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How to Boost Your Health With High Protein Snacks

Control Weight, Boost Metabolism and Feel Younger with Higher Protein Eating

Key Takeaways:
  • The importance of protein in muscle maintenance, healthful aging, and hunger management is underappreciated.
  • Most people will benefit from spreading their protein over a series of meals and snacks — aiming for at least 25g or so at a time.
  • We need protein for muscle health, metabolic health, weight control, and hunger management.
  • Older people, athletes, and those watching their weight need to ensure they get plenty.
  • You can get protein from animals (e.g. meat and dairy) and plants (e.g nuts and legumes).
  •  If you’re only having plant protein, you’ll need to plan your diet more carefully to get a full balance of amino acids.
  • Combining around 1.3 g of protein per kg body weight (0.6g per lb bodyweight), with strength training can optimize muscle building

Diets like Atkins, Keto, and Dukan that have higher amounts of protein than the standard western diet have been in the spotlight for a while now.

But in many cases, the primary focus of these diets is low carbohydrate (low-carb), with higher protein just being a fortunate “side benefit”.

While you could argue this is just semantics, it really does pay to focus on protein as a specific nutrient with its own, very special qualities.

A recent podcast I hosted with protein specialist Dr. Gabrielle Lyon brought into fine focus the crucial benefits a protein-rich diet has to offer. Dr. Lyon’s mantra is that as a nation, we “are not over-fat but under-muscled,” and this really made me think about getting the message about protein out more strongly to my audience.

To this end, let’s take a closer look at the benefits of protein and healthy high-protein snacks for metabolism, muscle building, and anti-ageing.

We’ll look into when to consume high-protein snacks, how much, and which type.

Protein Basics

Protein is a key nutrient for building and maintaining the muscles and tissues of our body, including skin and bone. 

When we eat protein, the digestive system breaks it down into constituent amino acids that subsequently get rebuilt into new proteins for the body to use. Proteins are required by the body to do everything from repairing and building new muscles and tissues, to fighting infections and helping cells divide [1]. 

All the enzymes we need to digest food and to keep our metabolism working well are also protein-based, so it’s truly a vital nutrient.

Research shows that a higher-protein diet can contribute to:

  • Weight loss and fat loss [2, 3, 4, 5]
  • Better metabolic health [2, 4, 6, 7]
  • Muscle gain [8
  • Healthy aging [9, 10, 11]

The best protein foods include meat, fish, poultry, and dairy, but there are also many valuable plant sources of proteins which include nuts, seeds, legumes (like beans and chickpeas), and soy products like soybeans (edamame) and tofu.

Why High Protein Snacks Are Necessary

Many protein experts suggest that, in order to maintain muscle mass and physical strength, we should consume AT LEAST 0.5 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day, depending on the level of daily physical activity, weight goals, or phase of life. 

I’ll go into optimal protein recommendations in more detail below, but for anyone aiming to get more than 75g of protein a day (and that turns out to be almost all of us), you’ll likely benefit from having at least one protein snack a day.

Although controversial, some research suggests that we can only efficiently use around 20g of protein per meal for muscle building — beyond that the muscle  benefits per eating episode start to diminish [12]. If that’s true, even if you perfectly meet 20g of protein at each meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), you’d still likely need more to meet your optimal muscle needs AND your other protein requirements (like making cells and digestive enzymes for example).

For extra nutritional insurance, a protein-based snack between meals is a good idea for most people.

Below are some ideas for high-protein snacking that can easily be incorporated into your daily diet.

12 High-Protein Snack Ideas

FoodProtein Content
Scoop of whey protein or pea protein (to make a protein shake)13–19g 
2 hard-boiled eggs12g 
Half a cup chickpeas ​​or blend into homemade hummus9g 
1 ½ ounce pistachios9g 
2 ounces cashews8g
1 ounce Parmesan10g 
1 ounce grass-fed beef jerky10g 
2 tbsps smooth or crunchy peanut butter7g 
Half a cup Greek yogurt18g 
Half a cup cottage cheese with veggies13g 
12-ounce glass of milk15g
1 ounce pumpkin seeds9g 

Protein Benefits

Protein is vital for the health of muscle, which Dr. Lyon calls the “organ of longevity”. But prioritizing protein at any age is useful. Below are some of the findings research has revealed about protein’s role in relation to weight management and metabolic health, muscle gain, and healthy aging.

