Boosting protein with real food

proteinfoodsOne of my New Year’s Resolutions was to focus more on protein.  Why?  Unfortunately, as we age, we tend to lose muscle mass.  I didn’t want to increase my risk for that by slacking off on protein intake.

So how’s that going?  Strangely, it’s hard for me to do.  For one thing, I don’t eat a lot of meat.  Maybe 3-4 times a week, sometimes less.  I don’t drink milk, although I put it on cereal.  Not much cheese either.  My most frequent sources of protein were yogurt and nuts.  I’d have to eat a whole lot of yogurt and nuts to significantly boost protein intake.

When you’re simultaneously controlling calories for weight maintenance, you have to get the most protein bang for your calorie buck, so to speak.  So I started to re-think food choices to try to emphasize protein foods more.

Meat (poultry, fish)

Sorry vegans, meat (and poultry and fish) provides high quality protein with low-to-modest calories.  If you want to quickly boost protein intake, eating just 4-6 ounces of meat a day gives you roughly 30-40 grams in one serving.

The main problem with meat is excessively big portions.  We’re used to over-sized burgers at restaurants and hefty single-serve steaks at the grocery store.  The truth is, you don’t need to gorge on meat to boost protein intake.  A modest portion will suffice.

Dairy Foods

Dairy foods provide high quality protein, but the amount of protein varies considerably from one food to the next.  Cottage cheese is one of the highest protein-to-calorie dairy foods.  Hard cheese can be one of the lowest.  You’d consume 8 calories of cottage cheese to get 1 gram of protein; 17 calories of Cheddar cheese to get 1 gram of protein.

Hard cheese has roughly as much protein per ounce as meat, but we rarely eat a 4-6 ounce serving of cheese at one sitting.  So while cheese is delicious and is high protein, it’s not realistic to boost protein intake by gorging on cheese.

Eggs, etc.

An egg has about 7 grams of high quality protein, again about the same as an ounce of cooked meat.  As with cheese, it’s unlikely you’d eat 4-6 eggs at once, the way you’d eat a 4 oz burger or grilled 6 oz chicken breast.  Two eggs for breakfast makes sense; 6 eggs just doesn’t sound good.

Tofu and other soy products are excellent protein foods.  Of all the soy products, tofu has the most protein.  But like eggs or hard cheese, how much tofu can you eat at one time?  Plain tofu isn’t that interesting.  Some preparation methods, like frying, add fat and calories.

After thinking about my own situation and food preferences, I came up with these strategies:

  • More meat.  Lean meat, in modest 4-6 oz portions, 5-7 times a week.
  • Greek style yogurt.  The protein is more concentrated.  The catch is calories from sugar sweeteners.  I’m happy with unsweetened plain yogurt with fresh fruit.  It may not be everyone’s choice.
  • More eggs, although probably not every day, unless we can find delicious fresh local farm eggs.
  • Cheese in modest amounts: added to omelets or burritos, or as a snack.
  • More attention to high protein foods throughout the day.  No more snacks that are just carbohydrates.  Switch to nuts of a piece of cheese.
  • Canned tuna and smoked salmon.  Easy for a quick small snack, or add 3-4 oz to a veggie salad for a meal.
  • Tofu in a vegetable stir fry or coconut curry sauce, maybe once a week.

Once fresh fruit is in season in summer, fruit smoothies with plain Greek style yogurt are another good option.

I’m not a fan of (highly processed) protein powders that some people add to smoothies.  Plain protein powder is a taste challenge. In order to make it work in a beverage, you need to hide it with sweetener.  Not for me.  And definitely not a fan of (leaden) protein bars.  Most of them are poorly-disguised candy bars, with a sprinkling of Health Halo protein powder and vitamins.  I’d rather get my protein from whole foods, not processed bars.

My Top 5 Protein Picks:

  1. plain Greek style yogurt
  2. canned tuna ((or salmon)
  3. chicken breast and lean red meat
  4. eggs
  5. cheese

These fit my taste preferences, and they’re all convenient to use.  I’ll focus most on the lower calorie options (tuna, lean meats, yogurt), but add small amounts of cheese, nuts, eggs and tofu for variety.  Your list may be different, but hopefully it focuses on real food.

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