These are meals that literally require throwing ingredients together. No quick sauteeing, no slicing, no chopping, no measuring. This is for you if you want to make a meal but don’t have access to a kitchen. This is for you if you don’t know how to cook but want to eat more at home. This is for you if you don’t want to cook because you’re too exhausted or busy or just have other things you’d rather do. This is for you if you’re struggling with your mental health and you just need some fuel for your body on days when you have no motivation to do anything.
Most of these salads are a balanced meal in themselves. They have veggies, protein, and some sort of carbohydrate. Most of them are lower on the carb side (especially carbs from grains), so if you like bread, a whole grain bread makes a good compliment to the meal. I personally feel like a salad meal isn’t complete without bread. 🙂
Anyway, on to the salads
pre-washed lettuce/greens OR sliced cabbage/coleslaw mix + can of beans + (optional can of corn) + shredded cheese + salsa + (optional guacamole and/or sour cream) + chips
Cheese Apple Walnut Salad
pre-washed lettuce/greens + apple slices + walnuts + shredded or crumbled cheese+ vinaigrette dressing + optional pre-cooked chicken OR deli turkey OR deli ham
No-Chop Cobb Salad
pre-washed lettuce + pre-cooked chicken OR sliced deli chicken + bacon bits + blue cheese + cherry tomatoes + pre-cooked hardboiled eggs (crumbled by hand or squished with a fork) + scoop guacamole + vinaigrette + optional dried chives sprinkle
Cherry or grape tomatoes + sliced mozzarella or mozzarella balls + olive oil + fresh basil or dried basil + optional extra pre-washed greens
Washed leaves of Romaine/Green leaf/Red leaf/Butter/Iceberg lettuce spread with hummus/tuna salad/chicken salad/egg salad/peanut butter (sounds weird but actually not bad) or use them to roll up deli meat and/or cheese with whatever condiments you like
Chicken Caesar Salad
pre-washed lettuce/greens + pre-cooked chicken OR sliced deli chicken + Caesar dressing + croutons + (optional cherry tomatoes)
sliced cabbage or coleslaw mix + pre-cooked chicken + sliced almonds + canned mandarin oranges + Asian dressing or soy sauce and honey + (optional crunchy chow mein noodles)
Pear Spinach Salad
Canned sliced or cubed pears (drained) + pre-washed spinach + pre-cooked chicken + pecans, walnuts, or sliced almonds + dressing of your choice (blue cheese and pears is a winning combination I think)
You can actually buy cans of this already made, or make your own: canned kidney beans + canned garbanzo beans + canned green beans (or add whatever beans you like) + vinaigrette dressing. Eat with whole grain bread for the most complete protein
I have done my best to make sure that these recipes require as little preparation as possible. The most that will need to be done is opening a few cans, maybe tearing some lunch meat, spreading some stuff on other stuff, and mixing stuff together. The items mentioned as pre-cooked can be something you have pre-cooked yourself, but I have tried to choose things that you will be able to buy at a typical grocery store pre-cooked to truly minimize the work and need for a kitchen. I do realize not everyone has access to a grocery store or a grocery store with a wide selection of fresh ingredients. I’ve tried to include salads with a variety of ingredients, many of which are shelf-stable or last a long time.
Do you have any go-to recipes (salad or not) that don’t require any cooking? Feel free to share in the comments
Let’s talk about food we hate. Or even foods we just don’t really like.
It’s fine and normal to have foods you don’t like and choose not to eat!
Everyone has their own personal preferences. It’s cool if you never want to try those foods or learn to like them. It’s your choice!
From a nutrition perspective, there is such a variety of food on this earth that most people can have a balanced diet that fits within their food preferences. There might be a few changes and stretches to make, but it’s rare that you will need to eat only foods you hate to be healthy.
If you are concerned that food preferences are so restrictive that they prevent you from getting adequate nutrition, please speak to a registered dietitian or primary care provider.
Here are some foods I don’t like:
Thousand Island Dressing
over-dressed salad (soggy lettuce 🙁 )
Cooked or canned pineapple
That being said, some of these I keep trying because I want to maybe someday like them.
Sometimes it’s worth giving foods a few chances before you rule them out forever.
