Seventeen years ago, I had an undergrad professor who constantly extolled the virtues of adequate protein intake for “brain-based learning” – a popular educational paradigm at that time. In order to help her students get their protein requirements in, she would pass out Keebler cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers to each of her students every single class to support brain function, learning, and retention.
I can recall sitting there being like, “WTF?!” I would glance around the room at all of the students, waiting for one…just one of them to read the nutritional label and discover that these snacks weren’t in fact packed with protein. But it never happened; everyone just naively accepted that they were helping their brains function better due to delicious protein filled treats.
For twenty years as a personal trainer, this phenomenon has been bothering me. I can’t tell you how many times I overhear my clients saying something like, “Quinoa is a great source of protein.” Or, “I had some peanut butter because I needed to get some protein in me.” Or, “Almonds are packed with protein.” Or, “I made sure to have a Yoplait yogurt for breakfast since it’s important to have protein in the morning.” If you’re a personal trainer, I’m sure you can relate. And in case you’re wondering why it’s bothersome, it’s because none of these food sources are in fact high in protein.
Check out the nutritional info pertaining to the cheese and peanut butter crackers. You’ll notice that they contain 250 calories, 13 grams of fat, 30 grams of carbs, and 6 grams of protein. Less than 10% of the calories come from protein (46% is fat and 46% is carb). The mere fact that the food has the words “cheese” and “peanuts” in the title fools ignorant people who are unskilled in the art of reading nutritional labels into thinking that the snacks are high in protein when in actuality they are not.
I’m a big fan of flexible dieting (I created a flexible diet guideline for my 2 x 4: Maximum Strength product) – with this system you can work whatever foods you want into your nutrition as long as it fits your macros. You want some Keebler cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers? Have at it, just make sure you nail your numbers for the day. You have taste buds that don’t enjoy sweets? I hate you, you lucky son of a bitch, but in this case you wouldn’t use up any of your macros with sweets, you simply work the foods that you prefer into your day.
One problem is, many individuals don’t have as much wiggle room as they think they do with their diets. They realize this as soon as they start tracking and stop guessing with regards to their food intake. After finally downloading an app and actually tracking their macros, many of my clients realize that they’re taking in way more calories than they think or they have a few days per week where they go way over what they claim, which sabotages their progress.
Ideally we could all have sky high metabolisms, all men could wolf down 5,000+ calories per day and all women could scarf down 3,000+ calories per day and not gain any weight. But the reality is that many of us are pretty sedentary and only exercise when we hit the gym several days per week for around an hour, and we can’t handle that many calories (maybe we could when we were younger, but not anymore). This is especially true when people get down to the weight they prefer, they find that they can’t eat as much as their brain would like. Bottom line, we all have to exhibit some discipline and monitor our eating habits.
Let’s say you’re a 200 pound male who maintains an ideal physique by consuming 3,000 calories and 200 grams of protein per day. And let’s go back to the example of the Keebler cheese and peanut butter sandwich crackers. If you ate 12 of these crackers, you’d get 3,000 calories – your entire daily allotment, but only 72 grams of protein, thereby falling fall short of your protein goals. You’d also get 360 grams of carbs and 117 grams of fat per day, which is too much for a 3,000 calorie diet that contains optimal levels of protein. Obviously you can see that this snack isn’t really high in protein, and you’re going to need foods that are truly high in protein in order to hit your targets.
I have a 5’4″ female client right now that maintains her ideal current weight of 120 lbs by consuming 1,500 calories per day. She doesn’t do cardio and sticks to weights 3 times per week. I have her aiming for 120 grams of protein per day, 155 grams of carbs per day, and 45 grams of fat per day. She prefers to eat 4 meals per day, therefore she needs to average 30 grams of protein per meal. Getting this 30 grams of protein 4 times per day isn’t easy for many women, at least at first.
In my experience, many women will assume that they’re getting sufficient protein intake because they eat two eggs in the morning (12 grams of protein) and a piece of chicken at night (30 grams of protein). Assuming they get 12 more grams of protein from a can of Greek yogurt and 20 more grams from veggies and other things, this comes to 74 grams of protein per day.
Many men do the same thing, so it’s not just women. In fact, many of my guy friends who don’t lift take in tons of protein but they do so through such fatty meats that they go way over on calories, and their physiques suffer greatly as a result.
