If an alien from another planet toured a North American grocery store, he might think that a massive protein deficiency is plaguing the continent. From protein-fortified breakfast cereals to front-of-package shout-outs about protein health to entire aisles of powders, bars and shakes, we seem to be obsessed with the stuff.
[Read: 5 Ways to Practice Portion Control.]
Looking at absolutes of protein consumption, it would certainly appear as if we're all getting "enough." According to the data collected by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average American is consuming nearly 16 percent of his or her calories from protein; that likely translates to somewhere between 70 to 120 grams per person – well over the recommendation of .8 grams per kilogram. While issue of whether or not that recommendation is too low is now the source of heated debate, my experiences working with thousands of patients trying to lose weight has me worrying not so much about the right amount of protein but about its right spread and source.
From a satiety perspective, it would seem that protein needs to be well distributed. What that means is protein's inclusion with each and every meal, and I would argue, too, each and every snack. It also ought not to be liquid protein or at least not a thin liquid source. While thick, viscous liquids may still confer some benefit to fullness, it would seem thin ones don't do nearly the same job. That means milk as a protein source, while definitely useful if you're simply worried about consuming "enough" protein, isn't likely to provide you with the same satiety benefit as, say, a thicker dairy protein source such as Greek yogurt.
For those aiming for three meals a day without snacks, clinical studies of hunger would suggest that 25 percent of your calories ought to come from protein. For a 400- to 600-calorie meal, that would mean between 25 and 37.5 grams of protein. For those (like me) who find the larger meals more difficult to stomach or find the time for, figure on 15 to 20 grams of protein with each smaller meal and 10 grams or more of protein with each between-meal snack.
[Read: 7 Protein-Packed School Lunch Ideas.]
Looking to my patients' successes for further tips, it would seem that protein-fortified breakfast cereals don't have the same staying power as non-fortified natural sources and that, in a pinch, those ubiquitous protein bars do great as a last-resort, between-meal snack.
No, we don't have a protein emergency in North America, and yes, it does seem to be a big help for those trying to manage their portions and choices. But that cereal-and-toast breakfast, followed by a fruit, followed by a "healthy salad" for lunch? Even if you do, like many, have a large protein-rich dinner, that protein, while certainly sufficient in quantity, isn't going to help you any in keeping your calories under control.
Spread your protein out throughout the day though, and maybe you won't be hankering for a 16-ounce rib-eye with all the fixings, and you'll feel perfectly satisfied instead with a 6-ounce filet with some freshly steamed vegetables.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.