I’m not a vegetarian, but I find myself going days at a time without eating meat (except maybe some bacon in my beans). Sometimes I wonder if I get enough protein, especially with the studies that say athletes need extra protein. (I finally am comfortable with calling myself an artist… I wonder when I will be comfortable with an “athlete” label.)
Protein requirements are typically given as “grams per kilogram body weight”, something completely non-intuitive to me (like how much bacon is this?). I think it’s much easier to understand a % of total calories. The protein requirement per the FDA (after the math of grams and calories and body weight* ) is about 10% of calories from protein. But there are lots of studies** that say for more active people, like athletes and kids, more protein is needed, closer to 15 or 20% of calories. But food labels don’t conveniently label anything but the total grams of protein (1 gram of protein is 4 calories). NOTE: I’m not a doctor or dietitian, if you are not eating nearly enough calories to maintain your body weight or have other special diet needs, this might not apply.
My (simple) system is to think of foods as low protein (less than 10% of calories are from protein), adequate protein (10-20%), and high protein. I’ve done some math to provide some examples as a frame of reference:
Meat and Eggs: No surprise, meat is high in protein. Most meats and whole eggs are around 40% (+/-5%) protein calories. This would be lean sirloin steak, pork chops, or chicken with skin.
But prime cut steaks (like a nice rib eye) are likely only getting 25 – 30% of calories from protein. Bacon is 25% protein. Since meat has lots of calories, you are getting lots of protein.
Protein as a percentage gets higher when you start stripping fat from meat – skinless chicken breast is about 80% protein calories, egg whites are over 90%.
Dairy varies quite a bit depending on how much fat, but lowfat (1%) milk is 30%, cheddar cheese is 25% protein calories.
Beans fall into the high protein group: they typically get 20 – 25% of their calories from protein, they have lots of carbs instead of fat to go with the protein.
Some vegetables even fall into the high protein group: Broccoli is about 30%, yes, calorie for calorie, you might be getting more protein from the broccoli than steak (but its tough to eat 500 calories of broccoli). 50% of the calories in mushrooms come from protein. Lettuce is also over 30%.
Adequate (10-20%) protein:
Most “starches” like pasta, oats, bread, quinoa are in the 15 – 20% range. Rice and potatoes are around 10%, maybe a bit lower. Nuts fall into this group, ranging from walnuts at 9% to almonds at 14% to peanuts at 19%.
Low protein foods (<10%):
Most fruit comes in at under 5%. Many vegetables (carrots, squash) are in the 5-10% range.
No protein foods: (0%).
Sugar and Fat. So anything that contains lots sugar and/or fat will be low protein. For example, if you add large fries and a coke to your Quarter Pounder (which is about 25% protein), the meal comes to just 11% protein. Not enough protein for the athletes (who are really the only ones that afford the 1300 calorie meal).
If you are eating a variety of whole foods, you probably don’t need to worry much about getting enough protein, even if you are not eating meat, even if you are exercising. In fact, my guess is that in the US, too much protein a bigger problem than not enough. It is believed that too much protein is hard on the kidneys and liver, and contributes to osteoporosis and kidney stones. If you eat meat every day and/or use protein supplements, I would recommend counting your protein consumption for a day or two. There are several web-based and iPad/Phone app’s available to do this, I have used MyFitnessPal but not convinced it’s the best. I have heard of a couple of others I am planning to try out (stay tuned for a future post).
Congratulations if you have made it this far! As your reward, I will share my latest favorite-after-running snack… Lots more protein than just a banana!
½ a large ripe banana, or 1 small, best if it’s been in the refrigerator
1 spoonful peanut butter or almond butter (about 1/2 a tablespoon)
1 big spoonful of cocoa powder (1 1/2 tablespoons)
8 ounces unsweetened soy milk (or other milk of choice)
Cut banana up into small pieces into a cup suitable for use with immersion blender. Add nut butter, cocoa, and milk. Blend until smooth with immersion blender.
224 Calories, 20% protein
1 gram of protein is 4 calories
Sedentary person: 0.8 g/kg per kg body weight
Endurance athletes: 1.2–1.4 g per kg body weight
Strength-training athletes 1.4–1.8 g per kg body weight