As a smart woman interested in health and fitness, you’ve probably heard more than once that you should eat plenty of foods high protein, such as tuna, beef, and chicken. These foods are touted to help you build and maintain muscle, which will boost your metabolism and help you get stronger, so you can out-squat the guys in your gym. You’ve probably even heard that you should eat protein at every meal and snack, to help meet your daily protein needs.
Perhaps, delicious as they may be, the thought of eating chicken or steak all day long makes you want to gag. Plus, the price of meat can be quite high, and your wallet can handle only so many luxuries. Well, this bit of good news may come as a surprise:
You don’t have to specifically eat meat or fish with every meal and snack to meet your protein requirements.
You can include vegetable-based proteins, such as hummus and tahini, in your healthy eating plan and still support your goals of being strong and fit. However, unless you’re a vegetarian (which is totally fine and will still support your health and fitness goals), I advise you to try not to eat these vegetable-based proteins all the time. I say this for a couple of reasons:
- Many plant-based sources of protein tend to be high in fats that might put you over your caloric needs for the day, and may cause weight gain or stall fat loss
- Due to their low protein content, they may make it difficult for you to meet your goal protein requirements (which, for an active woman is approximately 25 to 35% of your total caloric intake).
To make it easy, think of the protein-containing foods in your diet as falling into two categories: foods that are full of protein, and foods that include some protein. This way, you can get a wide variety of protein foods in your diet, and avoid gnawing on steak all day long. Aim to eat at least half of your meals from the full protein list, and the remaining meals from the some protein list. The guideline is to have at least one of these choices every time you eat, but if you have both in one meal, that’s perfectly fine, too.
Including a protein food in your meals or snacks can help regulate caloric intake and provide a regular supply of amino acids, the building blocks of protein to your hard-working muscles (more on that below). Both of these benefits are particularly important for active women.
Before we dig into specific protein foods, let’s discuss why protein is important, what it is, and how much of it you should actually consume.
Importance of Dietary Protein
Protein’s important roles in nutrition and health cannot be overemphasized. It is quite appropriate that the Greek word chosen as a name for this nutrient is proteos, meaning “primary” or “taking first place.” Protein foods are nutritionally essential because they consist of a foundation of amino acids, which the body needs in order to make its own proteins (like muscle tissue and enzymes) and nitrogen-containing molecules (like creatine and urea) that make life possible. Each type of protein in the body is unique in the types of amino acids it contains; as such, it’s important to consume a variety of proteins to supply a wide range of amino acids for optimal body protein production and repair.
Another benefit of some dietary proteins is that they will help you obtain a wide variety of healthy fats that your body needs for optimal health. Examples of these healthy, fat-rich proteins include salmon, beef, and eggs (yes, seriously). Despite what you’ve heard, animal fats, such as the ones found in beef and eggs are not unhealthy. We all know that monounsaturated fats (like those in olive oil) are good for the heart, right? Well, did you also know that half the fat found in a steak is the good-for-you monounsaturated fat, oleic acid? A steak contains 50% monounsaturated fats, 46% saturated fats and 4% polyunsaturated fats.
So, the fat composition of a steak is actually very good for your body. If you have the opportunity to eat grass-fed beef, it will also contain a nice portion of the very heart-healthy omega-3 fats. With respect to eggs, there are numerous scientific investigations showing the importance of egg yolks for supporting optimal cardiovascular health and reduced risk of diabetes. (1-4) Thus, our fear of egg yolks is often unwarranted. They can be enjoyed moderately, given that egg yolks are a rich source of important antioxidants that protect our eyesight and brain health. (4)
What is dietary protein?
As you read above, protein in food is made up of hundreds of different types of compounds called amino acids. These amino acids, when connected in a particular order, create what we know as dietary protein. Dietary protein from different sources (eggs vs. beans, for example) has different amounts and types of amino acids, which makes them unique.
There are 20 amino acids, outlined in the graphic below. Nine of them are essential, meaning the body can’t make them, and needs to get them from the foods we eat. Also, one of the amino acids, arginine, is conditionally essential. The body may need it from a specific source during specific stages, such as during extreme illness, and when we are newborns, as we don’t make this amino acid in the first few months of life.
If you want to remember all the essential amino acids by name, here’s a great mnemonic: PVT TIM HALL:
(Remember Arginine is only conditionally essential)
In order to get all the essential amino acids that your body needs, you must consume foods rich in those amino acids. Foods that provide a wide variety and a balanced supply of the essential amino acids are those full of protein, also called complete protein foods.
