Boosting protein intake can help you maintain a healthy weight, according to recent research. Emerging science also shows that choosing plant-based proteins can slash disease risk. Although recommendations vary from person to person, a general daily protein guideline is 46–56 grams for adults and 34 grams for children ages 9 to 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Get enough of this vital nutrient from the best possible sources.
Ayurvedic practitioner John Douillard, DC, director, LifeSpa Ayurvedic Retreat Center, Boulder, Colo.
Most people don’t exhibit symptoms of severe protein deficiencies, ranging from edema to stunted growth. But many people, especially vegetarians and vegans, may not get enough protein, causing irritability, loss of focus, cravings for sugary or carbohydrate-rich snacks, depression, and stiff or painful joints.
Use red meat as medicine.
While a plant-based diet may be healthiest, you can remedy a protein deficiency with small amounts of red meat, such as buffalo or grass-fed beef. Red meat is the most acidic protein, so it allows protein to go deep into your tissues. Eat 4 ounces every day at lunch for two weeks, and then return to a meat-free lifestyle.
Incorporate protein in every meal.
Eat three meals a day, each including about 18 grams of protein, to keep you satiated. Eating too frequently between meals stresses your body because it is constantly working to break down food.
Dietitian Gloria Tsang, RD, founder, healthcastle.com, Port Coquitlam, British Columbia
Be critical of protein sources.
Processed meats such as cold cuts and hot dogs contain artificial flavors, saturated fats, and preservatives like sodium nitrate and are linked to health concerns including heart disease and cancer. Look for hormone-free, USDA Organic, or Certified Humane turkey, beef, pork, or chicken to ensure animals are not fed antibiotics and are raised with high air quality, space allowances, and water availability.
Eat at least two servings of fish per week.
Fish contain similar protein amounts as meat, as well as brain-boosting omega-3s. But choose wisely; certain types of fish contain mercury, a known neurotoxin. Low-mercury choices: sardines, scallops, herring, and hake. Pregnant women and young children particularly should forgo larger fish like swordfish, Spanish mackerel, and grouper, which contain higher mercury levels.
Explore vegan options.
Soy, unlike most plant-based proteins, contains all nine amino acids. Look for organic, minimally processed options such as edamame, tofu, soy nuts, and soy milk made from whole soybeans. Combine nonsoy proteins to make them complete: Choose veggie burgers made from black beans and quinoa, or eat seitan with chickpeas and cashews.
Personal trainer Kim Ludeman, founder, Healthy Foods To You, Portland, Ore.
Have a post-workout snack.
If you frequently work out, you need more protein because it replenishes lost amino acids, which accelerate recovery. Cater your snack to your workout: Shorter, weight-bearing routines require a serving of protein, such as 4 ounces turkey; endurance workouts like running warrant both protein and a complex carbohydrate, like plain Greek yogurt with sliced apples.
Embrace protein powders.
The body assimilates proteins best from whole-food sources like fish, lean meat, tofu, and beans, but protein powders are quick, useful alternatives. The body absorbs whey and egg protein powders extremely well, but vegans can look for a powder containing pea, hemp, brown rice, and alfalfa. Choose products with 15 to 20 grams of protein per scoop.
Eat to regulate weight.
Protein accelerates weight loss because it makes you feel full longer (reducing cravings for sugary snacks) and builds lean muscle, which is more calorically demanding than fat. For each pound of lean muscle you gain, you burn 50 additional calories per day.