Fats and carbohydrates have been demonized. But protein? Protein is nutrition’s darling, always wearing a health halo. It’s often associated with everything from satiety to weight loss to muscle gains.
But could you be eating more than you should? Is too much of this good thing actually a bad thing?
Let’s take a step back. No need to throw your arms up with confusion just yet.
The statement still stands. You eat too much protein — and here’s the caveat — at dinner.
Balance Your Protein Intake Throughout the Day’s Meals
The general recommendation from the Institute of Medicine for daily protein intake is between 10 and 35 percent of total calories.
It’s not only how much you eat or what you eat, though. It is equally as important when you eat it.
According to Doug Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch and a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for the National Dairy Council, Texas Beef Council and American Egg Board, “Most Western diets skew protein consumption towards the evening meal — breakfast is typically carbohydrate-rich and protein-poor, while the evening meal is often much higher in protein and calories.”
This unbalanced intake doesn’t quite give the hardworking muscles what they need or do the job of helping curb appetite throughout the day.
“Unlike fat or carbohydrates, the body has limited capacity to store excess dietary protein/amino acids from a single meal and use them to stimulate muscle growth at a later time,” says Jones. “In other words, your large salmon dinner tonight is probably not going to influence muscle growth at lunch tomorrow.”
Jones and other experts’ theory, based on their research, is to distribute protein evenly throughout the day. This concept suggests a moderate amount of high-quality protein three times per day may be better than the typical Western diet pattern suggested above.
According to Paddon-Jones, “The protein distribution concept isn’t just about muscle growth and repair, though. It has the potential to impact many health outcomes, such as blood sugar control, moderate calorie intake and satiety (filling you up).”
Let’s explore this last benefit: satiety. Of course being more full may help with how much a person eats. If you’re full and eat less, theoretically that could play a role in weight loss.
Assistant professor at the University of Missouri Heather Leidy, Ph.D., has done a lot of the work in the area of protein and satiety after working on a 12-week long-term randomized controlled study comparing the daily consumption of a normal-protein versus high-protein breakfast. The study illustrated that the daily addition of a high-protein breakfast, containing 35 grams of protein, prevented gains in body fat compared to those who continued to skip breakfast.
However, eating a normal-protein breakfast did not prevent fat gains. In addition, only the high-protein breakfast led to voluntary reductions in daily food intake of about 400 calories and reduced daily hunger.
These data points suggest that a simple dietary strategy of eating a protein-packed breakfast can improve weight management.
What to Eat in Order to Get Enough Protein Throughout the Day
What does that mean in terms of what you should eat for the maximum benefits? Here are a few options for breakfast, lunch and dinner — each of these simple meals fit the bill for providing the 20 to 30 grams of protein most of the research has suggested to be beneficial.
3 HIGH PROTEIN BREAKFAST OPTIONS (20 to 30 grams each):
1. Cottage Cheese Parfait: A half-cup of cottage cheese, blueberries and a handful of almonds (about a half-cup).
2. Bowl of Cereal: One cup of Fair Life milk with a half-cup of Nature Valley Protein Granola and a banana.
3. Steak and Eggs in a Cup: Scramble two whole eggs with two ounces of chopped steak (leftover from the night before) and a splash of milk. Mix together, add to a coffee cup and put in the microwave for one minute. Take out, stir and put in for another minute.
3 HIGH PROTEIN LUNCH OPTIONS (20 to 30 grams each):
1. Tuna Roll-Up: Mix BPA-free canned wild tuna (about four ounces) with a quarter of an avocado and a dollop of mayonnaise. Add some chopped celery and/or onion (to taste). Mix it all up, add it to a sprouted-grain tortilla and enjoy a piece of fruit on the side.
2. Chicken Over Greens: Cook once, eat twice. That means cook extra chicken one night and enjoy it for lunch the next day. Top a variety of veggies with a handful-size portion of chicken and you’re done.
3. Canned Salmon in Avocado: Cut an avocado in half and remove the seed. Mix one BPA-free can (or packet) of wild salmon with a grainy mustard. Add this combination to the halved avocado and enjoy.
Dinner is pretty straightforward. In fact, most people eat too much protein (about two-thirds of their total intake) at dinner. So here it’s not about eating more protein, but actually less.
3 HIGH PROTEIN DINNER OPTIONS:
1. Pesto Pasta with Veggies and Chicken Sausage: Saute a combination of your favorite veggies, using these as the “base” of the dish. Then heat up a precooked chicken sausage and cook the pasta according to the directions on the box. Top with the cooked pasta, your favorite jarred (or homemade pesto) and dinner is done.
2. Five-Minute Chicken Parm: Pick up a rotisserie chicken at the store and remove the meat from the bones. Top with your favorite jarred red sauce and some shredded mozzarella and microwave for 30 seconds or so, until the cheese is melted. Enjoy with a side salad or your favorite steamed veggie.
3. Breakfast for Dinner: Scramble a few eggs, add in any and all leftover veggies you may have, cook them together and enjoy with a slice of your favorite sprouted-grain toast. The combination of protein, fiber and healthy fat is exactly what the body needs.
You can see that each of these meals is rather simple to prepare. The take-home message is to focus more on protein in the morning and a little less in the evening. It’s all about a balanced distribution.
To make this happen, plan ahead. It will help you make smarter food decisions that can ultimately have a big impact on your overall health.
Photo credit: How to build a lasting commitment to health, fitness and nutrition
By Christopher is a nutrition consultant, writer and speaks all around the world on the topic of nutrition, health and performance. He has a PhD in exercise physiology and is a registered dietitian.