A Simple Way to Get Enough Protein
Change the way you look at your food
Diet gurus love to debate how much protein we should eat. Depending on who you ask, I should consume as little as 50 grams or as much as 150 grams of protein per day.
I am going to show you how to hit your protein target, whatever that may be. Simply follow these three steps:
- Set your protein target
- Group foods based on protein content
- Balance your protein groups
The secret sauce in my recipe is the metric — I use percentage of calories from protein, rather than grams, to track protein intake.
A small investment in seeing how your food choices measure up with this metric will be rewarded with near-effortless success in meeting your protein target.
My secret sauce — relative protein content
Let me introduce you to my magic metric: percent of calories from protein. This number tells you how much of the energy provided by a food comes from protein versus other nutrients (fat or carbohydrates).
To calculate percent of calories from protein, take number of calories from protein and divide by total calories.
The big advantage of this metric is that you automatically hit your target percentage without doing any math, as long as you build your diet around foods that are in the right ballpark of percentage protein (versus calories),
P.S. I also like metric for general food comparisons because, unlike methods that compare foods by mass (e.g. grams) or by volume (e.g. cups), foods with water and fiber are not disadvantaged. Read more about food comparisons here.
Step 1: Set Your Protein Target
Time to set your target.
While precise protein targets are hotly debated, it is generally accepted that your calories from protein should be between 10% to 35% of your total calories. We need around ten percent of calories from protein to meet our body’s basic needs. Thirty-five percent is a reasonable guess at the safe upper limit, though more studies are needed here. See Appendix for sources.
I aim for 12–17% of calories from protein. My reasons are as follows:
- It gives me a comfortable buffer above my basic needs to ensure I can also fuel muscle growth (I am loving the weights right now!).
- It is easily doable on my plant-based (meat free, dairy-free) diet.
- My internal ‘feel-good-ometer’ gives it a green light.
- I have yet to see convincing evidence that I would benefit from more protein than this. Further restrictions on food choice don’t seem worth it.
For my children, I aim for about 10% of calories from protein, for similar reasons. To set a protein target for your child, check out this related article.
Note: If you are heavily restricting calories, you may want to push your percentage target a bit higher to ensure that you hit your gram targets.
With this target in mind, we are ready for Step 2.
Step 2: Group foods based on protein content
Given my target of 12–17%, this is how I group foods:
- Above Target (25%-45%): Beans and legumes (Soy/tofu/edamame, black beans, lentils, peas), cruciferous veggies (cauliflower, broccoli), leafy greens
- On Target (12–18%): Nuts, seeds, whole grains (e.g. quinoa, oats, buckwheat)
- Below Target (4–11%): starchy vegetables (root veg), rice, fruits
- Nada (0%): Fats (olive oil, butter)
Most processed foods are low in protein compared to whole foods, falling at or below the lowest recommended intake of 10% of calories. This is because of added fats and sugars. Protein bars are an exception (thanks to added protein) and tend to land in the same range as my “above target” veggies.
Keep reading beyond Step 3 to see the data for yourself and make your own protein buckets.
Step 3: Balance your protein groups
Here are two sets of rules you can follow to hit your target. Either one works!
- Eat plenty of whole foods to ensure you get enough calories.
- Build your diet around foods in your on-target or above-target buckets.
- Balance out foods in your below-target bucket with those in your above-target bucket (go beans!)
- Be a fruitivore or starchivore.
- Eat large amounts of calorie-dense processed foods (as most are low in protein). It can be hard to balance out a 500 calorie splurge.
Note: The rolling average over multiple days is what matters most, so you can balance a lower protein day with a higher protein day.
Rules of Thumb for Protein Content
You don’t have to memorize the protein content of every food under the sun because there some easy rules of thumb.
Think like a biologist. All organisms, whether plants or animals, need proteins to live. If you eating a whole organism, it will have ample relative protein.
Think about what part of the organism you are eating. Relative protein levels can be lower when you are eating only specialized parts. Fruits are the seed-bearing organs of plants (think ovaries!), and are loaded with sugars. Root vegetables, like potatoes and carrots, are energy storage organs for plants (think glyocogen in your liver).
Processed foods are typically low in relative protein, due to added fats and sugars which bring things out of balance from what Mother Nature typically provides.
Protein bars score higher than most processed foods for relative protein, yet most are no better than lowfat dairy, soy milk, or beans!
See Appendix for plenty of examples.
- A plant-based diet can easily meet a protein target of 10–20% of calories from protein, even without shunning whole grains. The trick is to not overdo it on fats, fruits, and processed foods (especially the high-calorie ones).
- In general, the higher you go, the slimmer your choices, and the more foods you need to limit. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth it!
