Correction appended, August 24
People misunderstand protein. Yes, adding some to a meal can knock down hunger and keep it at bay, which in turn can help you avoid binge eating or snacking. Protein is also essential for proper cell health, as well as muscle synthesis and recovery. But there’s a limit to how much protein your body can use at any given time—and how much of it you need to feel full, says Douglas Paddon-Jones, a professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
“Unless your physical activity levels are really high, you’re not going to have much benefit going over 30 grams of protein in a meal,” he says. At the same time, your body is pretty inept when it comes to holding onto protein for later use, he explains. (Here’s what happens when you don’t eat enough protein.)
These facts don’t dovetail with the average American’s protein-consuming habits. “When you look at how most people get their protein, they have very little or none at breakfast,” Paddon-Jones says, “and then dinner is this protein soiree where they consume the bulk of their day’s protein in one big lump.”
A better protein plan: Spread your protein allotment more evenly throughout the day. “I’d like to see people eat more of it in the morning, and cut back at night when stuffing a whole bunch of energy into your meal isn’t going to do you much good,” Paddon-Jones says.
Here, he and other nutrition experts explain some smart ways to add protein to every meal.
Eggs (6 grams per egg): They may not be a surprise breakfast food, but Paddon-Jones says eggs are a complete source of essential amino acids and a healthy way to pack protein into your morning meal. If you’re worried about cholesterol, don’t be. The latest evidence suggests the cholesterol in eggs—yes, including the yolks—isn’t a concern—even if you’re eating an egg a day (or two in the morning a few days a week).
Full-Fat Greek Yogurt (17 grams per single serving container): “I’m a big fan of Greek yogurt,” Paddon-Jones says. Other experts agree. Even though the jury’s not out on whether the probiotics in yogurt will help your health, there’s no doubt Greek yogurt is a great source of protein and essential amino acids. All varieties are packed with protein. But research suggests full-fat may be better for your waistline than low- or no-fat types. (Full fat is more filling than low-fat, and also tends to contain less sugar and other additives.)
Soy Milk (8 grams per cup): If you’re hoping to limit or eliminate your consumption of animal foods, soy is one of the few plant-based sources of the full complement of essential amino acids, says Toby Smithson, a registered dietician and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Adding soymilk to your smoothie, coffee, or tea is an easy way to inject some healthy protein into your morning.
Quinoa (8 grams per cup): One of the so-called ancient grains, quinoa is an unusually complete plant source of essential amino acids, Smithson says. Especially compared to the popular grains most of us swallow—wheat, corn, rice—quinoa kicks butt in the protein department, concludes a study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. Add some to your salad, or mix some into soup.
Almond Butter (3.5 grams per Tbsp): Smithson says nuts and nut butters are solid protein sources, and a good bet for lunch. Other experts agree, and many cite almond butter’s generous amounts of healthy fat as a great reason to add it to your diet. Research has linked nut consumption to lower rates of heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Just look for freshly ground nut butters—not the packaged stuff. If it comes pre-ground in a jar, it may be loaded up with sugar, salt, and other additives, experts warn.
Seeds (4.5 grams per oz): Hemp, chia, and flaxseed are all healthy sources of protein, Smithson says. Added to salads or smoothies, they easily pump up the protein content of your midday meal. (N.B. Some seeds—like flax—require a good grinding to release their healthful nutrients. Buying and consuming them whole may not afford you all their benefits.)
Beans (15 grams per cup): Black. Fava. Garbanzo. Pinto. Kidney. Your options are many, and all are good sources of protein, says Winston Craig, professor emeritus of nutrition at Michigan’s Andrews University. Craig has conducted research into vegan diets, and he says combining beans with whole grains is an easy way to supply your body with the essential protein amino acids it requires without the need for a side of meat or dairy.
Tofu (20 grams per cup): For all the same reasons soy milk is a healthy protein-booster at breakfast time, tofu—which is basically curdled, cubed soy milk—is a worthy addition to your dinner plate, Smithson says. There are some lingering questions concerning soy’s possible links to tumors and cancer. But most experts believe there’s not much to worry about—and a lot to like—when it comes to soy.
Fish (34 grams per 6 oz serving): Meat, poultry, and fish as more or less synonymous with “protein”—especially among health-conscious Americans. But many of us still opt for beef or chicken instead of halibut or salmon. Considering the abundant research linking a fish-centric Mediterranean style diet to lower rates of many chronic diseases, a portion of protein-packed fish is a healthy addition to any dinner menu.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the protein content of cooked beans. They have about 15 grams per cup.