(This doesn’t even take into account not eating certain foods because of religious or ethical beliefs. This is also totally up to each individual and should not be considered just a preference. )
You might discover you don’t like a food prepared one way, but eating it another way, or in another context is delicious. For example, I grew up not liking tuna. But it turns out I just don’t like the mayonnaise that was always in tuna salad. Tuna by itself, or mixed with avocado – I like just fine.
This beet pasta recipe from Nadiya Hussain is another good example. I am not really a fan of beets, but this pasta has so much garlic, lemon, and cheese that it’s all I can taste, but I still get the nutrients and beautiful pink color from beets.
Eating foods prepared differently may be especially helpful if you are sensitive to textures.
Some foods are an acquired taste and it takes a few times (or several times) of eating them before it starts to taste good. So, if you really want to like a food, it’s ok if it takes you a few times.
And tastes change. As kids, our palates are really sensitive, especially to bitter and sour tastes, but we lose some of that sensitivity as we’re older so we’re more likely to enjoy foods like coffee, broccoli, beer, vinaigrette. I used to hate pineapple in all forms and just automatically avoided it until I ate it at someone’s house to be polite and discovered that it was pretty good fresh. Still can’t stand it cooked or canned though.
Here are some foods I use to not like but I do now:
Tuna (turns out I just don’t like mayonnaise)
Mustard (still not a fan of straight yellow mustard, but some whole grain or Dijon…alright)
Coca Cola, Dr. Pepper
Now, why would you want to eat foods you don’t like on the off-chance that you might start liking them?
Health: Wanting to get the health benefits of a certain food or food group that is not your favorite (salmon for omega-3s, spinach for the iron, chicken breasts for the lean protein, or just generally more veggies for example). It’s why I keep trying beets and eggplant.
Social: This is another big reason and actually a really important one. Sometimes being able to eat a greater variety of foods gives you more freedom in your social life. You don’t have to worry about what’s going to be served at dinner a dinner party, or might be more likely to join a group that’s going out to a new restaurant.
Variety: You’re bored of the foods you are currently eating and want to try something new
You just want to because it seems cool: I’ll be honest here. While beets are really healthy, the main reason that I really want to like them is that they are sooo pretty! Did you see that pasta? It’s an unreal magenta color! Or olives. It was a great disappointment to my child self that I didn’t like olives because I wanted to be like all the cool kids and stick them on my fingers, but I still don’t like them despite continuing to try them :/
Your takeaway for today: it’s ok to not like all foods, but sometimes it’s worth giving a food a few chances before swearing it off forever because you may someday be able to wear olives on your fingers like the cool kids.
What foods do you dislike? Or what foods are you learning to like?
Who loves apple crisp? The cinnamony-syrup covered apples, topped with bites of buttery, crunchy oats. Mmmm. I have been known to eat apple crisp for breakfast or dinner as well as dessert. And after this post, you might consider an apple crisp breakfast too!
Here’s some good nutrition news about apple crisp:
Apple crisp can totally count as a serving of fruit
Right off the bat, if you’re eating an apple crisp (or any type of fruit crisp) you’re eating some fruit! Recommendations for daily fruit intake vary from 1 cup to 2 1/2 cups. Even a small serving of crisp will probably have at least 1/2 cup of fruit, which will give you a good portion of your recommended fruit intake regardless of whether you’re aiming for 1 cup or 2 and a half!
Apple crisp can be a source of whole grains
Most apple crisp recipes I am familiar with include oats (quick or rolled) as part of the delicious crumbly topping. Both of those forms of oats are whole grains, which compared to refined grains, have higher fiber and more protein. The USDA recommends at least 1/2 of your daily grains be whole grains. So there you go, by eating apple crisp, you’re moving toward that goal!
Now that you’ve got fruit and whole grains, all you need to make a meal is some protein, maybe some vegetables or calcium
For breakfast, serve with some scrambled eggs or a scoop of yogurt for protein
Apple crisp + slice of sharp cheddar cheese is a classic combination that provides protein + calcium and you should try it if you haven’t
For a vegetarian/vegan breakfast option, serve alongside a handful of nuts and a calcium-fortified beverage
Serve the above options in the evening for a breakfast-for-dinner option
Pork + apples is a winning combination. Some pork chops + steamed or roasted vegetables + this crisp …*chef’s kiss*
Serve alongside your favorite sausage and a green salad
Ways to make your apple crisp even more nutritious:
Use whole wheat flour as the flour portion in the recipe for even more whole grains
Don’t peel your apples. A large part of the fiber in an apple is in the skin. (Plus, this way you don’t have to spend all that time peeling apples)
If you want to replace some of the saturated fat with unsaturated fats, replace the butter with a plant-based substitute like Smart Balance which has more unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids
Now, I just want to say that apple crisp is a magical food that will solve all of your problems or that you can eat as much as you want because it can do no wrong. Like any food, balance is key.
