Protein: How Much Is Enough?

Protein – How Much Is Enough?

by Dr. Karen Reznik Dolins, EdD, RD, CSSD, CD-N
published in the Scarsdale Inquirer

Lisa considers herself to be a healthy eater. She enjoys eating fruits and vegetables, eats mostly whole grains, and has chicken or fish more often than red meat. She is aware of the need to have enough calcium to keep her bones strong, and eats yogurt most days. She works out with a trainer 3 times a week. But despite having shredded wheat instead of Fruit Loops and cantaloupe instead of brownies, she still struggles with some extra pounds. With all the talk about Atkins, South Beach, and The Dukan Diet, she wonders if she wouldn’t be better off skipping the fruit with its sugar and brown rice with its starch. Maybe she’d actually be healthier if her plate simply held a protein and vegetables as friends have suggested.

Rob is a twenty-something former high school and collegiate athlete. He knows that it’s harder for him to keep his musculature now that he’s graduated into a desk job, but he’s committed to visiting the gym at least four times each week. The word in the college locker rooms was that protein shakes are essential to building muscle and burning fat. He wonders whether protein shakes would help him now.

Jim plays varsity football. During the off-season he wants to gain muscle and lose fat. He’s been told that whey protein is key to accomplishing this. He bought a large can and uses it to make a shake for breakfast and after workouts. He tries to stay away from “carbs” as much as possible, although he finds it hard to resist pizza and fries.

Lisa, Rob and Jim aren’t alone in wondering whether protein should take center stage as they work towards their goals. While the USDA has recently traded in the Food Guide Pyramid for My Plate, which recommends that only ¼ of a dinner plate consist of the protein food, many wonder whether this is the best way to lose weight, and whether this format provides enough protein for an athlete or active person. Fortunately, researchers have asked these questions as well, and have conducted studies to find out the answers.

A number of studies have compared the effects of various diets on body weight, body composition, and certain health parameters such as insulin level. Each time the results have been the same: it’s ultimately calories that count. If your breakfast of eggs and bacon, lunch of stir fried vegetables with chicken, and dinner of steak and broccoli have fewer calories than your breakfast of oatmeal and blueberries, lunch of a turkey sandwich, and dinner of brown rice, steak, and broccoli than you will lose more weight and body fat. If not, then you won’t. Health parameters generally follow weight loss, so insulin, blood pressure, and cholesterol will generally improve as the number on the scale goes down.

But does protein keep you more satisfied while carbs keep you craving more? This has also been investigated, and the results vary. For many, eating highly sweetened low fiber cereals, white breads including Italian breads and bagels, and sweets like cookies triggers overeating rather than contentment. The more highly processed the food, the more likely it is to have added sodiumand sugar with less fiber. This combination makes it difficult to eat a reasonable portion, like 1/3 of a monster sized bagel or a single cup of pasta. Diets high in minimally processed (whole) grains, fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are loaded with water and fiber, both of which aid in satiety. In fact, a prominent researcher in the area, Barbara Rolls, has created her popular “Volumetrics” diet around this concept. Her research has shown that people will eat fewer calories when eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables as they leave the dieter feeling more satisfied with fewer calories.

Yet many feel that the higher protein diets work best for them. And there is science to support the benefits of including enough while trying to lose weight. For one thing, protein leaves the stomach more slowly than carbohydrates, maintaining a sense of fullness. Is this more satisfying than eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables? Perhaps for some. One thing is certain, though. The amount of protein you need varies with the amount of calories and carbohydrates you are eating. When cutting back on calories and carbohydrates, some protein will be diverted from its usual functions and used to supply your body with energy and maintain blood sugar levels. Our bodies work hard to keep blood sugar levels steady, as sugar is the key nutrient for the brain and other cells. When available carbohydrate is low, we make sugar in part by converting protein. Sadly, although even the leanest of us has ample fat, we are unable to harness enough of it to keep our blood sugar levels in a healthy range.

