Protein is an essential part of everyone’s diet, and it’s especially important for those of us trying to lose weight. Quality protein helps us sustain muscle during weight loss, improves our muscle fitness, and inhances our insulin and leptin function–all of which contribute to long term weight management.

How much protein do I need?

The Recommended Daily Allowance is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day (0.4 grams per pound). Protein helps maintain all of our body cells, including muscle. We need up to 150% of the RDA for protein PLUS exercise if we want to increase our muscle mass. This is very important when trying to lose body weight. Without that combination of adequate protein and exercise, we will lose muscle mass—NOT what we want to do.

Another consideration is that we can’t really use much more than 30 gm protein at any one time to build muscle (e.g. about 4 ounces cooked meat, poultry or fish, equal to ½ medium sized chicken breast).

Currently, most Americans eat plenty of protein each day; but we typically get most of it in our evening meal, with very little in the morning and a small amount midday. Not the best way to maintain or build muscle.

What foods provide the best protein?

There are numerous foods that provide protein (meat, fish, beans with grain, eggs, milk, yogurt, nuts, etc.) Lean animal proteins provide the most protein for the least amount of calories, but it is good to include some vegetable proteins for their heart healthy properties.

Here are ideas for 3 meals that each provide approximately 30 gm protein and are less than 400 calories. These meals plus a couple snacks that are about 50-100 calories each would fit well into almost any weight management regimen:

Yogurt parfait: 1 cup of plain greek yogurt, mixed with ¼ cup oats and some fruit and nuts. Add sugar, honey or artificial sweetener to taste.

Tuna salad: One 5 oz. can of tuna, 1 hard-boiled egg, dressed with 1 tbsp of plain yogurt mixed with 1-2 tsp mayo plus your choice of chopped veggies. Make into a wrap with a whole wheat tortilla or a sandwich on whole grain bread; enjoy as a salad on top of a bed of lettuce.

Burrito: ½ cup beans, ½ cup chopped chicken, 2 tbsp grated cheese. Season with chili powder, garlic and cumin for a south of the border flavor; add tomatoes, lettuce, avocado, and salsa wrapped in a whole grain tortilla or over 1/2 cup rice or quinoa.

Bottom line: It’s important to get enough protein and to spread it out through the day to maintain our muscle mass as you lose weight. For heart health, include some vegetable proteins, like beans with grains and nuts several times each week. Visit our recipe board on Pinterest for more healthy recipes!