The main thing I want you to take away is that this cozy dessert has plenty to be happy about. So next time you’re enjoying some cinnamonny, crumbly, apple-y goodness, rejoice in the ways it is nourishing you!
I get asked this question as a dietitian often enough that I figured I would write out the answer. But I want to start out by saying that as real humans, we have different bodies, needs, preferences, beliefs and values about food. So consider this more of a post to satisfy curiosity than any recommendation.
And not to sound like a broken record (but this is important) this is not a prescription or a recommendation. This is a description. This is just what I eat.
The good news of nutrition is there are lots of ways to eat healthy. So while this is how I eat, (and I consider it healthy) it will not be the right solution for everyone. You might have different dietary needs due to a medical condition, or a family member’s medical condition. You might have different dietary preferences – or a different lifestyle that make these choices impractical. That’s ok.
That’s the beauty of Nutrition for Real Humans, and that’s why I work with each client to design a plan that will make healthy eating work for them.
Now, onto what you clicked on this title for: What does a dietitian eat? (Or more accurately, what does this dietitian eat?)
I thought about it and wrote down some patterns that I tend to follow when I’m deciding what to eat. I don’t really have strict rules; in the words of Captain Barbosa:
A fruit or vegetable with each meal.
At least one, sometimes more. This could look like a banana with breakfast, eating a carrot alongside my sandwich, or adding a bunch of vegetables to the soup I’ve made for dinner.
Benefits of fruits and vegetables
High water content (good for hydration)
Generally high in fiber
Source of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C
Source of phytonutrients and antioxidants that we don’t even fully comprehend the benefits of yet
Often add beautiful color, flavor, and texture to the meal!
Most grains whole grains.
I try to make whole grains the default grain that I eat. If I make rice, it’s brown rice. When I make bread or muffins or waffles, I make sure at least half the flour I use (if not more) is whole wheat flour. When I buy grain products (tortillas, cereals, pasta), I usually choose products where the first ingredient listed is whole grain or whole wheat.
Benefits of whole grains
Higher fiber content (more filling, digest more slowly)
Slightly higher protein content
Naturally contain more vitamins and minerals than refined grains (although most products made with refined grains have vitamins and minerals added back to make up for this loss)
This doesn’t mean I don’t eat refined grains. When I bake, usually at least part of the recipe is made with white flour because the texture is better, and if I’m making a dessert, I just use white flour.
It’s hard to pass up a good sourdough if it’s white bread, and our favorite instant mac and cheese is made with white pasta.
Lara Bars (snack bar made with dried fruit and nuts)
Sugar snap peas
I don’t always have all of these around, but these are examples of what might be laying around our house.
Use healthy fats when cooking
I embrace fats in general when cooking, especially olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, to help make a meal more satisfying and tasty. I also really like dairy fats: cheese, butter, full fat yogurt. There is evidence showing that intake of fats from dairy, especially from yogurt and cheese is not associated with increased heart disease or diabetes risk or death. We also personally don’t have any health conditions that would make it especially risky for us to eat saturated fat.
Benefits of fats
Take longer to digest, and help promote satiety (satisfaction)
Help your body absorb certain vitamins
Important carriers of flavor
Drink mostly water, milk, coffee and tea (unsweetened or lightly sweetened)
These are the drinks I have at home. It doesn’t mean we never have soda or juice or alcohol, but we mostly only buy these if we are hosting guests, or if we are out to dinner or as a special treat
(No pictures because I don’t often take pictures of just glasses of water or milk haha).
Mostly cook and eat at home
This is mainly because of how I grew up and how I ate when I was first on my own and didn’t have lots of money. But it also lets me be in charge of what’s in my food.
