Sunday, April 22, 2012

Protein - ya got to eat it

I had a conversation with my daughter that may be relevant to a lot of people out on their own for the first time. She is studying abroad in Scotland right now and she has to cook for herself, day-in and day-out. She has to pay for the food she is eating, unlike at her American college where the meal plan presents her with many "free" choices everyday.

She didn't understand that the key part of her diet, the one she can't live without, is protein. In the US  few Americans don't get enough protein because our diet provides so much food generally that we get plenty from a multitude of sources. But, as I listened to what my daughter is eating, I started thinking, there's very little protein there. I'm pretty sure her experience is not unique, as many students attempt to economize by cutting out the expensive stuff, like dairy and animal protein. They don't think about replacing it with inexpensive vegetarian protein sources either.

So, for my daughter and all you other starving students out there, a primer on protein sources. Once upon a time, much was made about combining vegetarian foods to provide complete protein(complete protein provides all the amino acids needed by the human body), but further research has shown that your body can make do with incomplete protein provided you get a variety of protein sources throughout the day. Eat your beans with your rice, eat your beans at lunch and your rice at dinner. It will still work out OK. This is not a concern if you eat animal protein, even fairly small amounts daily, since it is a complete protein.

Here's a list of foods, animal, vegetable, grain, and legume, and how they stack up protein-wise in an average serving. This list isn't meant to imply that you must eat meat to fulfill your protein requirements. Far from it! But, if you depend exclusively on non-animal sources of protein, you will want to make sure you are getting protein from varied sources.

High: Beef, Lamb, Pork, Game, Tofu, Tempeh, Shellfish, Finned Fish, Egg, Chicken, Turkey

Medium: Beans, Lentils, Cheese, Milk, Corn, Bread, Pasta, Oats, Quinoa, Yogurt, Peanut Butter, Nuts, Ready-to-Eat Cereals, Edamame, Rice

Low: Broccoli, Kale, Spinach, Barley, Mushrooms, Potatoes, Green Beans

To give you some practical examples of protein content, here are the number of grams of protein per serving from a few recipes on this blog. To put it in context, an adult human who weighs 150 lbs needs a minimum of 54 grams of protein each day (about 0.36 grams x body weight in pounds). If our "average" human is active, she/he will need more like 70-82 grams a day (multiply weight by 0.45-0.55), and for athletes, protein requirements will be even higher.

Chicken Enchiladas: 25 grams
Bowties with Pesto: 25 grams
Moroccan Couscous Salad: 18 grams
Vegetarian Lentil Soup: 15 grams

As you can see, it's not hard to get enough protein as long as you eat a varied diet, something we cannot recommend enough.


  1. Cottage cheese is an awesome source of protein and calcium. ..and it's yummy!

  2. You are quite right! Very versatile too. Good mixed with savory and sweet things.