Check out the chart I made below.
You will clearly see which common foods are indeed high in protein, which foods are moderate in protein, and which foods are low in protein.
Sure, having things like lentils, refried beans, tofu, and even various veggies not included in the chart such as spinach are useful in helping people hit their protein requirements. However, an entire can of spinach only yields 14 grams of protein, so you’re not going to meet your protein requirements for the day with spinach and other veggies alone. The increased popularity of Greek yogurt over the past decade is great since it is in fact a high protein snack. But at the end of the day, you’re going to need to eat some meat or guzzle down a protein shake here and there. Yes, I realize that there are plenty of vegans out there who have incredible physiques, and many even figure out ways to get adequate protein intake. But the majority of people are not vegan, so for those who are trying to improve their physique, most meals should be centered around a portion of meat (or a shake, which I’ll explain below).
I don’t usually track my macros. Most of the time I just make sure I get my protein each day, and get on the scale in the morning and at night. I then modify my diet accordingly so I stay roughly the same weight. However, I have tracked my macros before and it worked beautifully, plus I have my clients track their macros.
Here’s a strategy I employed when I did track macros (keep in mind that this isn’t necessary – you can fit your macros any way you prefer) that helped keep me on track. Last year, I was consuming around 230 grams of protein, 230 grams of carbs, and 120 grams of fat each day, for around 2,900 calories. I was leaning out at the time and dropping weight. I have an affinity for fatty foods, hence the lower carbs and higher fats. I have most of my clients stick to higher percentages of carbs and lesser percentages of fat. Anyway, I liked to eat 6 times per day. If I divided my daily macros by 6, I needed around 40 grams of protein per meal, 40 grams of carbs per meal, and 20 grams of fat per meal. Getting 35-40 grams of protein per meal 6 times per day isn’t easy for me. It is for people that love to cook and prepare their meals ahead of time, but that’s not me.
This is why I’m such a fan of whey protein shakes. I put two scoops in milk and it yields over 50 grams of protein. If I did this twice per day, this equated to over 100 grams of protein, which went a long way in helping me get to the 230 grams I desired. If you don’t like the taste of shakes, then you definitely don’t need to drink them. But in my situation, whey protein shakes helped me fit my macros.
This is especially important considering that I, like most people, tend to crave fatty and sugary foods. I could enjoy daily servings of my macadamia nuts, my almonds, my cashews, my sunflower seeds, my yogurts, my orange juice, my dried cherries, my Craisins, and my dark chocolate (I wish I liked my veggies but I don’t), because two of my meals per day were mostly protein (2 scoops of whey in skim milk).
Now let’s incorporate this into my averaging scheme. With 2 of my 6 daily meals consisting of the shakes, this left 4 meals per day and took off 110 grams of protein from my total (and also 20 grams of carbs). Now my macros were at 120 grams of protein, 210 grams of carbs, and 120 grams of fat for the rest of the day, which is much more enticing. I should mention that I had a few fish oil caps per day so this took off around 6 grams of fat from the total. Focusing on protein, if I ate 4 cans of Greek yogurt, this took off 40 grams from the total, which left me with 70 grams. If I consumed 2 pieces of meat, or 2 cans of tuna, or 1 piece of meat and 6 eggs, I met my target protein goal for the day (I just needed to make sure I hit the carb and fat targets).
You definitely don’t need to copy my system, the point of flexible dieting is to figure out your own that suits you best. Work the foods you enjoy into the mix, consume the ideal number of meals you prefer, but just make sure you hit your macros consistently. You’ll likely find that the protein target is the hardest to achieve, as carbs and fats are more fun to eat. This practice leads to an incredible physique over time as long as you know how to train properly and manipulate your macros according to your goals.
To conclude this article, please focus on the larger picture. Absorb what’s useful to you and disregard what isn’t – no need to nitpick my info to death, unless you feel I’m highly off base of course. We can all dig up different articles showing different numbers for protein requirements. We can all dig up nutritional labels of brands that differ from the data I showed in my chart. We can argue about clean eating versus IIFYM to death. This article isn’t written for vegans, so if you’re vegan please don’t take it personal. My goals in writing this article was to show people how much protein they’re actually getting from various foods and to provide people with some example scenarios, which is beneficial from a knowledge standpoint. Scientia potentia est (knowledge is power) my friends!