Probably more sweets than you expect
We both have sweet tooths (sweet teeth?). We probably have dessert at least half of the nights of the week (more if I’ve baked something). This could be ice cream, a handful of chocolate chips, kettlecorn, or a microwave brownie.
This is one thing that I am tempted to feel guilty about. But most of the time I don’t, and my husband really helps me be a balanced, reasonable human here. Dessert is something we both enjoy (and often a way to share celebration or just spend time with other people), and the way we eat it does not cause us health problems.
Often a way to spend time with people
I like baking
Sometimes an opportunity to get extra nutrients in: dark chocolate contains iron, kettlecorn is a whole grain, milk-based desserts contain calcium, fruit-based desserts provide extra fruit! Don’t think something is immediately of no value just because it has sugar!
Just in cased you missed that excellent GIF in the beginning, these are general descriptions of what I eat. I don’t follow them like strict rules. Sometimes I just don’t have a vegetable or fruit with a meal, or don’t have a protein with a meal. And again, this is not THE RIGHT way to eat. There is no one right way.
If you really want to know what I eat, just follow @nutritionforrealhumans on Instagram, or Facebook. That’s where all of these pictures are from 🙂
If you feel you must take a recommendation away from this post:
Make most of your guidelines and nutrition goals positive or additive
Notice, that most of these guidelines are things I DO, not things I don’t.
There is some evidence that adding foods, or having positive goals (vs. don’t eat that or eat less this) are easier to maintain. Positive goals are awesome. You get to feel accomplished when you do them!
One of the most useful and effective tools that I used while providing outpatient nutrition counseling is called motivational interviewing. It’s based on asking questions to find out what motivates the client/patient and working from that motivation to decide what changes to make alongside the client. Not just telling the client what changes to make.
This is also what nutrition for real humans is all about. You are a real human with a real unique life. You are the expert in what’s going on in your life. You know what’s important to you. Your snacks should reflect that. So…
What do you want your snacks to do for you? What are you looking for from your snack?
This can change from day to day or from snack to snack. There’s no one right answer, and it might be more than one answer. Knowing what you want can make sure you choose the snack that will fulfill that purpose. The right tool for the job.
Here are some things you might want a snack to help you accomplish:
Have more energy
Get more protein
Eat more fruits
Not be bored
Satisfy a craving
Have more stable blood sugar
Avoid being so hungry that you buy the entire snack aisle at the grocery store
Avoid being so hungry that you can’t make a decision about dinner so you end up putting it off until you have a headache so you just eat a bowl of ice cream and go to bed
Eat more whole grains
Eat more fiber
Eat more vegetables
Drink more water
Try new foods
Waste less food
Feel better about a bad experience
Have enough energy and brain power for world domination
When you know what you want your snack to do for you, you can choose a snack that will be a good tool for the job
Having more than one thing that you want your snack to do can help you narrow down your options even more!
Let’s take an example: you are craving something salty and also want to increase your fiber intake. How about some salted nuts? Or some whole grain crackers? Veggies and ranch to dip? Or maybe you actually really want chips. So you have a little chips to satisfy the craving and you also eat an orange to get the fiber.
Another example: You want to be more hydrated and eat more vegetables. These go really easily together because vegetables have a high water content. Sliced cucumbers, carrot sticks, snap peas, sliced bell peppers, salad, any of these would satisfy both goals.
You want to eat more fruit and have more energy at work, so you plan ahead by buying some portable and tasty dried mango to take with you
Sometimes you may need to prioritize one goal.
For example, you are really craving a donut, but you also have the goal of eating more fruits and you haven’t eaten any fruits yet today, so you prioritize the fruit goal and eat some grapes. Or you decide to prioritize the donut craving and eat some fruit later.
Or you need to eat something so that you don’t have a panic attack at work, but none of the vending machine snacks meet your avoiding sugar goal. But you REALLY don’t need to be having a panic attack at work, so you make the lowest sugar choice from the vending machine. (And maybe you buy a stash of snacks that DO meet your goal to keep in your locker for next time)
Or you’d love to eat an organic snack that doesn’t leave packaging waste but what you can afford is not either of those things, and you need to eat at regular intervals to manage your blood sugar and stay alive. Staying alive takes priority here.
Sometimes what’s available doesn’t meet all our snack needs, so we need to prioritize. But knowing what those goals are can help us choose the best snack from what’s there.
