Using Protein for a Leaner, More Muscular Physique

WorkoutNirvana1When I look at what and when my clients eat, I frequently notice a trend of low-protein breakfasts and snacks spaced inconsistently throughout the day. While it’s true that most Americans get more than the daily recommended allowance (which is too low according to some experts), using lean protein in your clean-eating diet to lose weight and gain muscle is smart – and numerous studies back this up.

Protein for Fat Loss

When it comes to losing body fat, it’s your energy consumption and expenditure that’s most important – how many total calories you’re taking in and burning.

However, I recommend that most weight-loss clients get 25 to 30 percent of their calories from lean protein in order to:

  1. Control appetite. You can decrease your appetite while retaining energy by eating a higher protein diet. Studies have shown the effectiveness of diets like Atkins over other diets – eating more protein results in eating fewer carbs and fat and calories overall [1]. Protein also has a thermic effect and requires more energy to digest. It’s important to note that protein requirements increase as caloric intake goes down and exercise increases [2]. Evidence is lacking that higher protein intake causes health problems, except in extreme cases [3].
  2. Regulate glucose/insulin levels. Eating lean protein with every meal can have a positive impact on your blood glucose and insulin levels (especially with a high-protein breakfast). Combining carbs (apple) with lean protein (like nuts) can help you stay full longer and most likely eat less later in the day.
  3. Build muscle. Protein is needed to build, repair, and preserve muscle. If you’re losing body fat, you’re also restricting calories and most likely integrating cardio. If you don’t also strength train and consume enough protein, you can actually lose muscle mass. Muscle also increases your metabolism, protects your bones, and helps reshape your body.

Protein for Muscle Building and Athletics

If your goal is primarily to build muscle or you participate in athletic activities, you need more protein than the sedentary population. (Bodybuilders may require more protein, which is beyond the scope of this article.)

The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends the following [4], depending on your goal:

    • Endurance events (engaging in 10 hours or more of more vigorous weekly exercise): 1.2 – 1.4 g per kilogram of body weight
    • Resistance training (muscle hypertrophy or strength): 1.4 – 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends 1.5 – 2.0 g per kilogram of body weight.

Estimating Your Protein Needs

How much protein you need depends on your goals, activity level, age, body type, and metabolic rate. However, people who are active and/or on a calorie-restricted diet need more protein than sedentary people who are not on a calorie-restricted diet. Here’s my tips for estimating how much protein you need:

  • Eyeballing it: This recommendation from John Beradi is a common-sense, easy-to-follow approach: “Eat 1 palm-sized portion of lean, complete protein (about 20-30 grams) with each meal, every few hours. If you eat less frequently, eat a bit more protein with each meal. If you eat more frequently, eat a bit less protein with each meal.” [5]
  • Percentage of daily calories: All you need to know is your total caloric intake and that each gram of protein has four calories. For example, if your daily intake is 1,800 calories, 25 percent of your intake would be 112.5 grams of protein (1800 x .25 = 450; 450 <divided by>4 = 112.5).
  • Post-workout fuel: Consume 15-25 grams of high-quality protein within one to two hours of strength training.
  • Breakfast: A high-protein breakfast provides aids in weight loss, glucose/insulin levels, and all-day energy (breakfast ideas below).
  • Vegan/Vegetarian: I recommend reading this article.

Unless you’re following doctor’s orders, please do not fall into the habit of avoiding carbs. Carbs and healthy fats are required for fuel and an essential part of any healthy diet. Just be sure you’re not overdoing it and avoid refined carbs (white sugar and grains, sweets, etc.).

High-Protein Foods

Certain higher protein foods “cost more” in calories than others. For example, if you frequently rely on nuts for extra protein, you’re getting very little protein relative to the fat calories. One ounce of almonds has only 6 grams of protein and 163 calories, while one ounce of skinless chicken breast has 8.8 grams of protein and only 47 calories. Look not only at the grams of protein but at the calories of foods and calories per gram of protein.

For the best protein sources, aim for poultry, fish, lean meats, soy, low-fat dairy, and eggs. Check out how these foods compare and use this list to plan your meals and snacks.

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Two areas where I often see room for improvement are low-protein breakfasts and snacks. So take a look at how to start getting enough protein in these areas (also check out my articles on clean-eating lunches and dinners).

Protein in Breakfasts

Breakfasts high in carbohydrates spike your insulin levels and cause a blood-sugar crash, resulting in sluggishness and hunger soon after. Aim for breakfasts that are high in fiber and lean protein – avoid fatty meats (bacon, ham, sausage) and simple carbs (donuts, muffins, pancakes) that will only make you sluggish and add empty calories. (This study found that eating a high-protein breakfast can help women maintain glucose control.) See also Eat Protein for Breakfast for A Better Workout & Better Cognition, by Charles Poliquin.

