The Dietary Importance of Protein

By Rachel Begun, MS, RD

Much has been talked about protein recently, so I thought I help explain why this important nutrient is getting so much attention as well as give some tips for how to get enough of it while maintaining a healthy diet.

Protein, carbohydrate and fat are the three macronutrients the body need, meaning they are the nutrients that come with calories and, therefore, provide us with energy. We’ve known for a long time that protein and its building blocks, amino acids, are indeed very important for the body.

Finding the Right Protein Sources

There has been extensive research in two areas in particular:

1) the need to maintain adequate protein intake as we get older, to maintain muscle strength and prevent atrophy.

2) the role protein plays in keeping us satiated, or feeling full for a long time and delaying the onset of hunger again. In other words, when eaten in proper amounts and at key times throughout the day, getting enough protein can play an important role for successful weight management.

Except for seniors who may not be getting enough protein in their diet, quantity is usually not an issue. Most of us are meeting our protein needs without a problem. Protein doesn’t get stored in the body, so when too much is eaten it gets excreted. Eating more than our daily need doesn’t do anything, including building more muscle.

So, the message here is not that we need to eat more protein. More important is the quality of our protein intake as well as the timing. Here are a few tips:

Eat more plant-based proteins
When we think of protein-rich foods, animal products like meat, poultry, fish, dairy and eggs are what most often come to mind. These high-quality protein foods are important, but they don’t need to be eaten in large quantities. In fact, an appropriate portion of meat is about 3 ounces, which equates to a deck of cards.

For years we’ve known about the benefits of eating a more plant-based diet. This goes beyond upping our fruit and vegetable intake. It means replacing some of our animal protein intake with more of the following, containing protein as well as disease-fighting phytonutrients and fiber, another nutrient that keeps us feeling full: Beans/legumes, nuts and nut butters, seeds, higher-protein grains such as quinoa, amaranth and teff.

Get enough protein early in the day
When you eat your protein also matters. All your meals should include protein. Start your day off with a breakfast that is high in protein, and it will carry you through the day, meaning you’ll be less likely to have that afternoon or evening crash and ensuing snack attack. Of course, everyone’s day is different, and so where protein should dominate in meals and snacks will differ. But on the whole it’s best to eat a high-protein breakfast, eat a moderate- to high-protein lunch, go lighter on protein for a pre-workout snack, go higher on protein for a post-workout meal or snack, and, depending on what time you eat dinner and whether or not it is your post-workout meal, your protein content at dinner can vary.

Think beyond the center of the plate
We’ve been conditioned to believe that protein-rich foods need to be at the center of our plate for every meal. Not so. Sprinkling them into our snacks and meals throughout the day provides plenty to meet our daily needs. Here are a few examples for how to do this:

• Sprinkle nuts and seeds onto yogurt parfaits, cold and hot cereals or into pancake batters and baked goods dough.

• Make nut and seed butters your spread, instead of butter or jam.

• Use hummus or other bean spreads as a sandwich spread or crudite dip.

• Sprinkle nuts, seeds and beans into your salads and soups for a delicious and nutritious crunch.

• Use high-protein Greek yogurt for dips, spreads and other recipes calling for cream, sour cream or cheese.

• Use meat, poultry and fish as a flavor enhancer, similar to how it’s used in stir fry, pasta or salads (think 3 ounces at the most). If you need more protein, you can supplement with plant-based proteins.

Go whole
While it’s easy and convenient to snack on a protein bar or smoothie during the day, it’s important to know that many of these choices are loaded with added sugars and highly processed ingredients. It’s better to stick to whole-protein foods like the ones recommended above and save the bars for a time when convenience is really needed.

With respect to protein powders for smoothies, there are natural and not-so-natural options. Read labels before purchasing protein powders, and read the ingredient labels of the protein powders being used at your favorite smoothie joint. I can’t tell you how many people are surprised to learn about what really is in their so-called “healthy” smoothie.

Rachel Begun, MS, RD, is a Registered Dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). She provides education, communications and consulting services to health organizations and the food industry and educates the public via speaking opportunities, online activities and writing for publications, including her own blog, The Gluten-RD. For more information, please visit

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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