Sometimes the right snack is not a snack.
Sometimes when you determine why you want a snack you can decide that a snack isn’t actually what you were looking for. You needed a break from work or some comfort after a stressful phone call. Sometimes a snack can provide those things, but you may, once you know that’s what you’re looking for, decide you have a better solution.
This is for you if you don’t like snacks:
Maybe you don’t want snacks to do anything for you. Maybe you don’t like snacks or don’t like to eat between meals. That’s totally fine. Snacks are not required. You do you.
Principle 3 of snacking for real humans:
Know what you want a snack to do for you, then choose the right tool for the job.
If that’s world domination, then you’re going to need some nourishing snacks.
What do you want your snacks to do for you?
As are all of the posts in this blog, none of this is intended as medical or nutrition advice and is for educational purposes only. Speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist or your primary care provider if you have questions about your specific nutrition needs.
Also this post contains brief discussion of calories so if reading about that will be a struggle, maybe skip this post 🙂
Snacking is totally valid and anyone who says otherwise can go eat a snack*.
Have you ever felt that snacking between meals was a weakness? Something you give into because you aren’t strong enough to wait until the next meal? Or something you eat because you didn’t have time to make lunch or were super busy and didn’t feel like eating earlier and now you are starving? Something that messes up your healthy meal plan?
Do you feel guilty about eating snacks?
And even if you don’t, I have good news:
Snacks can make you healthier
This study, done in 19,427 adults, found that more frequent eating (higher number of meals/snacks per day) was associated with a higher score on the Healthy Eating Index 2010. The Healthy Eating Index is a tool that measures how close to the USDA healthy eating guidelines someone’s eating is – things like servings of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, etc.
The TLDR: people who eat snacks generally meet more of their nutrient goals!
That study was done in adults, but there was also one done in children that showed similar results. And actually, dietitians recommend feeding small children multiple snacks a day because they need so many nutrients to fuel their growth and activity that they can’t fit it into 3 meals!
Count your snacks
A different study of data from 14,263 adults, and found that on average, 18-24% of calories eaten in a day came from snacks. (That’s about 1 in 5 in case you prefer ratios to percentages). That is a pretty big portion of daily energy intake! If you eat snacks every day, they are a big part of your nutrition – so you should count them, and make them count!
Now listen before I go any further, this is not to say that we should be eating fewer calories from snacks. (Or that everyone should be counting calories.) I only bring up the 18-24% to show that snacks can be a big portion of what we eat!
TLDR: On average, about 1/5 of our dietary intake comes from snacks
Now, you can take this one way and be like, oh no, I must only eat carrots and hummus for my snacks because I have to count those calories. NO. I mean, if you’re counting calories then, yes, you have to count those calories. But thinking you should only eat low-calorie snacks is making snacks seem like a bad thing that you are trying to minimize.
You need calories. Calories are just a measurement of energy we get from the food we eat – something that we all need to be living, functioning humans.
Snacks are one of the ways we can get energy (calories) from food. You should count them as part of your daily energy intake. And you should think of them as ways to get the nutrients you need.
Make snacks count: Are there nutrition goals you are overwhelmed by?
5-9 fruits and vegetables a day
3 servings calcium-rich food
8 glasses of water/day
25-35 grams fiber a day
x grams of protein per day
more antioxidants, more iron, etc.
Take into account your snacks when thinking about those goals. You might find you are closer to meeting them than you thought.
Sometimes because a snack is not a meal, it doesn’t fit into the “what I ate today” box. It gets forgotten or just doesn’t get taken into account. If you count the trail mix that you snack on when you’re hungry in the car, you might find you are eating more fiber than you thought. If you count your night cheese, you might find you are closer to your calcium goals than you thought.
This can go both ways of course, a few of those studies did note that most sweets and sweetened beverages were eaten as snacks, so maybe you’ll find that you are eating more sodium or sugar than you thought and need to adjust a little so you can meet your goals
If there’s a goal you aren’t quite meeting, think of how you can leverage a snack to get there. Can you add a glass of milk or a cheese stick to get more calcium? Can you choose a whole grain granola bar or a handful of nuts to get to your fiber goal?
Anyway, remember this 2nd part of snacking for real humans:
Snacks are not a weakness. They are just a part of your nourishment and can make you healthier! Own those snacks!
