Got protein? Scan supermarket aisles and you’ll see protein claims on everything — even cereal and cookies. Protein is important, especially as you get older. It helps preserve and build muscle and can spur weight loss by helping you feel satisfied. But you may be meeting your protein needs in a less-than-ideal way. Consumer Reports combed the research and talked to experts to help you make the best choices.
Get the right amount. Adults need 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. If you weigh 160 pounds, that’s 64 grams. You can reach that goal pretty easily. For example, six ounces of Greek nonfat yogurt (17 grams), a half-cup of lentil soup (eight grams), a four-ounce chicken breast (35 grams) and a cup of quinoa (eight grams) gets you there.
But a little more may be better. With age, you become less efficient at using protein, and you need greater amounts to get the same benefit. “A growing body of literature shows diets that are moderately above the recommendations can have some positive outcomes on health,” says Wayne Campbell, a professor in the Department of Nutrition Science at Purdue University. After age 60, get at least 0.6 grams per pound daily to help prevent age-related muscle loss, or sarcopenia, which increases the risk of disability.
If you’re trying to lose weight, as much as 0.7 grams per pound — 112 grams daily for a 160-pound person — seems to be the right amount, according to a recent review of studies by Heather Leidy, an assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.
Spread it out. “Most of us typically get about two-thirds of our protein at dinner, 20 percent at lunch and only 10 percent at breakfast,” says nutrition consultant Mike Roussell, author of “The 6 Pillars of Nutrition.” But to stave off hunger, maintain and build muscle, or lose weight, it’s better to evenly distribute your protein intake. Your body needs at least 25 to 30 grams in one sitting to give you that full feeling and stimulate muscle protein synthesis, the foundation of muscle building. By loading up on the nutrient at dinner — and not downing nearly enough at other meals — you shortchange your ability to take advantage of those two factors throughout the day.
Choose the best sources. Many foods that tout their protein content contain added soy, whey or another processed form of protein. They also often come packed with sugars and sodium. Ideally, the majority of your protein should come from whole foods: lean meat, seafood, eggs, low-fat dairy, tofu, quinoa, nuts and beans. That helps you avoid less-than-healthful ingredients and takes advantage of whole foods’ synergistic combination of vitamins, minerals and other beneficial compounds.
Fill in the gaps. Add protein to your snacks: Vegetables and hummus, peanut butter on a few crackers or an apple, and a handful of nuts are good choices. Protein shakes, just like juices, sodas and other liquid calories, may not bring the same feeling of fullness that solid foods do, which can be a problem if you’re trying to lose weight and don’t compensate elsewhere in your diet for the additional liquid calories.
But protein shakes may be a good strategy for older adults. “As we age, we often have less hunger and feel full faster, making it hard to consume the higher levels of protein we need,” Leidy says. Shakes can deliver plenty of protein without filling you up.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.