 2 plates. Top each with 1 turkey cutlet and serve.
Karen Ansel
Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, LDN, is based in New York City.