*If you don’t like to eat snacks and are happy with just eating meals, and you’re meeting your nutrition goals, no worries. It’s not required to eat snacks. Unless your dietitian or doctor tells you otherwise. This whole blog post is not medical or nutrition advice for you and is for informational purposes only. If you have questions, speak with a registered dietitian or doctor.
Before I tell you how I cook lentils, if you need reasons why you should eat lentils, here’s a list:
As they are usually sold canned or dry, they keep for a long time
Pretty environmentally friendly*
Pretty easy to cook (and faster than beans)
*Read til after the recipe if you want more of an explanation for this list.
The super easy method to cook lentils:
Buy canned lentils and season them with whatever sauce or seasoning you like. Warm them up or eat them cold. Done. Easy.
The slightly more work but still pretty easy way to cook lentils is:
Measure out the dry lentils you want to cook. They don’t expand that much pasta or beans do, so don’t worry about that.
Give em a good rinse. They don’t need to soak like beans do, although it won’t hurt them if you do. I like to put them in a colander and run water through.
While you’re rinsing, take out any small rocks you find. I haven’t found rocks often, but a few times I have found them with my teeth :/
Find a pot that will fit the lentils you have measured, plus twice that amount of water (so 2 cups of water for 1 cup lentils) and a little extra. It will help if it has a lid that fits.
Put the lentils and water in that pot along with a little salt.
Put the pot on a stove burner or hotplate and cover with a lid.
Turn the stove or hotplate to high heat and wait until the lentils are boiling. Once they are boiling, turn the stove down to low (keep the lid on).
Let it continue to cook on low until most of the water is absorbed or until they are the softness you like (anywhere from 15-45 minutes.) Drain any extra water out.
Taste, add more salt and other seasonings as needed.
To add more flavor, use broth instead of water, add other spices with the salt. Or, before putting the lentils in the pot, cook some onions, garlic, spices, or other aromatic veggies in some oil, then add the lentils.
If you’ve tried lentils before and were put off by the mushy texture, I suggest trying French lentils, as they tend to hold their shape better. Eating them in a salad vs. by themselves or as a soup may also help them be more appealing. Here’s a great French lentil salad recipe from Once Upon a Chef.
Cookie and Kate has a great and very detailed guide if you want specific cooking times for specific kinds of lentils.
17.9g of protein! About the same as 1 and 1/2 eggs! (Just make sure you also eat a whole grain to get all your amino acids in. If you want to learn more, read this)
over 6mg of iron, which is 33-75% of your recommended daily intake, depending on your needs
Over 15g of fiber, which is 40-60% of your recommended daily intake!
over 350 micrograms of folate, which is about 90% of your recommended daily intake!
Generally, plant-foods use fewer resources, including water and energy, than animal foods. This is also true for lentils. Lentils also have the added bonus of being nitrogen-fixing, which means that if farmers use lentils as part of crop rotation, less fertilizer is required. (Source)
Of course, there are a lot of great lentil recipes out there from around the world! Do you have any favorites?
In other words, a snack is any food you eat that you don’t consider a meal.
Cubed watermelon on a hot afternoon? A refreshing snack
Those chocolate-chip granola bars you keep in your car? Snack
Your post-workout protein shake? Snack
An evening bag of popcorn? A delicious snack
A little bit of salad leftover from lunch? Also a snack
An apple with peanut butter? Snack
Bag of chips from the vending machine at work? That is a snack
Leftover rotisserie chicken you eat cold right out of the refrigerator because you needed a little something? Definitely a snack
Cup of milky tea and a muffin in the afternoon? One of my favorite snacks
What should you eat for a snack? That depends on what you have available, why you’re eating a snack, what sounds good, so many different factors. We can talk about that more later. But don’t worry about if foods fall into the “snack” category.
Snacking for real humans part 1:
Any food can be a snack
Don’t overthink it 🙂 What do you like to snack on?
If you don’t eat meat, but do eat dairy products and/or eggs, know that dairy products and eggs are also very good sources of protein. However, you likely will also get some of your protein from plant-sources, so read on.
If you eat no animal products, you will obviously need to gain your protein from plant-based protein sources like beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. There is a longer list of plant-based proteins (and also non-meat but animal-derived proteins) here.