Complete proteins are derived from animal sources like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and cheese. For the most part, if the food came from an animal, it will contain all essential amino acids that your body needs. Vegetarians, keep reading!
However, for those who don’t always eat protein from animal sources, or avoid meat, fish, poultry, dairy, and/or eggs altogether, there are some non-animal sources that provide all the essential amino acids in one sitting, such as soy protein (tofu, edamame, or soy protein isolate), hemp protein (hemp protein powder, hemp seeds, and hemp nut butter), and quinoa. You can also use a method called protein-combining to put partial proteins from vegetable sources together to make a complete/full protein meal as described below:
However, remember that plant-based protein sources usually deliver much less protein per ounce (or gram, whichever way you prefer to measure it), so your total intake of that food will need to be greater to meet your protein needs.
Overall, if you eat a variety of protein sources from both animal and plant sources, you will get a wide array of essential and nonessential amino acids that allow your body function and grow, repair, and rebuild.
This is why it was stated above that not all of your meals need to contain meat, fish, or poultry. You can enjoy peanut butter and an apple for a meal or snack, and still get the protein your body needs at that meal. The protein foods you choose should be based on your tastes and preferences, and we support whichever way you decide to reach your protein requirements. We just want to help make sure you indeed reach them.
Which brings us to our next topic: How much protein do you need?
The amount of protein we need is one of the biggest controversies in nutrition today because the bare minimum protein required for normal human function is not the same as the amount of protein that is optimal for your health and metabolism.
Say that again?
To rephrase, although the amount of protein our bodies “need” to function is very low, that does not mean that more protein is detrimental, or useless. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Per our nutrition governing bodies, the adult Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is just 0.8 g per kg body weight. Put this in normal terms, for a 135-pound woman (61.36 kg), this is just 49 grams of protein required per day. Calorically, this would add just 196 calories to her diet each day.
That’s not very much, right?
Adding more protein to our diets, contributes calories that we can burn off effectively, gives us amino acids we can use to build and repair muscle tissue, and stokes our metabolic fires so we can attain and keep a healthy body composition.
Think about it this way: Why is it that we’re advised to consume a finite amount of dietary protein, yet, we are told foods high in carbohydrates are limitless? Especially considering that nothing about a carbohydrate food is essential to life?
Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
That’s right, ladies. You don’t necessarily need carbohydrates to survive (but, living without vegetables and fruits, would really just suck). Carbohydrate-rich foods do have their place, and ideally would be coming from whole-food sources (and, of course, from chocolate at appropriate times of the month!).
If you’re an active woman, it is true that you are encouraged to eat more dietary protein to help your body recover and grow from exercise. For women who strength train, the recommendation is 1.6-1.7 g protein per kg body weight, and for endurance-training women, the goal is 1.2-1.4 g/kg. These amounts of protein equate to 74 grams to 104 grams (296 to 417 calories) for our 135-pound woman. On the higher end, over 2.0 g/kg protein (122 grams or 491 calories) is considered “useless” because it doesn’t contribute to increased muscle protein synthesis (the “building and repairing” process for active individuals).
Note: You may be wondering why our recommendations are based on total body weight and not lean body mass. While it’s true that you can get a more accurate estimate of your protein needs based on your lean body mass if you know your body fat percentage, most people don’t know what their body fat percentage is. And even if a person does get her body fat measured, it’s hard to know how precise that measurement is. Several methods exist for measuring body fat percentage, and results vary widely from method to method:
• waist/hip/neck formula
• bioelectrical impedance devices (hand-held or scale)
• BodPod (air displacement)
• hydrostatic weighing (considered the gold standard for body fat measurement)
• DEXA scan
Considering that the most accessible body fat testing methods are not very precise, we prefer to recommend using total body weight for your protein needs calculation, and adjusting from there.
Although this amount of protein calories doesn’t seem like much, consider that whenever you eat a food rich in protein, it usually contains other macronutrients, like fats or some carbohydrate, making the total caloric content at least slightly higher (the exception may be completely purified proteins which have 100% protein calories, of which there are very few if any examples like this in our real diets). For example, a chicken breast, with 20 grams of total protein has more than just 80 calories due to the additional fats and minimal carbs found in a chicken breast (each gram of protein has 4 calories: 20 x 4 = 80).
According to the Institute of Medicine, a reasonable and safe amount of protein that can be consumed in the diet is 10 to 35% of total calories. That means that the 135-pound woman can safely take in around 175 grams of protein when eating a diet of 2000 total calories (35% of 2000 = 700 calories/4=175), if that’s how her food intake ends up for the day.
