High-protein meals contain at least 30 grams of protein.
High-protein meals may help you slow down aging, lose weight and fat, improve your metabolism and gut health, and increase your muscle mass.
Meals and snack ideas are plentiful, ranging from chicken and broccoli stir-fry over rice to Greek yogurt mixed with chia seeds and cashews.
Animal protein sources like beef, chicken, and dairy typically have higher amounts of protein per serving and provide all the essential amino acids.
Plant protein sources like beans, quinoa, and soy generally have lesser and varying levels of amino acids, so it’s important to consume a wide variety of plant-based foods.
There are three macronutrients that provide calories (energy) for your body. Carbohydrates and fat tend to get the most airplay (think low-carb and keto-type diets), and protein is often an afterthought. When we do think about protein, we often equate it to those with a primary goal of building substantial muscle mass and physical strength. But protein is so much more than just a way to build muscle, it’s essential for practically every function in your body.
Protein helps to control everything from your metabolism and mood to your sleep and immune system function. It’s also important for the structure and regulation of all your tissues and organs, including muscle. When you think about it that way, protein indeed deserves much more attention, especially as we age.
Diets high in protein may promote healthy aging, help you lose weight and maintain healthy muscle, and improve your gut and metabolic health. Including high-protein meals and snacks that contain at least 30 grams of protein is a great way to ensure you’re getting enough of this vital nutrient.
In this article, I’ll break down what protein is and teach you how to calculate the amount of protein you need each day. I’ll also share four health benefits of high-protein meals and snacks and dig into the issues of quality and quantity when it comes to animal versus plant-based protein sources.
4 Health Benefits of High-Protein Meals
High-protein meals (≥30 grams of protein) may provide a variety of health benefits, especially as we age. Over time, our bodies become less efficient at digesting and using protein, and our appetites tend to decline [1, 2]. Both of these can contribute to malnutrition and sarcopenia (muscle loss) [2, 3], which can translate into poor health outcomes. We’ll get into this more later, but the bottom line here is most of us need to eat more protein, especially as we age.
But, healthy aging isn’t the only benefit of eating an optimal amount of protein. Here’s a chart summarizing four health benefits of high-protein meals and snacks:
Weight and Metabolic Health
High protein diets improve blood pressure, insulin, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels and result in more weight and fat loss when compared to low protein diets [4, 5, 6, 7].
Higher protein intakes (18–59% of daily calories) help you better manage your weight .
High protein diets in morbidly obese women improve blood sugar and insulin levels and decrease insulin resistance more than a Mediterranean diet alone .
Increased protein intake helps to increase or maintain lean body mass .
Eating more protein than what’s recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is associated with significantly better physical performance and greater muscle strength in older adults .
Higher daily protein intake may reduce the risk of hip fractures in older adults by 11% .
15 grams of collagen (protein that lacks the amino acid tryptophan) per day can improve joint function, reduce joint pain, and improve body composition, strength, and muscle recovery in older adults .
Higher protein intake is associated with better gut microbial diversity .
Now that you’ve had a snapshot of some important health benefits of higher protein diets, let’s look at the protein sources that will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to amino acid content.
What Are The Best Protein Sources for High Protein Meals?
While there is no “good or bad” when we talk about protein, we must address quality. Not all protein sources are equal when it comes to amino acid content — the biggest determinant of protein quality — making some more efficient in meeting your needs.
Dietary proteins (whether from an animal or plant-based source) are digested and broken down into their specific amino acids, which are then used to create new proteins that function to keep you healthy . While there are literally hundreds of amino acids in nature, the human body only uses 20 of them — nine of them are “essential,” and the rest are considered “non-essential”.
The focus here needs to be on the intake of the nine essential amino acids, as the body can’t make those and relies on getting them from food. Here’s a chart detailing the three classes of amino acids humans use :
Can’t be made by the body, so they must be obtained from food
Can be made by the body and can also be obtained from food
A healthy body can make these, but under conditions like starvation or in the case of genetic conditions that affect metabolism, these must be obtained from food
Since animal proteins (like beef) contain all the essential amino acids, they’re typically going to be a great option for meeting your protein needs without overconsuming calories. Whey protein is a popular choice as it has the highest amino acid content of all plant and animal proteins .
Most plant-based proteins (including pea protein) are lower in essential amino acids like methionine, making it hard to meet the daily requirement. To consume the optimal 30 grams per meal of the essential amino acid leucine, it takes 38 grams of pea protein vs 25 grams of whey protein .
Below is a closer look at the amino acid composition of various protein sources:
However, that doesn’t mean that plant-based proteins are inferior, it just may take a combination of plant sources and usually a higher intake (and more calories) to get the same effects. I had a great discussion about this with Dr. Stephan van Vliet on the podcast where he shared that his research has shown muscle protein synthesis can still occur when at least 30 grams of plant-based protein is consumed at a meal.
High Protein Food Sources
With that in mind, it’s probably best to consume a wide variety of protein sources (both animal and plant-based) in your diet to ensure you’re getting enough amino acids and total protein, and are eating a well-rounded diet. Here’s a chart detailing the macronutrient content of foods you can use to make protein-packed meals and snacks .
