Increasing your protein intake has been a longtime recommendation in the fitness industry. Pros have long known that a higher protein diet not only supports a lean body and lean body mass maintenance, but also improves satiety, increases overall calorie expenditure, supports recovery from exercise, and improves bone density.
But having someone increase their protein intake isn’t always as simple as just telling them to do so.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
When calculating individual needs, I’ve found that one gram of protein per pound of goal body weight each day has worked well for those who are active and working out. Because protein needs increase when someone is in a caloric deficit, ample protein is critical for those aiming to lose weight or body fat.
Frequency > Total
Once I’ve calculated an individual’s protein needs, rarely do I ever just give them a total amount to shoot for every day (verified through food tracking).
What works better, in my opinion, is having a total number of grams to shoot for per meal. That way if someone’s needs are 140 grams per day, for example, they know to shoot for 30 to 40 grams of protein at each of their four meals per day.
Focusing on protein intake this way helps them reap the benefits of protein throughout the day versus just one large, protein-heavy meal at the end of the day (e.g., dinner). It also forces them to choose a protein-dense food at each meal.
If tracking this through an app or online sounds daunting, I’ve also used the “hand method” approach with clients. For women, I often recommend a hand-size portion of a protein-rich food at every meal; for men, two hand-size portions.
Protein-Rich Foods (30 grams per serving)
When it comes to choosing protein-rich foods, there are two sources: animal or plants. Here is a list of the common sources of each one:
- Animal: chicken, turkey, pork, beef, lamb, buffalo/bison, seafood, eggs, and dairy
- Plant: soy, beans, legumes, lentils, grains, nuts, and seeds
When it comes to quality, animal-based proteins are considered complete proteins, as they contain all eight essential amino acids). With the exception of soy, plant-based proteins lack at least one essential amino acid. (Note: Plant-based proteins can be combined so they become complete, but they tend to include a lot of extra carbohydrates.)
To get the most from animal-based proteins, look for grass-fed beef, pasture-raised poultry and pork, and wild-caught fish. When these animals are raised on diets they are meant to eat, their fat content is often less and the fat is healthier, containing more omega-3 fatty acids and less saturated fat. These animals are also usually raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones.
It’s also important to note that some protein sources are common allergens, such as dairy and soy. If you do consume them, be sure to choose organic.
What Does 30 Grams of Protein Look Like?
Generally speaking, a solid and protein-rich meal contains at least 30 grams of protein. Below is a great resource on what 30 grams of protein looks like in food form, whether it be animal or plant-based. Use it as a go-to list (you can hang it on your fridge!) when menu planning and meal prepping.
Grilled Chicken Breast
A standard 3- to 4-ounce serving (the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand) of boneless, skinless chicken breast will give you about 30 grams of protein. Although you can assume that 4 ounces of cooked poultry (chicken or turkey) will equate to around 30 grams of protein, below are other common cuts of chicken and what protein they provide in their standard serving size. Whenever possible, choose organic and pasture-raised poultry.
- Chicken meat, cooked (4 ounces): 35 grams protein
- Turkey breast, roasted (4 ounces): 34 grams protein
- Chicken thigh (average size): 10 grams protein
- Chicken drumstick: 11 grams protein
- Chicken wing: 6 grams protein
- Grilled chicken breast (3 to 4 ounces): 30 grams protein
Ground Beef Patty
Most cuts of beef have 7 grams of protein per ounce, so a 4-ounce serving of ground beef will net you around 28 grams of protein. Compared to chicken, beef contains more fats (and calories from fat), along with nutrient-rich iron. Below are a few more common cuts of beef and the protein they provide. Make sure you choose organic and grass-fed as often as possible when consuming.