I know you’re probably thinking, “ACK! Too many numbers! Just give me the facts!”
Our simple recommendation is for you to include a protein choice every time you eat, whether that be a meal or a snack. Remember, that protein choice can be a partial protein source like nuts, seeds, or beans. For example, a mid-day snack of cashews, walnuts and raisins (and maybe a handful of chocolate M&Ms, because who are we kidding?), would be a good option.
Below is a list of typical serving sizes for meals and snacks. Ultimately, you have to tune your body into what it really needs. If you are still very hungry after a meal, try including more protein to increase satiety. If you feel like your can’t fit any more turkey in your cheeks, then cut back. Your protein requirements will vary from day to day, depending on your training and your body’s state of recovery.
First, a note:
All meat and dairy products should ideally be from grass-fed, pasture-raised and/or organic animals whenever possible and available. Fish and seafood should be wild-caught or from organic farms (Whole Foods marketplace sells farmed fish from quality fish farms). If these aren’t possible for you to obtain, don’t worry too much about it. Do the best you can with what’s accessible for you.
Do your best to skip all proteins that are deep-fried, covered in breading or heavy, sugary sauces, those that are highly processed (hot dogs, generic beef burgers), and those that contain preservatives (nitrates, nitrites).
Raw fish (sushi) and raw meats are OK in moderation. Minimize raw tuna and chunk light tuna in the can to reduce your exposure to mercury (no more than 1 to 2 cans of tuna per week, maximum).
A typical serving or portion of animal proteins such as beef, chicken, or fish is at least 3 ounces. A typical serving of cheese is about 1 to 2 ounces. A typical serving of eggs is 1-2 eggs.
FULL PROTEIN — Recommended Choices:
Beef and Bison (Buffalo): 3 ounces cooked = 22-27 grams protein
- Jerky, nitrate/nitrite free
- Lean ground
- Steaks, round
- Tenderloin, lean
Cheese: 1 ounce = 4-7 grams protein (choose organic if possible)
- Goat cheese
Eggs, whole: 2 large = 12 grams protein (choose omega-3/DHA if possible)
Fish: 3 ounces cooked = 21-26 grams protein
- Salmon, canned and fresh
- Tuna, fresh
- Tuna, canned in water
Lamb: 3 ounces cooked = 22-27 grams protein
Milk & Yogurt: 1 cup = 8-24 grams protein (choose organic if possible)
- Cow’s Milk
- Goat’s Milk
- Yogurt, plain
- Greek Yogurt, plain
Pork: 3 ounces cooked = 22-27 grams protein
- Lean Ground
- Ham, low sodium
- Tenderloin, lean
- Canadian style bacon
Ostrich: 3 ounces = 30 grams protein
Poultry: 3 ounces cooked = 21-26 grams protein
- Chicken and Turkey: breasts, ground, tenderloins, thighs, wings
Shellfish: 3 ounces cooked = 21-26 grams protein
- Crab, not imitation
- Lobster, not imitation
Whey protein powder: 1 scoop = 22 to 30 grams protein
Rice protein powder: 1 scoop = 22 to 25 grams protein
Hemp protein powder: 1 scoop = 22 to 25 grams protein
SOME PROTEIN — Recommended Choices:
Falafel: 3 ounces = 11 grams protein
Hummus: 1/3 cup = 5 grams protein
Beans and Legumes (these also count as recommended carbohydrate sources and are very high in fiber)
Most beans (black, pinto, lentils, split, etc) have about 7-10 grams of protein in ½ cup cooked
- Great Northern
- Soybeans, whole: ½ cup = 14 grams protein
- Split peas
- Refried beans, organic, no added fats: ½ cup = 6 grams protein
Nuts and Seeds (these also count as recommended fat choices)
- Almonds (considered the king of nuts): ¼ cup = 6 grams protein
- Brazil nuts: ¼ cup = 5 grams protein
- Cashews: ¼ cup = 5 grams protein
- Chia seeds: 2 tablespoons = 3 grams protein
- Flax seeds: 2 tablespoons = 3 grams protein
- Hemp seeds: ¼ cup = 12 grams protein
- Hazelnuts: ¼ cup = 4 grams protein
- Macadamia nuts: ¼ cup = 3 grams protein
- Pecans: ¼ cup = 3 grams protein
- Peanut butter, natural: 2 tablespoons = 7 grams protein
- Pistachios: ¼ cup = 6 grams protein
- Pine nuts: ¼ cup = 5 grams of protein
- Pumpkin seeds: ¼ cup = 8 grams of protein
- Sesame seeds; ¼ cup = 6 grams of protein
- Sunflower seeds: ¼ cup = 6 grams of protein
- Walnuts: ¼ cup = 4 grams of protein
What About Protein Powder?
