A Simple Way to Hit Your Protein Target

Change the way you look at your food

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  1. Group foods based on protein content
  2. Balance your protein groups

My secret sauce — relative protein content

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Step 1: Set Your Protein Target

While optimal protein targets are hotly debated, it is generally accepted that 10% to 35% of your total calories should come from protein.

Step 2: Group foods based on protein content

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“bowl of vegetable salads” by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash
  • 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)

Step 3: Balance your protein groups

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  • 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!)
  • 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.

Rules of Thumb for Protein Content

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“close-up photography of white dandelion” by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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.

Closing Thoughts

  • 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!

Appendix

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).

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Protein content of 30 whole foods. Left: grams of protein per 100 calories; Right: % of calories from protein. Source: US Department of Agriculture nutritional database

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.

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.

Protein Winners (more than 12% of calories)

  1. 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.
  2. Dairy (20–35%) — Most dairy products are high in protein, just behind meats. Ultra fatty versions like cream cheese are an exception.
  3. 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.

Processed Foods

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!

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What’s in a Starbuck’s Low Fat Blueberry Muffin? (thanks, MyFitnessPal app).
  • 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!).

Related Articles

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.

Appendix

Protein target ranges

Written by

Scientist (PhD Genetics @Stanford) * Mother * Passionate about science-based healthy choices * Lifelong learner * Founder: Fueled by Science

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