Protein foods from animal sources (meats, fish, eggs, dairy products, etc.) have all the types of amino acids (protein components) we need. Most protein foods from plant sources have most but not all of the types of amino acids we need. (Learn more about amino acids here).
However, the amino acids missing from one plant food can be filled in by eating a plant food that does have those amino acids. If you are eating a variety of plant-foods you will get enough variety of amino acids to fill your needs. That’s why it is so important as a vegan, or someone who doesn’t eat many animal products to make sure you are eating your protein foods and also whole grains and vegetables.
Whole grains and vegetables have a small amount of protein that will help you meet your protein needs, both the amount and types of amino acids you need. You don’t need to keep track of which amino acids you are eating, just make sure you are eating a variety of plant-proteins, whole grains, and vegetables. This also helps makes sure you get enough of other nutrients, like calcium and iron, that are less abundant in plant foods than animal foods.
As far as the amount of plant-based protein you need to eat, the amounts of protein to eat are the same, (read this post about how much protein to eat) but the volume may be higher. This is because the plant foods that provide protein also contain more carbohydrates, fiber, and water than most animal proteins.
For example, to get the same amount of protein as 1 oz of meat, you would need to eat about 1/2 cup cooked beans, 1/2 cup cooked lentils, 1/4 cup nuts, or about 2 oz tofu. The protein needs are the same, but the physical portion size is larger. However, along with the protein, you will usually be getting carbohydrates, protein, water, and other nutrients.
In addition, some of the nutrients that are a concern for eating too many animal proteins (like saturated fat and sodium) are naturally low in plant-based protein, so you rarely need to worry about eating too much plant-based protein. The exception would be meat substitutes, or other substitute products, which are often high in sodium or less healthy fats- always check the package.
The main takeaway: your protein needs are the same regardless of where your protein comes from, but if you eat only plants make sure you are eating a variety of plant-proteins, whole grains, and vegetables.
If you want more ideas for plant-based meals and recipes, check out Marisa Moore, RDN, a fellow dietitian who posts mostly vegetarian (and often vegan) recipes or Kate of Cookie and Kate, a resource I have used many times for plant-based recipes. I also have a NEW vegan/vegetarian meal plan you can purchase as an instant download here.
There are many many great resources out there, these are just a few I’ve been enjoying lately.
Read about which foods are considered protein foods here. Read about protein and amino acids here.
As always, this post is meant to be informative and educational and is not a prescription or recommendation for you as I cannot know your individual situation and needs. If you have concerns about your protein intake and want a specific recommendation, speak with a dietitian!
My goal in writing these blogs is to give you practical, easy to understand, not overwhelming nutrition information. Breaking down how to eat protein has been more difficult than I expected because there are so many different opinions about what the best amount of protein to eat is.
While this can be confusing and overwhelming, my takeaway for you is this: there is a wide range of protein intake that can be healthy. The amount of protein you eat can be flexible and for the most part can be adjusted to your preferences. (It is harder to get it wrong than a lot of people would like you to think it is.)
Two fast and easy ways to know how much protein to eat:
MyPlate is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommended eating pattern. It isn’t perfect, but if about 1/4 of what you eat is protein food, you will most likely get enough protein – pretty easy to visualize if most of your meals are eaten on a plate.
If you only eat plant protein (vegans, and maybe some vegetarians), this still applies, but it is especially important for you to make sure you eat plenty of whole grains and vegetables as well. Keep reading here, but check out this post next.
Another super quick and easy method is to aim for about a palm-sized serving of protein foods with each meal. I like this method because it scales to the size of each person. A large person (who will need more protein) generally has a larger hand size. A tiny toddler (who needs less protein) has a tiny palm.
These two illustrations are also helpful because there is some research showing that eating your protein throughout the day (with each meal) is more beneficial than eating it all at once. (As your body uses protein throughout the day for many many purposes)
Now, as I said above, the amount of protein in a healthy diet can be very flexible, so you can eat more protein than this and totally still be healthy, as long as you aren’t excluding other necessary foods.
Do you like to do math and want to calculate the amount of protein you need? This section is for you.
