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The Meat of the Matter: How Much Protein?

Grilling SteaksAmericans’ traditional dinner plate reflects our love for meat a big serving smack in the middle. Weight loss gurus to body builders tout meat as almost magical, sure to help us solve our weight problems and be strong and lean.

Yet, AICR and many health organizations promote a plant-based diet with small meat servings as a way to lower risk for cancer and other chronic diseases. There’s even a movement called "Meatless Mondays" to encourage people to eat less meat.

Who’s right? Can we get enough protein without beef, fish or chicken or would "Meatless Monday" lead to a protein poor start to the week?

Why Do We Need Protein?

Protein is important; it’s found in muscles and helps transport nutrients through the bloodstream. In the body, dietary proteins form hemoglobin, hormones, antibodies and enzymes and other substances our bodies need to function. We also need protein for building and repairing the body’s tissues. The richest sources include meat, poultry, fish, milk, yogurt, cheese, beans, eggs, nuts and seeds


What’s a DRI?

Experts systematically and continuously review research to establish the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) for all nutrients, including protein. The DRIs are a guide for health professionals and policy makers in determining a person’s nutritional status and for developing dietary guidelines for individuals and groups of people

How Much Protein Do We Need?

  • The DRI for protein is 0.8 g/kg (0.36 g/lb) body weight for adults
  • An adult weighing 67 kg (150 lbs) needs about 54 grams per day (3 oz of meat contains about 26 gm protein)
  • Some research suggests protein needs may increase to 1.2 g/kg (0.55 g/lb) to maintain muscle mass with aging, although this is controversial and research continues.

Where’s the Protein?

How much do I need to eat to meet my protein requirements?

Here’s how an individual could meet protein requirements both with and without meat:

Protein from Meat and Non-Meat Sources
Meat & Egg Protein Grams
Meatless Protein Grams
Breakfast 1 large egg 6 1/4 c walnuts &
6 oz yogurt
(nuts 4; yogurt - 9)
Lunch 2.5 oz tuna 17 1 c bean chili 11
Snack 1 c milk 9 6 oz Greek yogurt 15
Dinner 3 oz chicken 26 1/2 c tofu &
3/4 c quinoa
(tofu- 20; quinoa 6)
TOTAL   59   65

More Protein, More Weight Loss?

Research doesn’t indicate there’s anything magical about extra protein or meat for weight loss. But protein is digested more slowly than carbohydrates, so a meal that includes a food with protein may help you stay full longer—and stop the urge to snack or overeat at the next meal. Timing may be the key. A few studies do show that people who include high protein foods at breakfast, as part of a healthy, balanced diet, eat less throughout the day. If your typical breakfast is toast, juice and coffee, try adding a handful of nuts or some yogurt to boost protein.

What about Meatless Mondays?

The example above shows that it is possible to meet protein needs with plant foods and low-fat dairy products, so a meatless day does not need to be protein deficient. Whether you are making a transistion to a diet with less meat or choosing a vegetarian diet, you can get enough protein in your diet with the right choices. According to the American Dietetic Association: "Appropriately planned vegetarian diets have been shown to be healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle."

Balance It Out

Along with protein, you need to include foods high in carbohydrates and some fat to make sure you have calories for energy. AICR’s New American Plate provides a visual way to make sure you are getting the right balance of nutrients: 2/3 or more of your plate should contain vegetables, whole grains and fruit; 1/3 or less should contain meat or other high protein foods. If you’re aiming to lose weight, choose smaller portions of the highest calorie foods and try using a smaller plate to help you downsize your portions.

So go ahead and try the Meatless Monday challenge if you want and check out recipes from the AICR Test Kitchen for easy and tasty ways to get your protein.

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