From USDA’s FoodData Central; all macronutrients rounded to the nearest tenth .
As you can see, animal sources typically contain more protein in fewer calories, so this is a consideration if you’re working on weight loss. Let’s see how to create high-protein meals and snacks.
High-Protein Meal and Snack Ideas
Creating high-protein healthy meals and snacks doesn’t have to be complicated. Use a more complete chart like the one above to plan out meals and snacks that contain around 30 grams of protein. To help get you started, here’s a sample one-day menu:
This menu provides 128 grams of protein, but if you need more or less protein based on your specific goals, keep in mind you can adjust serving sizes to increase the protein content.
When you’re meal prepping to increase your protein intake, here are some high-protein recipes to consider:
Meatballs with whole grain pasta
Pesto with parmesan
Hummus with vegetable sticks
Sheet pan chicken recipes
Brown rice bowls
Mexican burrito bowls
Now that you know how to create high protein meals and snacks, let’s review how to calculate your own protein needs.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
High protein meals may have a lot of health benefits, but it’s important to remember that one 30g protein meal per day isn’t going to cut it when it comes to meeting your protein requirements. In general, you should consume 1.4–2.2 grams/kilogram/day depending on your age, activity level, and health goals.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (and some dietitians) recommend that most people get 0.8–1 gram of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight each day . To illustrate this, let’s take a 130-pound woman:
Divide her weight by 2.2 pounds, and you’ll get 59 kg.
Multiply 59 kg by 0.8–1.0g/kg and you’ll get a recommended 47 – 59 grams of protein per day.
Divide over three meals to get about 20 grams of protein per meal.
However, the International Protein Board (IPB) has found this recommendation to be theabsolute minimum needed to prevent deficiency in healthy people . They also found this standard to be insufficient for the general population (especially for older people) to achieve and maintain :
Healthy weight loss
Most people are probably interested in aging well and maintaining their general health. If you’re following the above protein guidelines though, you’re not likely getting enough protein to reach those goals. Let’s look at what the protein experts recommend instead. Here’s a chart summarizing the IPB recommendations based on health goal :
Supports body systems for health and wellness
General Exercise and Fitness
Increases muscle protein production and balance
Supports increases in strength and exercise endurance
Supports leaner body composition
Minimizes body protein losses during weight loss
Supports hunger management
Supports healthy metabolism
Helps to minimize body protein loss
Covers reduced efficiency of protein nutrition
Advanced Sport Performance and Muscle Building
Supports muscle mass and strength development
Supports endurance enhancement and covers the increased use during performance
Along these same lines, a 2016 literature review recommended higher protein intakes based on the intensity of your physical activity. This review also found the long-term protein intake of 2g/kg/day to be safe for healthy adults, and they suggested the tolerable upper limit of protein to be around 3.5g/kg/day (for people who are well-adapted to eating that much protein) .
However, it’s probably best to avoid protein intakes of greater than 2.2g/kg/day long-term, though, to avoid potential complications. While high-protein diets haven’t been found to negatively impact kidney function in healthy people [21. 22] they can worsen kidney function for people with chronic kidney disease . So, it’s always best to speak with your doctor before increasing your protein intake if you have kidney disease.
I had another great discussion about protein on the podcast with Dr. Gabrielle Lyon where she emphasized protein intake in relation to maintaining muscle mass as we age. She explained it this way:
Muscle is the metabolic sink of the body and serves as the reservoir for amino acids. Muscle determines almost everything about your body composition and overall health. It helps to regulate your blood sugar, your ability to manage fats, and your fuel during times of illness.
Dr. Lyon said there are two ways to stimulate muscle growth: dietary protein intake and resistance training. With this in mind, she recommends aiming for 1 gram of protein per pound(which equals 2.2g/kg) of body weight per day in order to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Using our example from above then, a 130-pound female would now need around 130 grams of protein per day, about 43 grams at each meal.
As you can see, there really aren’t any exact recommendations for the optimal amount of protein you need. But we can comfortably say you need to consume more protein than the minimum recommendation of 0.8–1.0g/kg/day, and should be aiming for 30 grams of protein per meal, at minimum.
High-Protein Meals and Snacks Can Improve Your Health
Protein is a macronutrient involved in practically every body function. Increasing your intake of protein by eating high-protein meals and snacks that contain at least 30 grams of protein may help you age better, promote weight and fat loss, increase your muscle mass, and improve your gut and metabolic health.
The current recommendation for protein (0.8–1.0g/kg/day) is likely insufficient to maintain general health and fitness, healthy aging, muscle mass, and sports performance. Depending on your age, activity level, and goals, you may need up to 2.2g/kg of protein per day.
Animal-based sources like poultry, beef, and dairy products typically have more protein in fewer calories and higher quantities of essential amino acids than plant-based sources, but it’s best to consume a wide variety of both, or a combination of plant proteins, to ensure you’re eating a well-rounded whole foods diet.
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