(If you don’t like math, just skip to the next section 🙂 )
The minimum amount of protein required to prevent loss of lean body mass (muscle) in adults with no physical activity is generally calculated by dietitians as 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. (0.8g protein x kg of body weight). Factoring in a minimal amount of physical activity raises needs to about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight. In case you don’t feel like converting kilos to pounds, this works out to about 0.45g of protein per pound of body weight. If someone is critically ill, more active, or pregnant, this amount could increase, up to 2.0g/kg.
In terms of actual food, 1g per kg works out to about 1 oz of “meat equivalents” per 15 lbs of body weight. This is a rough estimate best suited to finding the base amount of protein you should eat. If you are concerned about your protein intake, or have questions, consult a dietitian! (I know I said it before – but it’s important! Also that’s what dietitians are here for!)
1 oz “meat equivalent =
1 oz meat, poultry or fish – about matchbox-sized
About 7g protein=
1 8-oz glass of cow milk or soy milk*
1 oz cheese – about thumb sized
1/2 cup beans or lentils
1/4 cup or 1 oz nuts or seeds
2 Tbsp peanut butter or other nut butter
1/4 cup Greek yogurt or 1 cup regular yogurt (check the label)
2 oz tofu
*almond milk, rice milk, and other alternative milks generally have less protein, check the label.
Whole grains and vegetables also contribute a small amount of protein (2-3g per serving)
There are some people who believe that everyone should eat more than this amount, and there are studies showing benefits of higher protein intake – such as improved muscle maintenance and function in older adults (1-1.2 g per kg body weight), improved satiety, and improved blood glucose control, among other things. Most people can eat up to 2g protein per kilogram of body weight without problems (those with chronic kidney disease would be an exception).
For some perspective, The Institute of Medicine recommends 10-35% of calories come from protein. For a 2000 calorie diet (which is the one used to calculate Nutrition Facts on labels), that is between 50 and 175 g of protein, or between 7 and 25 1-oz “meat equivalents”. Quite a large window. If 10-35% of your calories come from protein foods and you are above the 1g per kg minimum, you will probably be fine. Of course, (yes I’m going to say it again) if you have concerns, speak with a registered dietitian.
What happens if you don’t eat enough protein?
Too little protein intake results in a loss of lean body mass (muscle) because your body will break down the protein it is already carrying (muscle) to maintain its function. That’s why it is important that you are eating at least the minimum that your body needs. See this post for more information about how protein is used in your body.
Can you eat too much protein?
Yes. But if you don’t have a specific condition that would make it directly harmful, harm from eating too much protein is much more likely to be from two other causes:
1. Not eating enough from other food groups, like fruits, vegetables, and grains because of eating so much protein. This might mean missing out on important nutrients like vitamin C or fiber that come from those other food groups. This is especially likely when eating only animal protein foods.
2. Getting too much of the other nutrients that are often present in protein-rich foods. For example, cheese is high in saturated fat and sodium, which can be harmful for blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Many processed meats are very high in sodium and saturated fat as well. Again, this is more likely to be a concern with animal protein foods.
Extremely high protein intake can be harmful to the kidneys, however this is usually only in extremely high intake (like more than 2.0g/kg) over a long period of time. If you are getting most of your protein from foods, incorporating your other food groups, not taking excessive protein supplements, and don’t have any medical conditions, you are unlikely to be harmed by eating too much protein. Again, if you are concerned that you may be eating too much protein, consult a dietitian.
If you eat a lot of protein, will it make your muscles grow automatically?. No
If you aren’t exercising (or growing, or using steroids) to stimulate muscle growth, that extra protein will just be used for energy or stored as fat. See this post if you want more information about how this works.
Can you eat as much protein as you want without gaining weight? No
If you eat more protein than your body needs for its building and energy needs, it will still be converted to fat, just like any other food. See this post if you have more questions.
However, diets that allow unlimited protein (and limit carbohydrates or fats) have been shown to be helpful for weight loss. So why is this?
Protein tends to be more satisfying than carbohydrates or fats, so the thought is that eating more protein than other food groups makes you “full” faster and so limits the total amount you end up eating, resulting in weight loss.
So protein isn’t a magical weight loss food. But if it helps you eat less and still be satisfied, then it may help you lose weight (and as long as you are getting all the other nutrients you need, that’s fine).
What if I don’t eat meat? What about plant-based proteins?
Plant-based protein post coming next week! (I tried to fit it all in one post but it was too long!)
What other questions do you have about protein? Leave me a comment!