Protein: you know you need it, but why, exactly?
“Protein is the driving force behind every cell, tissue, and organ in the body, providing the necessary nutrients for muscle growth, repair, and maintenance,” says Pallini Winnifred, R.D.N., of FitDominium. “It is also crucial for satiation and weight management.”
Speaking of satiation, let’s take a moment to explain what this feeling of fullness refers to in terms of nutrition. Dietitians use “satisfaction,” to mean that if you eat protein during a meal you’ll feel fuller faster during that meal. And that also includes after mealtime, which dietitians refer to as “satiety,” meaning that if you eat protein during a meal you’ll feel fuller longer after that meal.
Feeling satisfied at a meal means you’re less likely to overeat at that meal and feeling satiated after that mean means you’re less likely to snack between meals. This is also why so many calorie-restrictive diets fail. If you’re trying to cap your calories at, say, 1,500 per day, that could easily push protein off your plate. Yes, you’ll lose weight this way, but you’ll also lose muscle.
Plus, you’ll quickly grow tiresome of feeling hungry all the time and no wonder people hate dieting. As Winnifred notes, there are both animal-based sources of protein such as meat, dairy, and eggs, and plant-based sources such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. “It is important to consume a variety of protein sources to ensure that you are getting a complete range of essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein,” she adds.
Why Is Protein Important?
As you may know, protein is a macronutrient that plays a key role in your body.
“It is an important component of every cell, tissue, and organ in the body, and is necessary for the growth, repair, and maintenance of tissues,” says Winnifred, adding that protein is also important for the production of enzymes, hormones, and other chemicals in the body. “In addition to its structural and functional roles, protein is also important for satiation, or the feeling of fullness and satisfaction after a meal. This can be helpful in weight management, as protein has been shown to help reduce appetite and increase feelings of fullness.”
Winnifred elaborates that a diet that is adequate in protein has been shown to have a number of benefits, including the preservation of muscle mass and function, particularly in older adults. “In addition, protein has been shown to have a higher thermic effect compared to carbohydrates and fat, meaning that it requires more energy to digest, which may help with weight management,” she adds.
What Is a High-Protein Meal?
Just because a menu at a fast casual chain or a label on a pre-made meal at the grocery store bills itself as high-protein doesn’t mean it is. “A high-protein meal is one that is rich in protein, typically providing at least 30 grams of protein per serving,” says Winnifred.
Our advisory board dietitians recommend that you target 30 grams of protein at each meal if you’re looking to load up on protein-rich dishes. “Some examples of high-protein foods include meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds.” As a general guideline, Winnifred stresses the importance of the overall quality of the protein sources in a high-protein meal. “Choosing lean, unprocessed protein sources, such as grilled chicken or baked salmon, can help ensure that you are getting high-quality protein,” she says.
When planning a high-protein meal, Winnifred says it’s important to consider the other nutrients that are also present in the meal, such as fiber, which can help with digestion and blood sugar control. “Pairing protein with fiber-rich foods, such as vegetables or whole grains, can help slow the absorption of protein and provide sustained energy throughout the day,” she says.
In addition to protein, it is important to ensure there are carbohydrates with your meal as well as vegetables, says Nicole Swingle, a registered dietitian in California. “Carbohydrates are also important for muscle mass as carbs will help replenish the glycogen that is stored within muscles,” says Swingle, noting that some healthy carb choices include potatoes, sweet potatoes, brown rice, whole wheat bread, quinoa, beans, oats, or amaranth.
These 10 high-protein meals all do the trick.
- Spicy Pork Chops with Pineapple
The chili powder, chipotle, ancho, and cayenne combine into firestorm of heat, tempered only by the enhanced sweetness of fresh pineapple rings grilled in pork juices. With a little mint and sea salt on top, it’s hearty and light all at once. Check out the video on how to make it.
- Jalapeno Popper Chicken
Inspired by everyone’s favorite tailgate food, this inventive recipe from Cast Iron Keto isn’t your average chicken dinner. The chicken breasts are stuffed with jalapeño and two different kinds of cheese, each of which bring extra filling power to the dish. And it’s all wrapped up in a couple strips of bacon.
- Tuna Burgers
Firm, seared tuna. Creamy, spicy mayo. Crisp, crunchy snap peas. This burger has it all—except the beef—and you’ll be totally okay with that. Click here to watch how to make it.
- Sweet Chili Salmon
Topped with chili sauce, sesame oil, and liquid aminos, this flavorful fish recipe from The Big Man’s World strikes a perfect balance between sweet and spicy. And even though it sounds gourmet, you can cook it in just 10 minutes, so it’s a quick and easy option that tastes chef-ier than it actually is.
- Garlic Shrimp with Quinoa
This flavorful garlic shrimp and quinoa recipe from Well Plated is made with just one skillet, so it doesn’t require a ton of cleanup. Plus, shrimp are one of the leanest protein sources around, and quinoa is also high in protein as far as grains are concerned, so it’s a great choice for a filling dinner.
- Steak Dinner
Okay, maybe this one is obvious, but this is like no steak dinner you’ve ever had before—let alone cooked. You make everything—the steak, the garlic spinach, and the sauteed mushrooms—all in one pan. All protein. Less mess. Get after it.
- Ground Beef and Vegetable Skillet
This one-pan meal from Primavera Kitchen pairs ground beef with onions, bell pepper, zucchini, and asparagus. It’s filling enough to eat on its own; you can also pair it with whole-grain pasta or cauliflower rice.
- Ground Turkey and Sweet Potato Chili
Winnifred suggests this meal as ground turkey is a good source of lean protein, providing about 22 grams of protein per four-ounce serving. “Sweet potatoes are a good source of fiber and provide a lower-glycemic alternative to white potatoes,” she says, noting that you can include fiber-rich ingredients like bell peppers, onions, and tomatoes, and season ‘em with a blend of spices for a delicious protein-rich chili.
- Sun-Dried Tomato Alfredo
It’s hard to believe this decadent dish from A Saucy Kitchen is vegan—and high in protein. The secret is the chickpea pasta, which is having a moment right now. (Try a brand like Banza; buy it here). Almond milk, tomato paste, and vegan parmesan bring the creamy sauce together.
- Sheet Pan Shrimp Fajitas
Move over, Taco Tuesday: Fajita Friday is here with this simple recipe from The Lean Green Bean. Shrimp and black beans bring the protein, and you can top ’em off with your-go to fajita fixings like guac and salsa. Serve over brown rice or wrapped up in a soft tortilla.