Does the news that it’s not just meeting your total need for protein that counts, but also how it’s distributed through your day, make sense to you or overwhelm you? In today’s post we’ll try to pull the pieces together and look at how all this fits in a diet that promotes good health. If you missed Part 1 of my video interview with Doug Paddon-Jones, PhD, do check it out. There he explained the basics of why we’re talking about how protein is distributed throughout the day’s eating. Then in Part 2, he began a look at what age fits into this concern. In today’s final section of our interview, Dr. Paddon-Jones wraps up his key message points to clarify.
After you view the video, read on for key practical tips for putting all this into action as part of a healthy diet.
(Email subscribers, click here to go to my Smart Bytes® blog to view the video.)
Dr. Paddon-Jones is Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he conducts research on muscle loss and formation. I’m grateful for the time he spent sharing this information, which adds quite a new perspective on choosing healthy meals.
So how can you put this into practice?
More Protein Earlier in the Day
For most Americans, whose protein comes in what Dr. Paddon-Jones calls a “Protein Extravaganza” at dinner, the goal of including more protein at breakfast and lunch means significant changes. How does this fit when aiming for meals that promote overall health, since a big gooey cheese omelet with a pile of sausage on the side for breakfast, and a Dagwood-style sandwich with mile-high meats at lunch are not the ticket?
Two essential points:
- If you already eat enough calories at breakfast and lunch, we’re not talking about adding more to these meals; we’re talking about re-distributing calories and protein through the day. We can add protein to breakfast and lunch without adding calories by substituting foods with more protein for foods with little or none.
Some people don’t get enough calories at lunch; they run out of steam mid-afternoon because they didn’t get enough fuel at lunch. For them, we’re talking about taking calories that were going into an empty-calorie afternoon snack when they were “crashing” to make a lunch with protein and energy to better carry them through the day.
- To promote health and avoid excess calories, choose nutrient-rich forms of protein that don’t carry too high a calorie load.
Breakfast Protein: A New View
Many people either eat a breakfast that’s primarily carbohydrate – which can focus on healthy foods like oatmeal and fruit or not-so-healthy choices like donuts or high-sugar-zero-fiber cereals – or high in protein choices that are laden with undesirable fat. When I polled a group of registered dietitian colleagues for healthful ways they include protein at breakfast, here’s what I heard:
♦ A popular option is oatmeal. This can become protein-rich when you make it with milk instead of water and add 1 to 2 tablespoons of peanut butter or 2 to 4 tablespoons of nuts. Top with some berries or other fruit and ½ cup of plain yogurt (conventional, or Greek for even more protein), and you’ll meet the protein target. If hot oatmeal isn’t your thing, the same ideas work for cold cereal. Or try the European favorite, muesli, by combining uncooked old-fashioned oats with plain yogurt, some raisins or other dried fruit, a handful of nuts and a bit of chopped apple. Let it sit in the refrigerator overnight, and a delicious breakfast awaits you in the morning. I’ve found that a big batch can even keep for a couple days.
♦ A cup of 2% fat cottage cheese mixed with lots of cinnamon and just a dash of sugar, combined with ¼ cup of raisins (or a half-cup of fresh fruit in season) is the option of choice for Jill Weisenburger, MS, RD, CDE. If “cottage cheese” brings memories of suffering through horrible diets, you might be surprised at the taste difference among brands. For example, you might like one such as Daisy Brand that has a fresh clean taste without all the added ingredients found in many others.
♦ Part skim ricotta cheese is the choice of Rosanne Rust, MS, RDN, LDN, who loves it spread on whole grain raisin walnut toast. Since ¼ cup contains 7 grams of protein, you’ll need to top it with nuts or seeds and add one other modest protein source to meet Dr. Paddon-Jones’ recommended target.
♦ Plain low-fat or non-fat Greek yogurt is a popular option. A 6 to 8-ounce portion provides 18 to 24 grams of protein, and it combines well with lots of other flavors. Frozen berries – mixed or your favorite single flavor – can be completely or partially thawed and stirred in; or whirl them together to make a breakfast smoothie. Or try more exotic combinations like Greek yogurt with figs and walnuts.
♦ Eggs (in moderation) are not the nutrition bad-guy once thought, so have fun experimenting with healthy options for serving them without the bacon and sausage accompaniments that are linked to colorectal cancer. Cheryl Harris, MPH, RD, favors a crustless quiche or mini egg-bakes (eggs scrambled and baked in cupcake tins along with vegetables and a bit of cheese).
♦ With or without eggs, you can make your own turkey sausage and freeze it in single portions like Chere Bork, MS, RDN. By making it yourself from fresh ground turkey, it’s not smoked and you aren’t getting the nitrites and high sodium content that make regular sausage a less healthy option. Experiment with flavorings like Chere’s sage, red pepper and “lots” of fennel.
♦ Maybe you don’t care for traditional breakfast fare – the cereal or the egg variety. Carol Plotkin, MS, RDN, CDN, HFS, notes that for some people, a savory breakfast with leftovers from another meal, including a good serving of vegetables, is just the ticket.
♦ Consider options that are breakfast traditions in other cuisines. Beans –cooked with tomatoes and served with eggs or used as a spread – are traditional Mexican options, says Alyssa Simpson, RD, CDE, CLT. And baked beans on toast is a British tradition, notes Lauren Swann, MS, RD, LDN. (Just make sure the recipe is a healthful version!) For East Indians, lentil dal is a traditional breakfast choice and could be your new favorite.
