Protein tends to be misunderstood. At times, it's flying high on a fad-diet craze, when it seems that half of our population is shunning carbs in favor of a high-protein diet. At other times, protein is forgotten completely, as people order salads with low-fat dressing in an effort to fit into their skinny jeans. While a high-protein, low-carb diet is overkill, there is good evidence that a moderate-protein diet may be the way to go.
One reason is that we need enough protein, in combination with exercise, to build muscle or even hold onto what muscle we have. We tend to lose muscle mass as we age, and this makes our metabolism go down. In fact, one of the biggest culprits of middle-aged weight creep is due to loss of muscle mass. Muscles also become critical for quality of life as we age -- once an elderly person loses enough muscle mass, things like balance or the ability to get up out of a chair are compromised. In fact, studies have shown that many elderly people do not consume enough protein, and when this is combined with being bedridden or sedentary, their ability to be independent can decline very rapidly due to losing muscle mass.
Protein also plays a role in ensuring that we don't feel hungry too soon after a meal, making it a helpful partner in a weight-loss plan. A higher-protein breakfast, in particular, has been shown to help people feel less hungry during the day and eat fewer overall calories. However, research indicates that most Americans eat the bulk of their protein later in the day, at dinner and lunch, with less protein at breakfast and in snacks. This may also be problematic for the elderly or those trying to build muscle -- recent studies suggest that spacing protein throughout the day, rather than bulking up on protein at later meals, is more helpful for maintaining or building muscle in people who exercise.
A rule of thumb for most people is to get 20 to 30 grams of protein at a meal. This can be particularly difficult during breakfast. To get started, here are seven examples of higher protein breakfasts:
Toast with nut butter: Two slices of whole-wheat bread with 1 tablespoon of peanut butter on each, topped with sliced banana. One cup of skim milk to drink. Total: 22 grams of protein.
Strawberry smoothie: Blend together 1/2 cup of strawberries, 6 ounces of plain Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup of uncooked oatmeal, a drizzle of honey (as needed) and 1/2 cup of skim milk or soy milk. Total: 21 grams of protein.
Mediterranean sandwich: Whole-wheat pita with 4 tablespoons of hummus, tomato slices, 1 ounce of goat cheese and 1/4 cup of sliced almonds. Have a café latte to drink, made with 1/2 cup of steamed skim milk. Total: 22 grams of protein.
Melon bowl: Half of a cantaloupe (using the center as a bowl), filled with 1 cup of cottage cheese. Total: 25 grams of protein.
Breakfast burrito: Corn tortilla filled with two scrambled eggs, sautéed onions, 1/4 cup of black beans and pico de gallo. Total: 25 grams of protein.
Apple walnut oatmeal: Cook 3/4 cups of dry oatmeal with 1 and 1/4 cup of skim milk, and add 1/4 cup of chopped walnuts, plus 1 chopped apple. Sprinkle with cinnamon and drizzle with honey. Total: 24 grams of protein.
Salad for breakfast: Toss together 1/2 cup of shelled soybeans, 1/2 cup of chopped tomato and 1 ounce of mozzarella cheese. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar, and serve a whole-wheat breadstick on the side. Total: 25 grams of protein.
Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, is the Director of the Didactic Program in Dietetics and lecturer for the Nutrition Program at Arizona State University, and a Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Follow her on Twitter @MelindaRD.