Weight Loss and Metabolic Health

Overall, higher protein diets make it easiest to lose weight and keep it off, as well as improve levels of blood fats and glucose (reducing diabetes risk). The below results are all from large meta-analyses which review several studies in one go.
  • Compared to low-protein diets (10–23% of calories), high-protein diets (20–45% of calories) resulted in improvements in [2]
    • Weight loss
    • Fat loss
    • Blood pressure
    • Total cholesterol
    • Triglycerides
    • Insulin levels
  • Higher protein intakes (18–59% of dietary calories) resulted in 1.6 kg (3.5 lbs) more body weight loss on average than controls who ate less protein.
    • Pre-diabetic people benefited more from higher protein than those with normal blood sugar [3].
  • High-protein diet (25–33% of calories) in people with type 2 diabetes led to significantly better insulin sensitivity and cholesterol levels [6].
  • A high-protein meal regimen using meal replacements (20–35% of calories from protein) produced significantly more weight loss, fat loss, and BMI reduction than a control diet group (15% of calories from protein) [5]. 

Muscle Gain

Getting enough protein is essential for maintaining lean body mass and optimizing the muscle-building effect of exercise.

A meta-analysis that delved into 105 randomized controlled trials to understand the dose-response relationship between protein intake and lean body mass found that [13]:

  • Overall, slowly increasing current protein intake over several months can help increase or maintain lean body mass. 
  • Once you consume more than 1.3 g of protein per kg body weight (0.6g per lb bodyweight), this effect starts to diminish, but strength training significantly protects against the diminishment.

Healthy Aging

With aging comes a certain initial decrease in muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, but eating plenty of protein and staying active, particularly with resistance exercise, can stave off this trend. For example, various studies have shown:

  • Eating more protein than the recommended daily allowance was significantly associated with better physical performance and greater muscle strength in older adults [9].
  • Compared to lower protein intake, higher total (plant and animal) daily protein reduced the risk of hip fractures by 11% [10].
  • Regular collagen protein intake helped improve body composition, strength, and muscle recovery, especially in elderly men with sarcopenia. Collagen was most effective when taken about an hour before exercising [11]. 

Who Needs More Protein, and How Much?

Protein recommendations, many of which were set some time ago,  are lower than optimal according to many protein experts. The International Protein Board (IPB) consists of scientists from around the world who have evaluated available recent research and concluded that the current RDA for protein in the US and Canada (46g women / 56 g men) is an absolute minimum needed to prevent deficiency. The IPB says that to achieve and maintain general health and fitness, protein intake should be a lot higher. The following table summarizes their recommendations for different age and lifestyle groups [14]:

Optimal Protein Recommendations as Advised by the International Protein Board

  • Life Stage of Lifestyle
Protein Recommendation (per kg or lb body weight) Protein Recommendation in Grams
General health 1.1–1.4g per kg body weight (0.5–0.64 g per lb body weight)
  • 55–70g protein for a 110 lb person’ OR
  • 90–115g for a 180 lb person
General exercise and fitness 1.4–1.8g  per kg bodyweight (0.64–0.82g per lb body weight)
  • 70–90g protein for a 110 lb person OR
  • 115–148g for a 180 lb person
Healthier weight loss 1.4–1.6 per kg body weight (0.64–0.73g per lb body weight)
  • 96–110g for a 150lb person*
Healthy aging 1.4–1.75 per kg body weight(0.64g–0.8g per lb body weight)
  • 70–88g protein for a 110 lb person, OR
  • 115–144g for a 180lb person
Advanced sport performance and muscle building 1.8–2.2 per kg body weight(0.82–1g per lb body weight)
  • 90–110g protein for a 110 lb person, OR
  • 148–180g protein for a 180lb person

*Protein needs for a person losing weight should be based on ideal (target) body weight.

When to Eat High-Protein Snacks

As I highlighted above, your body may  build muscle best at an intake of around 20g of protein per eating occasion [12]. That’s not to say you can’t absorb and process larger amounts of protein but the efficiency may drop off. So when you’re eating a high protein diet you may be better off spreading your intake over the day for optimal muscle health. 

