Protein is trendy. The number of people following high-protein and/or low-carbohydrate diets continues to rise, and interest in high protein diets has remained high after many people predicted the interest would fade.
Research on high-protein diets is mixed or inconclusive, and those diets may have negative health effects for people with kidney issues or inflammatory bowel-related problems. Irrespective of the safety of those diets, getting enough protein should be a dietary focus for people over 65 years old, as research has shown decreased protein absorption and utilization in those cohort. Hard-training athletes need a little more protein as well, especially in ultra-endurance training or strength and power training.
How much protein should athletes and seniors eat per meal, and what are the best sources? The literature generally suggests 20-30 grams of protein per meal, with the higher values (25-30 grams per meal) for highly active men and larger women, and the lower values (20-25 grams per meal) for smaller and less active people. Sources of about 25 grams of protein include a cup of Greek yogurt, a 4 oz piece of red meat, fish, or poultry, many protein bars, or a bean burrito with cheese and a whole wheat tortilla.
For many people protein equals meat, but meat is expensive, has high environmental costs, and increases risks of food-borne illness and cross contamination. So what are some good sources of high quality protein beyond meat? Eggs are actually the highest quality protein commonly available, and are a locally available product that can be raised in a very environmentally sustainable way. Dairy products, especially plain (unflavored) Greek yogurt, can also be very good sources of high quality protein, as well as probiotics, calcium, and vitamins A and D.
Vegetarian and vegan sources of protein include beans and lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, fortified non-dairy milks, vegetables, whole grains, and seitan (“wheat meat” made from gluten). Those proteins are slightly lower quality than meat proteins, but can be combined to make a complete protein with very good quality overall.
And yes, you can have too much protein. Excessive dietary protein is hard on the kidneys, as noted above, and actually can signal the body to store more of the excess nutients in our meals as body fat. Remember, the body can only metabolize and use about 20-40 grams of protein per meal, so eating a whole 12 ounce ribeye, as in the picture above, is not an effective way increase protein intake. A ribeye that size probably has 80-100 grams of protein.
To plan your protein intake, read your nutrition labels or do some research online to estimate the protein content of your meals. There are also many good meal planning tools available online, including at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics website. Protein doesn’t have a be the focus of your diet, but it’s important to get enough, especially if you’re over 65 or in the middle of a hard training block.