Protein is an essential macronutrient and an important part of a healthy diet. Protein plays a role in the growth and repair of tissues, the production of enzymes and hormones, and supports our immune health. (1) Whether you’re looking to support your overall health, have a goal of weight loss, or looking to build muscle, here are some simple ways to help increase your protein intake with whole foods.
The current recommended daily intake (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or 0.36 grams per pound) of body weight per day for adults over 18. (2) The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements, therefore, individuals seeking to protect against muscle loss, maximize muscle gain, lose body fat, or older individuals at risk for sarcopenia or muscle loss may benefit from an increased intake of protein. For adults looking to optimize health and protect against lean mass loss, a range of 1.2 to 1.6 grams per kilogram (0.54 to 0.7 grams per pound) of body weight per day is more optimal, while non-dieting adults looking to maximize resistance training adaptation a range of 1.6 to 2.2 grams per kilogram (0.7 to 1.0 grams per pound) of body weight per day may be more ideal. (3)(4)(5) Whether you fall into one of these categories or you simply struggle with consuming adequate protein, here are some simple ways to increase your protein intake throughout the day.
1. Increase your protein portion size.
The quickest, and arguably easiest, way to increase your protein intake is simply to eat a larger portion of the protein you are already eating. Eating one egg for breakfast? Eat 2. Eating 1/2 can of tuna for lunch? Eat the whole can. Eating 3 ounces of chicken for dinner? Eat 4 ounces of chicken. By simply increasing the portion size of your protein source at every meal, even if it’s small, you can easily increase your daily protein intake without much effort.
2. Build your meals around protein.
As you plan your meals and decide what to eat, make the protein source the central character in your meal and build your meal around it. Begin by deciding whether you are going to eat salmon, steak, turkey, or tofu, and then decide what you’re going to add to it. Once you’ve determined your protein source you can then add a serving of complex carbohydrates, the fiber in the form of vegetables or fruit, and a source of healthy fat to create a well-balanced meal that is packed full of protein.
3. Eat protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Don’t wait until dinner to start eating your protein, ensure that you’re including a source of protein at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Although you can certainly create a healthy breakfast without a ton of protein, if you’re trying to increase your protein intake neglecting to include it in your morning meal will leave you playing catch up all day long. Instead, ensure that all of your meals include a source of protein to help ensure you’re reaching your protein target by the end of the day.
4. Eat a savory breakfast.
Generally speaking, savory breakfasts tend to be higher in protein than sweet ones. By opting for eggs, sausages, turkey bacon, smoked salmon, tofu scramble, cheese, or a combination of them, you’ll likely consume more protein than you would opting for a bowl of cereal, a fruit smoothie, or toast with jam. With that being said, if you prefer a sweet breakfast, that’s not a problem, just do your best to be strategic and look for ways to boost the protein intake with foods such as yogurt, milk, nuts, or nut butter. In fact, there are plenty of high-protein breakfast foods you can include in your morning meal.
5. Eat your protein first.
When it’s time to eat, focus on eating your protein first. That is not to say you need to eat your entire protein source before you eat anything else, you can enjoy bites of everything along the way, but do your best to ensure that you’re finishing your protein before you get too full. If you leave your protein until the end of your meal you’ll risk filling up on the other stuff and risk leaving some of the much-needed protein on your plate.
6. Prioritize animal protein over vegetarian protein.
Although both animal and plant proteins are highly nutritious and can and should be included in a healthy diet, gram per gram, animal sources of protein are more concentrated sources of protein and can, therefore, more easily and quickly increase your daily protein intake. Animal protein sources, such as meat, poultry, and seafood, are primary sources of protein, meaning they contain more protein than carbohydrates or fat, while plant proteins, such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds, are primary sources of another macronutrient. On average, beans and lentils have a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein, while nuts and seeds have a 2:1 ratio of fat to protein. (6)(7) Although some plants do contain protein, gram per gram, and calorie per calorie, animal proteins have higher levels of protein so prioritizing animal protein sources can help to increase your protein intake.
To be clear, you can most certainly still increase your protein intake if you follow a vegetarian diet or don’t eat much meat. You’ll simply need to be more strategic when choosing your vegetarian protein sources as some options, such as tofu and tempeh, are more concentrated in protein than others, such as nuts and seeds.
7. Use animal and plant proteins together.
When it comes to protein, you also don’t need to choose. You can consume a combination of both animal proteins and plant proteins. Not only will this give you more options to choose from but pairing them together and consuming them in the same meal can really help to increase your overall protein intake. By building meals with chicken and black beans, or salmon and chickpeas, you can increase your daily protein intake, while increasing your fiber intake at the same time.
8. Snack on protein.
In addition to meals, snacks are a great time to eat more protein. Although some of the most popular snack foods tend to be richer in carbohydrates; crackers, granola bars, toast, or fruit, incorporating a little protein into your snack (or making it the star of the show) is another great way to increase your protein intake throughout the day. Items such as Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, hard-boiled eggs, deli roll-ups, jerky, cheese, and edamame make great snacks on their own or can be used in conjunction with other foods to create a high-protein snack.
9. Use protein powder, as needed.
If you’re struggling with the above suggestions, or are in the process of working on them, including a little protein powder in your diet is another great way to increase your protein intake. A single scoop of protein powder averages 20 grams of protein per serving, which is the equivalent to roughly 2.5 ounces of chicken, 3 ounces of steak, or 3 large eggs, making it a simple way to quickly boost protein intake. (8)(9)(10) However, protein powder should always be considered a supplement to a healthy diet, not a replacement for one. So do your best to look for ways to eat more protein with real food and use a protein powder only as long as needed.
The Bottom Line
Increasing your protein intake doesn’t need to be complicated, it just requires a little thought and forward planning. By including a well-sized source of protein in every meal, building your meals around it, eating it first, and snacking on protein in between meals, you can easily increase your daily protein intake without too much effort.