Want to feel satisfied after eating, support muscle growth, power your immune system, keep blood sugar happy, and create hormone balance? If so, say hello to protein. While complex carbohydrates and healthy fats are very important, protein is involved in even more key functions. Prioritizing protein is the secret to a slew of health benefits: blood sugar balance, weight management, quality sleep, absorbing calcium, and even bone health. Without further ado, let’s dive into all-things protein—the who, what, where, when, and why. Plus, a high protein foods list for both vegans and omnivores alike.
What is protein?
Protein is an essential nutrient for the human body. We need protein in order to grow and repair cells, produce hormones, and much more. In fact, every cell in the human body contains protein. It supports the growth and development in children, teens, and pregnant women. It’s found in a wide range of foods (including plants!), and it’s important you get enough protein in your daily diet. That said, how much protein you need will vary depending on your weight, sex, age, and health. Protein comes from both plant and animal sources. Think: eggs, fish, poultry, cheese, tofu, nuts, beans, legumes, and seeds.
Everything to know about Amino acids
What forms protein? Amino acids. When proteins are digested or broken down, amino acids are left. As the building blocks of protein, amino acids are necessary for breaking down food, repairing body tissue, and performing many other body functions. They can also be used as a source of energy! Total, there are roughly 20 different amino acids that link together in different combinations. Amino acids are classified into three groups:
Essential amino acids
The body can’t make essential amino acids. As a result, they must come from food. The 9 essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
nonessential amino acids
Nonessential means that our bodies can produce the amino acid, even if we do not get it from the food we eat. Nonessential amino acids include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartic acid, cysteine, glutamic acid, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, and tyrosine.
conditional amino acids
Last but not least, conditional amino acids. These are usually not essential, except in times of illness and stress. Conditional amino acids include arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.
how much protein do you need?
This is akin to asking how much water should you drink every day? The answer is nuanced. Ultimately, it’s best to take a bio-individual approach. Meaning, you want to consider your activity level, age, menstrual cycle, blood sugar, and more. To figure out your protein needs, let’s work together! That said, while the DRI (Dietary Reference Intake) is 0.36 grams of protein per pound—this amounts to 54 grams per day for an 150 pound person—most experts will tell you that’s too low. As a Nutrition Consultant, I find that a good rule of thumb is roughly 20-30 grams of protein per meal. Again, this will vary across the board (particularly if you’re pregnant). To get enough protein for breakfast, see ideas here.
what is a complete protein?
When it comes to measuring the nutritional value of a protein, we look at the quantity of essential amino acids it contains. Different foods contain different amounts of essential amino acids. Generally speaking, animal proteins (chicken, beef, fish, and dairy) have all 9 essential amino acids. These are known as complete proteins. However, there are some plant foods that contain all 9 essential amino acids: soy products, quinoa, amaranth, Ezekiel bread, spirulina, nutritional yeast, hemp seeds, and chia seeds. Other plant proteins—like beans, lentils, and nuts—aren’t quite complete proteins (but are very close).
can you get all the protein you need from a vegan diet?
Yes! If you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, as long as you eat a wide variety of foods, you can absolutely get the protein you need. For example, a meal containing lentils, black beans, and hemp seeds provides all the essential amino acids found in a typical meat dish. If you eat a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, focus on diversifying your plant foods (aim for 30+ plants, every week). In turn, you’ll ensure an adequate mix of essential amino acids. You’ll also want to consider a vitamin B12 supplement. When in doubt, work with a plant-forward healthcare provider to make sure you’re getting enough vitamins, minerals, and protein.
vegan sources of protein
With general serving sizes in mind, below are vegan protein options (each contain 8-10 grams protein):
- Tree nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, etc.): 1/4 cup
- Nut butters: 2 tablespoons
- Seeds (i.e. pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.): 3 tablespoons
- Hemp seeds: 2 tablespoons
- Tofu: 1/2 cup
- Tempeh: 1/3 cup
- Lentils: 1/2 cup (cooked)
- Beans (black, pinto, etc.): 1/2 cup (cooked)
- Chickpeas: 3/4 cup (cooked)
- Nutritional yeast: 3 tablespoons
- Spirulina: 2 tablespoons
- Amaranth: 1 cup (cooked)
- Quinoa: 1 cup (cooked)
animal protein sources
With general serving sizes in mind, below are animal protein options:
- Chicken breast: one 4-oz skinless chicken breast (30-35 grams protein)
- Chicken thigh: one 4-oz skinless chicken thigh (27 grams protein)
- Deli slices: 4-5-oz deli slices (16+ grams protein)
- Ground turkey / chicken: 4-oz ground turkey (30+ grams protein)
- Turkey burger patty: 1 burger (20-30 grams protein)
- Chicken sausage: 1 link (10+ grams protein)
- Egg: 2 medium eggs (12 grams protein)
- Pork tenderloin: 4-oz tenderloin (30+ grams protein)
- Deli slices (e.g. ham): 4-oz slices (16+ grams protein)
- Ham: 4-oz slices (24 grams protein)
- Uncured prosciutto or salami: 2-oz slices (12 grams protein)
- Uncured bacon: 3 slices (9-24 grams protein—more for turkey bacon)
- Ground beef: 3-oz (22 grams protein)
- Steak: 3-oz (22 grams protein)
- Tuna: 1 regular-sized can or 1 packet (43 grams protein)
- Smoked salmon: 5-oz (25-30 grams protein)
- Salmon filet: one 5-oz filet (5-oz (25-30 grams protein)
- Shrimp: 30 small shrimp (25 grams protein)
- Lobster: 1 medium lobster (25 grams protein)
- Scallops: 6-oz (34 grams protein)
- Canned salmon: 4-oz (40 grams protein)
- Greek yogurt: 3/4-1 cup (12-17 grams protein)
- Cheese: 1 slice of cheese; 1 string cheese; 1/3 cup shredded cheese; 1/3 cup crumbled cheese (8-10 grams protein)
- Milk: 8 ounces (7 grams protein)
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This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and we recommend that you always consult with your healthcare provider.