I hope you’ll give this method a try. I love that this it allows me to effortlessly meet my protein needs as well as those of my children. It’s not as difficult as it may appear, if you take he biologist’s view of food and think about the critical role that proteins play in all organisms.
Learn more about the art and science of healthy eating at https://fueledbyscience.com
The viewpoint presented here is my personal perspective based on my review of the scientific literature and should not be seen as medical advice.
Show Me the Data: Build Your Own Protein Buckets
The ‘protein landscape’ below shows trends in protein content by food group using 30 common whole foods (5 meats, 5 dairy products, 17 vegetables, and 3 fruits). I used a fairly liberal definition of whole foods in order to also capture dairy products. My ‘whole foods’ include those that can be directly obtained from an animal or plant but also some that are ‘lightly’ processed (water added or removed, and /or fermented).
Foods are compared using protein content relative to total calories. Grams of protein per 100 calories is shown on the left, and percent of calories from protein is shown on the right. This view highlights how much of the energy provided by this food comes from protein versus other nutrients (fat or carbohydrates).
Protein Losers (fewer than 8% of calories)
Pure fats such as olive oil or butter weigh in at a big fat zero for protein, claiming the protein losers prize. Next in line comes fruits, which average about 5% of calories from protein.
Juicers beware! I am not aware of anyone who advocates levels of protein this low.
Note: I used a culinary definition of fruits (sweet part of a plant), not a botanical one (according to a botanist, seeds, nuts and some veggies are also fruits). Protein levels in these “pseudo-fruits” are a mixed bag (keep reading).
Protein Participation (8%-12% of calories)
After fruits, starchy vegetables (potatoes and root vegetables) and rice are next in line. They fall at or just below 10% of calories from protein.
Starchy vegetables and grains fall just shy of meeting your basic protein needs.
Protein Winners (more than 12% of calories)
- Meats (30–60%) — Meats ‘own’ the top spot for protein content but many dairy and plant-based foods aren’t far behind. Note: Some fatty meats punch in much lower than the typical meats — e.g. bacon comes in at about 12% of calories, similar to whole grains.
- Dairy (20–35%) — Most dairy products are high in protein, just behind meats. Ultra fatty versions like cream cheese are an exception.
- Vegetables (20%–35%) — Protein content for veggies is surprisingly high, with the exception of the root vegetables mentioned above. Generous servings are key as these tend to be lower in calories.
Your best veggie bets are beans (black beans, kidney beans) other legumes (tofu, edamame, lentils, peas), leafy greens, brassica vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli).
4. Seeds & Nuts (~15%) — You may be surprised that seeds and nuts are not higher in my scorecard, but their high fat content bumps them down the relative protein meter.
5. Whole grains (~12%) — With the exception of brown rice, most other WHOLE grains boast more than 10% of calories from protein (e.g. quinoa, oats, buckwheat).
I didn’t do a comprehensive survey of protein levels in processed foods (yet), but wanted to share a few examples. These particular processed foods excel at sneaking their way into my household!
- Ice cream:~6% of calories (e.g. Hagen Dazs vanilla)
- Muffins: ~6% of calories (e.g. My husband’s fave: Starbuck’s lowfat blueberry muffin)
- Crackers: ~6% of calories (e.g. Wheat Thins original)
- Granola bars: ~10% of calories (e.g. Nature’s Valley, most Kind bars)
- Protein bars: ~ 20%-35% of calories (e.g. bars from Luna, Kellogg, Clif, Power, Kirkland).
Limitations and Caveats
Relative protein needs change depending on age, health status and calorie intake. Do your homework (or nudge me to help!).
The protein content figures presented here are not corrected for measures of protein quality including protein absorption. These numbers tend to be higher in animal sources than plant-sources, but not significantly enough to change the overall message. This nuance is on my list of future topics!
In Progress: Tips on sleuthing out the relative protein content of other foods beyond the 30 whole foods and handful of processed foods covered here.
- Your Child May Not Need as Much Protein as You Think — shows you how to calculate your child’s protein needs ( in grams and percent of calories)
- Busting the Myth of Incomplete Plant-Based Proteins — compares protein quality between plant and animal proteins.
- Beef Versus Broccoli: Making an Apples-To-Apples Comparison — compares the amount of protein in broccoli and beef using five different method and sheds light on how to be a more critical nutrition research consumer
Protein target ranges
- World Health Organization — minimum recommendations fall below 10% of calories in some cases (depending on age and activity level). Tends to be lower for children because of high energy (calorie) needs.
- Health Canada (10–35% of calories)
- US Department of Agriculture (with input from the National Academy of Sciences. Institute of Medicine)