  • If your optimal protein needs are in the region of 75 to 100 g a day, you’d benefit from at least one high-protein snack as well as eating three protein-containing meals with at least 25g protein.
  • If your protein requirements are over 100g daily, you’d be best getting this intake over three meals and two snacks. 

There are no hard and fast rules about when it is best to consume your high-protein snacks.

However, mid-morning, mid-afternoon, and bedtime are all good choices.

Bedtime might not seem like the ideal time to be downing a high-protein snack, but when combined with weight training, some research suggests it may increase muscle gains and aid with post-exercise recovery overnight [15].

The International Society of Sports Nutrition says that consuming casein (a protein in dairy milk) before bed can be particularly useful for athletes who get up early and train hard in the morning as it can increase muscle protein synthesis and metabolic rate throughout the night [16].

In another study, eating more protein at breakfast and less protein at dinner (i.e. spreading protein out more evenly across three meals) was shown to be better than eating low protein at breakfast and high protein at dinner for increasing muscle mass in weight-trained, healthy young men [23].

Food or Supplements?

Supplements like whey and pea protein powders are highly convenient and very concentrated sources of protein that make great high-protein snacks. 

But bear in mind that whole food sources of protein are generally best and just as effective for muscle recovery as protein supplements. In fact, protein may be better used for muscle maintenance when consumed as part of other nutrients within a whole food matrix [17]. 

When you’re trying to get a lot of protein in your diet, a mix of whole foods and supplements taken as meals and healthy snacks is likely best to meet your recommendations. 

The bottom line is that it makes sense for optimal muscle health to spread your protein intake over the day. However, unless you are looking to bulk up, it’s wise to compensate for high protein snacking with slightly smaller portions at mealtime.

A High-Protein Breakfast

Starting the day with a protein-packed breakfast is critical to meeting your protein demands during the day.

One meta-analysis [18] and many smaller individual studies [19, 20, 21

have found that eating more protein at breakfast tends to:

  • Burn more calories
  • Reduce appetite and food consumption at lunchtime [19]
  • Reduce carb cravings 

Plant vs Animal Protein

The debate rages as to whether you should get your protein from plant or animal sources. I totally support anyone who wants to eat a vegan diet, but objectively, animal protein sources are generally higher quality, and therefore it’s easier to meet all your protein needs from an omnivorous (or egg and dairy-containing vegetarian) diet.

The superiority of proteins from meat, eggs, dairy, and fish (also soy) is down to the fact that they contain all the essential amino acids (EAAs) in ratios immediately useful to the human body. To put it another way, they are “high quality” or “complete” proteins that your body can easily use for building muscle. 

Plant protein sources such as beans (black beans, edamame), lentils, seeds (chia seeds, pumpkin seeds), grains, and nuts/nut butters tend to have insufficient amounts of one or more of the EAAs, though pea protein and soy protein are higher quality options. The good news is that you can compensate even for lower quality plant proteins either by eating more of them (delivering sufficient of even the lacking EAAs) or by combining two or more sources over the course of your daily eating to produce a more balanced amino acid profile.

For example, research has shown that you don’t get maximal muscle building by consuming 20g of one plant protein. However, combining with another plant protein augments the muscle protein-building response [22].

Whole food plant proteins are also some of the best high-protein snacks as they come along with extra grams of fiber, vitamins, antioxidants, and healthy fats that are generally good for immune and gut health. Ideally, you’ll include plant proteins in your diet even if you also eat animal sources.

Relying on them solely for your protein intake is also entirely possible, but it does make your diet a little harder to plan.

High Protein Snacks – A Recap

Overall, it’s true to say that protein is an important nutrient that many of us need to step up in our diets. This is especially the case if you are over 50 or do a lot of athletic training.

To get in this extra protein realistically means having a range of protein-containing meals and high-protein snacks over the course of a day, as the body can’t optimally process a lot of protein all at once. Meals are your main focus if you’re using a high-protein diet to combat hunger and lose weight

You can achieve your protein intake from plant sources alone, but it’s easier doing it with a mixed diet that contains some animal protein.

If you need more help finding a high-protein diet that works for you and your needs, a consultation with one of our experienced functional medicine practitioners will benefit you. You can get in touch here.