If you’ve been in the fitness world for any amount of time you’ve likely heard of (or have even used) protein powders, either in the form of whey, hemp, or soy, to name just a few common options.
The question you might have about all these powders is: “Are they necessary in my diet plan, and are they healthy?” No, you don’t need them in your daily diet, but yes, they can be healthy (depending on the brand and what’s in them in addition to protein).
We recommend a whole-food, natural diet, and protein powders aren’t necessarily considered “whole-food” or “natural.” Protein powders are extracts of protein from various whole foods. Whey comes from milk. Soy comes from soy beans. Hemp is isolated from hemp seeds.
Some people question if the extraction process is healthy or not (various heat processes and/or chemical applications may be used). Once isolated, do the proteins act in the same manner as they would in whole-food form? As far as safety and lack of side effects, unless you have an intolerance to any of these foods, the isolated protein should not have any negative effect on you.
Soy protein isolate is controversial though because there are many claims (some substantiated, some not validated at all) of digestive and/or hormonal alterations with long term, consistent use. For this reason, it’s best to only use this type of protein source sparingly, if at all.
If you are fine with dairy products, whey protein is the most common protein powder on the market. If you are looking to stay away from dairy, then other alternatives can be found in hemp protein, rice protein and/or pea protein.
Regardless what protein powder you choose, do your best to ensure it doesn’t contain artificial sweeteners or added “muscle building agents” that your body doesn’t need or won’t really benefit from. Just look for a product with minimal ingredients and additives. Also, keep a close eye on your digestive health with these products: if you get digestive distress, discontinue immediately—for your health and out of consideration for those around you.
But, why would you use these powders? Some people find that these powders can help them meet their daily protein requirements when other whole-food, lean-protein sources are unavailable. They can be made into shakes/smoothies that you can whip up quickly (no cooking, yay!), and take with you on the run, unlike opening a can or packet of tuna in your car while driving. They can also be added to foods low in protein (like adding to oatmeal), or consumed with veggies to make a complete meal.
Like was stated above: You don’t need these protein powders in your diet to get protein at all of your meals and snacks, but they sure can make it easier when you don’t have the time or desire to cook or prepare another protein option.
So, what should women eat when it comes to protein?
As noted above, if you aim to include a protein choice at every meal and snack throughout the day, you will get the protein your body needs to repair, rebuild, and thrive. Remember that not all these choices need to be “full protein” choices (like chicken). You can consume “some protein” choices in your snacks to save time and money, since many require no cooking and are affordable.
Here is a sample meal plan for one day to give you an idea of how this can work:
1 egg, 1 cup egg whites, spinach, chopped tomatoes and seasoning of choice, eaten with a slice of Ezekiel sprouted grain bread
2 tbsp natural peanut butter with an apple or banana
White Bean and Tuna Salad: ½ cup canned, rinsed, white beans, with 1 can drained tuna, over mixed greens, topped with Balsamic vinegar.
Have with ½ cup to 1 cup berries (i.e., raspberries)
Peanut Butter Cookie Larabar (the nuts are your protein choice)
½ cup Hummus with baby carrots and sliced cucumbers
Post-workout (if applicable):
1 serving Whey or Vegetarian Protein powder in water
4 oz baked Salmon, 2 Cups steamed broccoli drizzled with olive oil, and 1 Cup baked butternut squash
And if you want more guidance about good nutrition strategies for women, you’ll love this:
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- Ballesteros MN, et al One Egg per Day Improves Inflammation when Compared to an Oatmeal-Based Breakfast without Increasing Other Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Diabetic Patients . Nutrients. (2015)
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- Rong Y et al. Egg consumption and risk of coronary heart disease and stroke: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ. 2013 Jan 7;346
- Blesso CN et al. Whole egg consumption improves lipoprotein profiles and insulin sensitivity to a greater extent than yolk-free egg substitute in individuals with metabolic syndrome. Metabolism. 2013 Mar;62(3):400-10.
- Girls Gone Strong, What Women Should Eat to Build Muscle.
- Girls Gone Strong, Frequently Asked Questions About Women’s Nutrition.
- Girls Gone Strong, Back to the Basics: Nutrition 101.
- Precision Nutrition, All About Protein.
- Bodybuilding.com, Do Men And Women Need The Same Amount Of Protein?