Protein is such a popular topic – especially for those of you who are more plant-based, or those of you who fully identify as a vegetarian or vegan.
Everything from how much you need to how to know if you're not getting enough and how to eat more with each meal.
Let's examine why our bodies need protein and how to include it in your meals, whether you are eating entirely vegetable protein, or whether you or someone in your household is consuming animal protein.
Why We Need To Eat Enough Protein
Protein is an important macronutrient that must be included in every meal we eat for several reasons.
To really understand why protein is important to your wellbeing, you need to understand the amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
There are technically three groups of amino acids – non-essential, essential and conditional.
- Non-essential amino acids: those that our body already has or that we can make ourselves.
- Essential amino acids: those that we must collect from the foods we eat.
- Conditional amino acids: Only essential in times of severe stress or trauma such as surgery, medical illness, etc.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and all life forms need protein in order to live and grow. You should make sure that your diet contains enough essential amino acids and enough amino acids. If you are a vegan or vegetarian, you should pay special attention to amino acids in your diet.
You don't have to use up all of the amino acids for a complete protein. This has to be one of the biggest myths I read over and over again, even in nutrition textbooks. You don't have to consume all of the amino acids at every meal to get “complete” protein.
Our bodies are incredibly resourceful and of course we have a "pool" of amino acids on offer when a meal is a little low in one or the other amino acid. The key is to consume a variety of proteins each day to make sure you are getting a variety of amino acids. This ensures that your body has enough to make up for the times you may be absent.
Benefits of Protein
From helping you make sure you feel full after meals, to digestion, muscle and tissue synthesis, hormone production, as well as immune health and various additional functions, it is safe to say that this is vital.
Protein also makes up every cell in our body, including the cells that make up the skin, hair, nails, muscle tone, digestive tract, and more. Since protein is found in every cell in our body, it is important to both eat enough and eat the best quality food whenever possible.
Nutritional research shows that eating protein with every meal, especially breakfast, can reduce the hunger hormone ghrelin and increase feelings of satiety.
These are just some of the reasons why it is so important to eat with every meal.
Vegetable and animal protein
Now let's talk about how to get the right sources of protein to support your body.
There are two main categories of proteins: vegetable protein and animal protein.
An animal derived – beef, pork, goat, collagen, whey / casein / collagen based protein powder, eggs, fish, cheese, etc.
Derived from pants – legumes, blue-green algae, tofu, tempeh, soy, nuts, seeds, etc.
I'll talk a little about both in case you eat more plant-based or one way and your partner or family members eat another way.
My position on both has been the same since day one – source issues and quality issues.
If you want to consume animal proteins, opt for those that are made for ethical and human reasons – health, ethical and environmental.
When shopping, stick to the animal proteins that are marked with: organic, 100% grass-fed, wild-caught, sustainable, human-raised. When you shop at the butcher shop, ask them about sourcing and share the details of your search so you can get the best quality and help smallholder farmers as locally as possible.
Similarly, with vegetable protein, we look for organic, sustainable, and whole-food sources when and whenever you can.
5 Tips on How to Get More Protein Every Day
Now let's share a few tips to make it easier for you to get more protein in your diet.
1. Familiarize yourself with vegetable protein options
The first tip to getting more protein is to familiarize yourself with all of the plant-based protein options that are available to you.
There are so many great options from tempeh to tofu, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, quinoa and spirulina.
I often find that so many people don't even realize that a certain food is filled with protein and it becomes so much easier for them to include that food in their meals.
You can keep a list right in your phone's notes so you can pull it out when you go shopping, staring at the fridge, wondering what to eat or what to eat.
2. Batch Cook Protein for the Week
When I think about meal prep and batch cooking, I like to think of the Foundational Five, the Nutrition Stripped System, to ensure you have all of the macronutrients you need for a balanced meal. For more information on the Foundational Five and my batch cooking tips, check out my free guide.
Instead of cooking certain recipes in batches, I cook different components.
Then I mix them all week to shape my meals. One of the best ways to make sure you're getting protein with every meal is to have protein options on hand so you can easily add them as you build up a meal.
I usually make a lot of tempeh or tofu, beans and quinoa. I also know that we usually have fresh eggs from our chickens, protein powders, and pantry-friendly options like nuts and seeds as a focal point all week long.
This is also very helpful if your partner or family members eat differently than you do.
I have a lot of plant-based eaters here, but many of their partners consume animal protein and have a hard time cooking and eating together.
For example, my husband Jesse enjoys chicken or fish more than I do. During the week we just cook both plant and animal protein in portions that he and I will eat.
The rest of the meal – vegetables, flavor, grains, etc. are all the same, only the protein is different.
We can both enjoy what we want, but we don't have to prepare two completely separate meals – we just exchange this one element.
3. Keep your pantry well stocked
Lots of people think of chicken, steak, and eggs, but when you factor in all of the plant-based protein options as well, it opens up more ways for you to get these throughout your day.
Keep your pantry filled with things like nut butters, seeds, nuts, and canned beans, and you'll always have a protein option that can be added to any meal without having to cook.
4. Look for creative ways to incorporate them
Protein often seems to be the star of the dish – especially if you're used to going to a restaurant and seeing entrees that focus on chicken, fish, or steak, for example.
However, if you look at a plant-based dish, you might not visually see a large serving of protein – unless you're eating tempeh or tofu.
For example, I like to make homemade pizzas. We might make a nut-based cheese for the pizza – it's filled with vegetable protein, but it's not necessarily the "star" of the dish like a steak is. We also always start with a large salad with seeds and nuts, which are also a good source of protein.
So be creative and look for high-protein sauces or condiments like nut-based cheese, side dishes like bean salad, ingredient changes or starters that bring the protein into your meal in different ways.
5. Keep a reflective food journal
Finally, do a reflective grocery journal to see how you are and where you need more support.
If you're trying to get protein at every meal, keep a reflective food journal, writing down what you ate and determining when or not you were given protein. I have a journal prompt that you can follow in my free manual that you can download afterwards.
Becoming aware of the days or weeks that you did very well when you struggled to achieve this will help you see what works and what doesn't, how to adjust, and how to get support.
Without that thought, you cannot understand whether you are progressing or where you may be getting stuck.
How Much Protein Should You Eat in a Day?
I'm sure you are now asking, ok, I know why I need protein and how I can get more of it, but how much should I include in my day?
This is one of the most popular questions I am asked, and it will be covered in more detail in my Mindful Eating program, which teaches members how to recognize what their bodies need.
The exact amount will depend on your lifestyle, health and fitness goals, digestion, activity level, and genetics.
It is best to focus on getting protein at every meal. One serving size is 3 ounces, which is roughly the size of the palm of your hand for quick visual representation. However, depending on your body and hunger, you may need more or less. So check in with you. What is most important is that you are getting protein with every meal, but you don't have to worry about how many grams of protein you are eating.
Put this into practice
Now that you have a deeper understanding of protein, be sure to download my Free Guide to Creating Healthy Eating Habits, where I share more nutrition and mindful eating tips.