- Hamburger patty (4 ounces or 1/4 pound): 28 grams protein
- Steak (6 ounces): 42 grams protein
Tuna Fish Packet
Tuna fish packets are one of the most portable and convenient sources of protein: they provide 40 grams. Fish and shellfish are good sources of protein, and oily fish such as salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines provide beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. On average, most fish fillets or steaks will provide 6 grams of protein per ounce. A few other standard sources of fish and their protein total include:
- Shrimp (3 ounces): 18 grams protein
- Salmon (3 ounces): 17 grams protein
Five hard-boiled eggs will get you 30 grams of protein (6 grams per egg). Eggs are one of the most popular high-protein breakfast foods and provide essential fats. If you’re not interested in the yolks and want to only use the egg white for protein, you’ll need about eight of them to yield the same 30 grams of protein. For quality, go for organic and cage-free eggs.
Similar to eggs, bacon can provide both ample protein and fat. To yield 30 grams of protein, you’ll need to eat about seven slices. In general, leaner pork cuts can provide the same protein content as beef and poultry per ounce. You also want to limit the amount of highly processed pork products in your diet. Below are some common pork options and the protein they yield:
- Pork chop (average size): 22 grams of protein
- Pork loin or tenderloin (4 ounces): 29 grams protein
- Ham (3 ounces): 19 grams protein
- Canadian-style bacon (1 slice): 5 to 6 grams protein
One cup of 2-percent cottage cheese will give you 30 grams of protein. Although a food group that is a common allergen amongst our population, dairy foods can be a great source of both protein and fat. If you can tolerate dairy foods, try to consume them in their most natural and full-fat forms, and go for organic as often as possible. Below are other common dairy foods and the protein they provide:
- Milk (1 cup): 8 grams protein
- Yogurt (1 cup): usually 8 to 12 grams protein (check label)
- Mozzarella cheese (1 ounce): 6 grams protein
- Cheddar or Swiss cheese (1 ounce): 7 or 8 grams protein
- Parmesan cheese (1 ounce): 10 grams protein
Tofu can often be a staple source of protein for those following a vegan or vegetarian diet: 1½ cups of cooked tofu can provide 30 grams of protein along with some healthy fat. Because tofu is made from soybeans, it’s considered a complete protein even though it’s from plants. We’d also suggest consuming organic sources of soy as well. Although beans don’t have all of the essential amino acids to be considered complete proteins, here are a few sources along with the protein they provide:
- Black, pinto, lentils (1/2 cup, cooked): 7 to 10 grams protein
- Soybeans (1/2 cup, cooked): 14 grams protein
- Split peas (1/2 cup, cooked): 8 grams protein
One serving of Life Time’s Vegan or Whey All-in-One Shake provides 30 grams of protein and can be a great tool to help you provide ample nourishment in place of a full-food meal. When it comes to protein powders and meal replacements, focus on quality and options with no artificial ingredients and sweeteners.
How to Eat More Protein Tips:
1. Find recipes that will expand your protein intake.
2. Include a high-protein food with each of your meals.
3. Experiment with cooking different types and cuts of meat with different seasonings.
4. Choose ground meats — they generally cost less than steaks or other “fancier” cuts.
5. Examine a typical day of eating. Notice the meals and snacks in which you tend to concentrate your protein intake and the ones in which you don’t. How can you expand and/or redistribute?
6. Prioritize quality. If possible, purchase grass-fed beef; pasture-raised poultry, eggs, and pork; and wild-caught fish.
7. Buy in bulk — this allows you to save money ounce per ounce. Once you get the hang of planning and shopping for meals, you’ll get an idea of how much chicken, fish, or beef you’ll go through overtime.
8. Batch cook. Plan a day and time of the week to do some preparation for your meals and snacks. Since protein sources tend to be the most time-intensive, plan on batch cooking some chicken thighs, grass-fed patties ,or sausage to keep as stock for meals throughout the week. For snacks or other recipe ingredients, try batch cooking some bacon and/or hard-boiled eggs.
9. Don’t eat breakfast for breakfast. This time of the day tends to be the hardest for people to eat ample protein. Make extra food at dinner to reheat at breakfast in the morning.