The Ruscio Institute has developed a range of high-quality formulations to help our patients and audience. If you’re interested in learning more about these products, please click here. Note that there are many other options available, and we encourage you to research which products may be right for you.

➕ References
  1. LaPelusa A, Kaushik R. Physiology, Proteins. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022. PMID: 32310450.
  2. Vogtschmidt YD, Raben A, Faber I, de Wilde C, Lovegrove JA, Givens DI, et al. Is protein the forgotten ingredient: Effects of higher compared to lower protein diets on cardiometabolic risk factors. A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Atherosclerosis. 2021 Jul;328:124–35. DOI: 10.1016/j.atherosclerosis.2021.05.011. PMID: 34120735.
  3. Hansen TT, Astrup A, Sjödin A. Are Dietary Proteins the Key to Successful Body Weight Management? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies Assessing Body Weight Outcomes after Interventions with Increased Dietary Protein. Nutrients. 2021 Sep 14;13(9). DOI: 10.3390/nu13093193. PMID: 34579069. PMCID: PMC8468854.
  4. Clifton PM, Condo D, Keogh JB. Long term weight maintenance after advice to consume low carbohydrate, higher protein diets–a systematic review and meta analysis. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2014 Mar;24(3):224–35. DOI: 10.1016/j.numecd.2013.11.006. PMID: 24472635.
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  6. Yu Z, Nan F, Wang LY, Jiang H, Chen W, Jiang Y. Effects of high-protein diet on glycemic control, insulin resistance and blood pressure in type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clin Nutr. 2020 Jun;39(6):1724–34. DOI: 10.1016/j.clnu.2019.08.008. PMID: 31466731.
  7. Tettamanzi F, Bagnardi V, Louca P, Nogal A, Monti GS, Mambrini SP, et al. A High Protein Diet Is More Effective in Improving Insulin Resistance and Glycemic Variability Compared to a Mediterranean Diet-A Cross-Over Controlled Inpatient Dietary Study. Nutrients. 2021 Dec 7;13(12). DOI: 10.3390/nu13124380. PMID: 34959931. PMCID: PMC8707429.
  8. Hudson JL, Bergia RE, Campbell WW. Effects of protein supplements consumed with meals, versus between meals, on resistance training-induced body composition changes in adults: a systematic review. Nutr Rev. 2018 Jun 1;76(6):461–8. DOI: 10.1093/nutrit/nuy012. PMID: 29697807.
  9. Coelho-Júnior HJ, Calvani R, Tosato M, Landi F, Picca A, Marzetti E. Protein intake and physical function in older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Ageing Res Rev. 2022 Nov;81:101731. DOI: 10.1016/j.arr.2022.101731. PMID: 36087703.
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  11. Khatri M, Naughton RJ, Clifford T, Harper LD, Corr L. The effects of collagen peptide supplementation on body composition, collagen synthesis, and recovery from joint injury and exercise: a systematic review. Amino Acids. 2021 Oct;53(10):1493–506. DOI: 10.1007/s00726-021-03072-x. PMID: 34491424. PMCID: PMC8521576.
  12. Areta JL, Burke LM, Ross ML, Camera DM, West DWD, Broad EM, et al. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. J Physiol (Lond). 2013 May 1;591(9):2319–31. DOI: 10.1113/jphysiol.2012.244897. PMID: 23459753. PMCID: PMC3650697.
  13. Tagawa R, Watanabe D, Ito K, Ueda K, Nakayama K, Sanbongi C, et al. Dose-response relationship between protein intake and muscle mass increase: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutr Rev. 2020 Nov 4;79(1):66–75. DOI: 10.1093/nutrit/nuaa104. PMID: 33300582. PMCID: PMC7727026.
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  20. Bellissimo N, Fansabedian T, Wong VCH, Totosy de Zepetnek JO, Brett NR, Schwartz A, et al. Effect of Increasing the Dietary Protein Content of Breakfast on Subjective Appetite, Short-Term Food Intake and Diet-Induced Thermogenesis in Children. Nutrients. 2020 Oct 2;12(10). DOI: 10.3390/nu12103025. PMID: 33023221. PMCID: PMC7601774.
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