Physical activity, of course, changes things. Those of us who are committed exercisers, perhaps running 30 miles a week, biking for hours, or doing heavy duty lifting will need more protein than normally recommended. The majority of us who are exercising for fitness, though, do not. So if you’re walking for an hour several days a week or doing a light workout in the gym, there’s no need to heap more meat on your plate. In fact, even the committed exerciser probably gets enough protein without eating a bigger burger, several pieces of chicken, or a protein shake. That’s because the more physically active you are the more you will probably eat.

But what about whey protein? Is there something special about it that helps with muscle growth?

Whey protein is found in milk along with another protein, casein. Whey is particularly high in leucine, an amino acid that is important in physical activity and seems to trigger muscle cells to make new protein. Promoters of whey protein emphasize this and refer to the many studies conducted with this nutritional component. What they don’t say, though, is that just about all of the studies have compared the protein-building effects of whey protein with carbohydrate drinks or casein, not milk. Milk is also high in leucine and protein, and studies have found it to be an effective recovery drink after a workout.

So where does this leave the active individual in terms of the new My Plate recommendations?

Will ¼ plate of a protein food be enough? Let’s look at a few scenarios:

Scenario 1: Lisa wants to lose weight.

Scenario 2: Rob wants to build muscle.

Scenario 3: Jimis a teenager who wants to build muscle and lose fat.

Here are plans for each of them:


Breakfast: 1 ½ cups Cheerios with 1 cup skim milk and 2 tablespoons raisins

Snack: 6 ounces fat free Greek yogurt with vanilla extract

Lunch: Salad with 3 ounces grilled chicken and 2 tablespoons salad dressing

Snack: Shake made with 1 cup skim milk and ¾ cup fresh or frozen strawberries

Dinner: 3 ounces salmon, Baked potato with 2 teaspoons margarine, 1 cup broccoli

Snack: 1 cup cantaloupe

This plan will allow Lisa to lose weight. While adhering to My Plate guidelines, she is still getting almost twice the recommended amount of protein. She is getting the best of both worlds – more than enough protein to meet her needs with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables help her stay satisfied and provide good nutrition. Dairy foods are important for Lisa to include, as they are excellent sources of protein, carbohydrate, calcium and vitamin D. Studies have linked dairy foods to weight loss. Those preferring soy, almond, or rice milk should make sure that they are supplemented with calcium and vitamin D.


Breakfast: 1 cup cooked oatmeal with 2 tablespoons raisins and 10 walnuts, 1 cup skim milk

Snack: 2 pieces string cheese, 10 crackers

Lunch: Turkey sandwich on rye with lettuce, tomato and mustard, 2 oz. pretzels, Apple

Snack: ½ peanut butter sandwich, Low fat Chocolate milk

Dinner: Chicken breast, 1 ½ cups brown rice, Large salad with 2 tablespoons dressing, Green beans

Snack: 1 cup ice cream

This menu gives Rob the calories he needs and almost twice as much protein he needs to build muscle. Again, he is able to accomplish this while adhering to My Plate recommendations. If he likes to work out in the morning, he should have a small, carbohydrate-based snack first. An English muffin, toast, fruit or yogurt are all good choices.


Breakfast: 1 ½ cups Honey Nut Cheerios with 1 cup skim milk and 1 banana

Snack: Homemade trail mix with 15 nuts, 1 cup shredded wheat, and 4 dried apricots

Lunch: Turkey sandwich on rye with lettuce, tomato and mustard, 2 oz. pretzels, Apple

Snack: Smoothie made with ¾ cup fresh or frozen fruit, ½ cup orange juice and ½ cup yogurt, 2 Graham crackers

Dinner: Hamburger (4 oz) on bun, Large salad with 2 tablespoons dressing, Green beans

Snack: 1 cup cantaloupe

As a teenager, Jim needs more calories and protein than either Lisa or Rob. This plan provides the right amount of calories – enough to lose weight while holding onto his muscle – and more than enough protein.



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