Protein at Lunch – the “Goldilocks Meal”
Lunch reminds me of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. (Remember? That bed is too hard, this one is too soft….) For some, lunch is a sandwich piled mile-high with meat served on a refined grain bread or roll and served with chips and cookies; or if eating out, perhaps a burger big enough for two or three people served with a pile of French fries. Others grab a hot dog. Putting aside the strong link of processed meats like hot dogs to both heart disease and colon cancer, one hot dog is not enough to meet the identified protein target. So do you get two hot dogs? Actually even two hot dogs on two buns is not enough to hit the protein target; and with two buns, you’ve really over-shot a reasonable amount of refined grains (and sodium).
On the other hand, some health-conscious people make a sandwich at home, but include one thin slice of turkey, and end up with a lunch too low in protein to hit the 25 to 30 gram target for each meal.
Some other options:
♦ Make tuna salad with nonfat or low-fat Greek yogurt and herbs instead of mayonnaise. This creates the extra-creamy texture you love and adds protein. If you’re not trying to make this as a sandwich filling, bulk it up with a variety of chopped vegetables like red pepper, celery, and carrots.
♦ Another option to add protein to a sandwich with just a bit of chicken, turkey or lean meat is to use hummus as a sandwich spread. Since you probably won’t be able to use a lot without making a messy sandwich, use additional hummus as a dip for raw veggies, too, and you’ll be improving your meal in two ways.
♦ Cottage cheese can be a great lunch option, too, and provides a perfect vehicle to enjoy fruits and vegetables. Combining it with fresh cherry tomatoes and (lots of) chopped fresh basil is a major “wow”. Daisy Brand cottage cheese has created a variety of “perfect pairings” that can be sweet or savory, like pomegranate and honey (it’s the season!) or red bell pepper and sunflower seeds.
♦ Cook a pot of chili or soup on the weekend that’s loaded with hearty black, kidney or garbanzo beans. If you’re eating at home or can easily manage it, topping it with some plain yogurt when it’s time to eat not only boosts the protein but adds a refreshing contrast – and it’s a healthier option than sour cream.
♦ Whether an accompaniment to sandwich or soup, another way vegetables with dip can add protein is with a yogurt-based dip. Yogurt-based dips like Tzatziki and Raita are much-loved traditions in Greek and Indian cuisine. For an interesting twist, try the Beet Tzatziki dip created by registered dietitian Kara Lydon. The Chobani yogurt website has several dip recipes based on Greek yogurt, too.
♦ Eating on the run? A couple pieces of string cheese and a handful of nuts complement a small bag of raw vegetables and a piece of fruit. Bring along a mini-whole grain pita or a few whole-grain crackers or thin slices of crispbread, and enjoy a milk- or soymilk-heavy coffee or tea to round out the protein.
Crop Excess Protein from Your Dinner Picture
If you are among those whose dinner is what Dr. Paddon-Jones calls a “Protein Extravaganza”, including more protein throughout the day and less at dinner provides two advantages. Not only will you get more benefit from the protein you’re eating, you can use this change to support the important goal of boosting vegetable consumption. If you read Smart Bytes® regularly, then you know that vegetables are key players to get not only fiber, but a broad array of vitamins, minerals, and plant compounds called “phytochemicals”. These seem an essential part of fighting chronic inflammation linked to heart disease and of promoting changes in cell signaling and gene expression to reduce risk of cancer.
♦ If you’ve been eating portions of chicken, fish – or especially of red meat – that are larger than a deck of cards at dinner, cut back portions and replace that amount of food with either a larger portion of a vegetable you already made, adding in another vegetable you quickly steam or stir-fry, or a handful of some raw vegetables.
♦ Are your dinners more often “mixed” dishes, like main dish soup or salad, casseroles or stir-fries? Check the proportion of your ingredients. If the meat, poultry, fish and/or cheese stacked together is bigger than a deck of cards, cut back and keep the same satisfying bulk with more vegetables. Compared to standard recipes for mixed dish entrées, I almost always end up doubling or tripling the amount of vegetables listed. Sometimes I simply use more of what’s listed; often I add in something different, just based on what I have on hand or what suits my mood.
♦ Of course, not everyone eats excessive amounts of protein at dinner. If you’ve been counting commercial chicken soup as your protein dish, for example, the small amount of chicken in most varieties means that even doubling the standard label portion and eating two cups gives you a small portion of the recommended 25 to 30 grams per meal we’ve been discussing. So for some people, this new view on protein involves finding ways to add more protein at dinner. In the case of the chicken soup example, you could add extra chicken, either canned cooked chicken (same grocery aisle as canned tuna and salmon) or frozen chicken from when you prepared extra for another meal (a handy trick!). However, you can also boost dinner protein following any of the tricks discussed above for adding beans or nuts to soup, salad, pasta, rice or cooked vegetables.
The Bottom Line: Don’t let the current buzz over protein get you off-target on healthy eating; getting enough protein is not the defining point of nutrition any more than a host of other single-focus ideas have been. However, in the midst of working on a nutrient-rich, plant-focused eating pattern – which is strongly supported by research – don’t lose track of the need to get enough protein from healthful sources, and to distribute it through the day in ways that Dr. Paddon-Jones has explained allow it to optimally work for you.
Sign up for a free email subscription to Smart Bytes® to be sure you don’t miss our next discussion taking nutrition from daunting to doable!SM
Full disclosure: Although I mention specific products and companies, this is based only on my own experience and recommendations of friends and colleagues. The companies mentioned neither asked me to include them, nor compensated me in any way for doing so.