Protein – why you need it and how to get it

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September 15, 2013

Our bodies need a combination of protein, fats and carbohydrates to function. These are all essential for normal growth and for repair of tissues, despite the fact that each one of them has been maligned by various fad diets. Proteins, in particular, are used for repairing cells and building muscle. They also are key for producing the enzymes that keep essential chemical reactions going in your body, the hormones responsible for keeping your body in balance, and the infection-fighting antibodies that keep us healthy.

Although we can’t see how proteins work inside of us, what we can easily notice is that protein-containing foods keep us full and help keep a constant level of energy throughout the day. When patients complain of fatigue, I try to review their usual daily routine, and it often turns out that they allow many hours go by without protein intake. Each one of us is different in terms of calorie and protein needs, but particularly if you are tired or hungry much of the time, try to have a small amount of protein 3-5 times during the day and see if that helps. Some simple recommendations are noted below. Many of these would be good to pack in school lunch boxes also.

One goal of training is to increase lean body mass, or muscle. This can’t be done without an adequate supply of protein. Unlike carbs and fats, the body stores very little excess protein. If you don’t provide enough immediate energy calories (i.e. sugar) pre-workout, your body may break down muscle to obtain protein for energy — which means that you will lose lean muscle mass at a time when you are exercising to build it up.  Normally, at rest or during a workout, only 10% of energy is derived from protein. The remainder is from carbs and fat, so all 3 nutrients are essential! I don’t mean to imply that carbs are stored as carbs and fat is stored as fat. In fact, excess carb calories are stored as fat; the point, though, is that you need a mix of carbs, fat and protein in your diet to supply immediate energy, energy for endurance and building blocks for muscle creation.

It’s important to have a snack that is mostly carbs and some protein, before and within 30 minutes after a vigorous workout. If you are specifically trying to build muscle, you should include more protein than others throughout the day and in your post-workout snack. There will be more on workout-related snacks in another post.

So sufficient protein intake is crucial, but it is possible to get too much of a good thing.  How should we divide our daily calories between the three different classes of nutrients?

The relative proportions of these is controversial, and needs vary from person-to-person. The Institute of Medicine recommends dividing your calories as follows: about 45-65%% in carbs (contained in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans), 10-35% as protein and the rest as fat (20-35%), preferably from low or no cholesterol sources. These percentages, however, are difficult to assess, since foods contain 2 or 3 of these in combination, and trying to keep track of your intake over the course of the day would be tedious.  

Looking at protein alone, your intake should be between 0.4 and 0.7 grams per pound (or 0.8-1.5 gms/kg) of your weight, per day, depending on your level of activity. Most people need 0.4 gm of protein per /pound, but those who are pregnant or breastfeeding would aim for the mid-range and those trying to build muscle would aim for the higher end. So, the range for a 150 pound person, for instance, would be 60 – 105 gms of protein daily.


Breakfast: oatmeal or other whole grain cereal with a handful of sliced almonds and berries.

Lunch: salad with beans, tofu, cottage cheese, tuna, or grilled chicken.

Dinner: chicken or fish, with veggies; beans, lentils or tofu with brown rice and veggies; whole grain pasta with lots of veggies and some tofu, fish or chicken. Combine several side dishes or snacks noted below to make an eclectic dinner.

Snacks: apple or banana with peanut butter; plain Greek yogurt with honey; a fruit smoothie made with milk or yogurt (frozen fruit works well for this); low fat string cheese; mix of nuts, oats and dried cranberries; sliced turkey (preferably not the processed stuff) rolled up with lettuce and hummus or salsa; cereal with milk and nuts, yogurt, and/or ground flax seed or hemp seed; an egg; soy milk; veggies with hummus; soup with extra beans and greens; and easiest of all, leftovers of any of the meals listed.

In writing this article, I went to many sources regarding protein content and realized how difficult it is to get this information in a form that is easy for comparison, so I did some of my research in my pantry and at the supermarket, just reading labels. And ‘serving sizes’ aren’t necessarily what you would consider a serving. I’m always amazed when restaurants serve 2 chicken breasts as part of a meal. In the table below you’ll see that the protein content is for 4 ounces of chicken, salmon or beef – a serving about the size of your palm. That is why I usually cut chicken breasts horizontally in half – they appear the same, but have half the content, which is sufficient. The other advantage is that any flavoring you use is more distinctive with less chicken. I’m sure I’m breaking some cardinal rules of gourmet chefs, but, oh well. For convenience, consider purchasing rotisserie chicken or whole turkey breast, removing the skin, and using it for several meals. With a smaller portion of your usual protein source, fill the rest of the plate with veggies and grains.

Food (serving size)Protein (g)Fat (g)Calories
White meat chicken (4 oz)355196
Salmon (4 oz)278190
Lean beef (4 oz)349230
Canned tuna (4 oz)262120
Fat free milk (8 oz)8.4486
Greek yogurt (6 oz)13-180-6140
Egg – 1 large6.2574
Egg – white only3.5017
Black beans(1/2 cup)7080
Red kidney beans(1/2 cup)70100
Garbanzo chickpeas (1/2cup)52110
Great Northern beans 1/2 cup)70110
Tofu 6 oz firm/xtra firm16-286120
White meat chicken (4 oz)355196
Natural Peanut butter 2 Tbsp716190
Lentils 1 cup8070
Quinoa 1 cup62.8170

NOTES: *Only the animal products (chicken through egg whites) contain cholesterol.  The nuts, beans, soy products and grains are good cholesterol-free protein sources.

            *The serving sizes noted here are small; multiply as needed for larger portions.

            *Some of the values are brand-dependent because of other ingredients.

An excellent resource for protein information is by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics at

For general information on nutrition content, try Food-A-Pedia at the USDA website.

For nutrition guidelines, see the Institute of Medicine website.

We’ll go into detail about fats and carbs soon, in separate postings. Happy eating!