  • Whole-grain toast with 2 tbsp nut butter
  • Plain, nonfat yogurt (Greek or regular) with 2 tbsp sunflower seeds or ¼ cup sliced almonds, and a cup of fruit
  • Peanut butter and banana oatmeal
  • 1 cup cottage cheese with ½ cup fruit and 2 tbsp low-fat granola
  • 1 whole wheat waffle, ½ cup fruit, and yogurt
  • Whole-wheat bagel with Babybel low-fat cheese and smoked salmon
  • Fruit, yogurt, healthy cereal, toasted nuts
  • Vegetable frittata (mozzarella, chopped veggies, onions) with waffle and fruit
  • Egg and bacon sandwich on whole-wheat English muffin
  • Whole-grain, natural cereal with skim milk and fresh fruit (download my free Clean Eating Grocery List for my recommendations)
  • Peanut butter and banana sandwich
  • Omelet with veggies and turkey bacon/sausage (leaner than beef or pork)
  • Green smoothie (Optional: ½ to 1 scoop whey protein)
  • Pumpkin protein pancakes
  • Overnight oatmeal: Mix all of the following except the last two ingredients the night before: 1/2c rolled oats, 1 c coconut milk or high protein almond milk, 1 tbsp chia seeds, 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 c raisins or cranberries, 2 tbsp sliced almonds (thanks to Skylar Rudich for this one)

Also see Start the Day Right with Clean-Eating Breakfasts for additional ideas.

Protein in Snacks

Snacks that are small, healthy, and satiating can have a positive impact on your blood glucose and insulin levels and prevent binging and overeating at main meals. Aim to get both lean protein, complex carbs, and a bit of healthy fat in your snacks for the best long-lasting energy.

By the way, in a 2,000-calorie diet, a snack should be about 150-200 calories (assuming three main meals at 500 calories each and two to three snacks).

  • 1/4 cup almonds and 1 cup red grapes
  • 1 hard-boiled egg and 1 cup sliced veggie like red bell pepper, carrots, grape tomatoes, cucumbers
  • 1 light Babybel and 1 pear or strawberries slices
  • 1 whole-wheat bagel or English muffin with 2 tbsp nut butter (plus 1/2 cup fruit, if desired) or hummus
  • 6 oz plain, nonfat Greek yogurt and a handful of berries
  • 1/3 cup tuna salad and a few whole-grain crackers
  • 1 cup edamame in pods (or pea pods)
  • 2 tbsp nut butter with half an apple
  • Green smoothie (optional: ½ to 1 scoop whey protein)
  • Chocolate protein bars
  • 3 Protein bars you can make at home
  • Power protein balls
  • Pumpkin protein bars

For more healthy snack ideas, see Clean Eating Snacks for All-Day Energy.

Looking to transform your body, energy, and health? Connect with me about 1:1 and group training programs!

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20 thoughts on “Using Protein for a Leaner, More Muscular Physique

  1. Hi Suzanne,

    This is a very informative article. I am following most of your guides for choosing the right food that has the right amount of protein for my weight loss program. BTW, do you recommend protein powders or snack bars as a substitute for these foods you’ve mentioned?


    • Hi Raine,
      You can see my recommendations for protein powder by downloading my free Clean-Eating Grocery List (see the top of this post). As for protein bars, I’d recommend limiting them as much as possible and eating whole, natural foods. There’s too many additives and sugar in most protein bars.


  2. Great suggestions for getting more protein! I learned a few years ago that a higher protein diet worked better for me. It satisfies me more than carbs. I love cottage cheese, greek yogurt and nuts. Dinners are a protein + veggie almost every night. I also eat a high protein breakfast: eggs, turkey sausage or cottage cheese.


  3. according to this, I’m not getting enough protein right now. Well, I guess it’s enough for health, but it looks like I need to bulk up a little if i want to shed this last few pounds.
    i like your picture too! 🙂


  4. First time reader here! LOL at the above comment about how hot you are, it’s true! I see so many people that think that a high protein diet translates to weight gain, not loss… and you did a fabulous job at laying out how the method can be used to lose weight. Thank you for the read!


  5. Hi Suzanne,

    This is what I really need! I’ve been doing a lot of heavy workouts but I don’t get the right figure. Anyway, your article is amazing. Thanks for the list of foods with their corresponding amount and protein content. I can choose the right food in order for me to have the best results. 😉


  6. Found the article interesting and agree that we would probably all benefit from more protein in our diets.
    I use the portion sizing method myself rather than trying to calculate calories. Has worked well for me so far. I try to make sure I get decent protein with every meal – snacks included.


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