Carbs, what are they good for?

Nutrition basics: Carbs – short for carbohydrates
different types of italian macaroni
Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

So, what are carbs good for? What even are carbs?

What are carbs good for?

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a main source of energy for the body.

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats), that our bodies break down into energy. This energy is what we measure with calories. So along with protein and fats, carbohydrates are where we get calories to use for energy.

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the brain, most of the time.

Carbohydrates are the quickest available form of energy

Carbohydrates, stored in our muscles in the form of glycogen, are an easily available energy source during exercise

Carbohydrates that are not used for energy can be stored as fat for later use.

Different types of carbohydrates break down at different rates and so can give us energy at different speeds

Some carbohydrates act as food for the bacteria that live in our digestive system. Choosing certain types of carbohydrates over others helps keep these bacteria (and us) healthier.

What even are carbohydrates?

Chemically

[This explanation is for the science nerds. Skip ahead if you want more practical definitions]

Carbohydrates are combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules in the ratio of 1:2:1 (carbon + H2O/water/hydro=carbohydrate for you word nerds).

We get energy from these molecules when they go through a process called cellular respiration (which nutrition students spend A LOT of time memorizing for how little we use it in day to day nutrition practice). This process requires oxygen and produces energy, carbon dioxide, and water. This one of the main reasons we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide and water by the way.

hand illustrated guide showin interaction between photosynthesis, cellular respiration
Drawn by me as a student. I’m proud enough of this study aid that it’s been on my office wall for years.

Practically

The carbohydrates we eat come in three forms: sugars, starches, and fibers.

Sugars can come in naturally occurring forms like in fruit, milk (lactose), vegetables, honey, grains, etc. They can can also be refined and added to foods (white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, agave, etc.). This is the quickest to digest form of energy.

There are lots of types of starches but these are the carbohydrates we mainly get from foods like grains, starchy veggies (potato, corn, cassava, sweet potato), seeds, legumes. These can be in the form of breads, pastries, cereals, porridges, noodles, doughs – carbohydrates and starches are very versatile!

Fiber is a mostly indigestible carbohydrate that we actually don’t break down well into energy, but gives us lots of other health benefits (including feeding good bacteria in the digestive system). Lots of foods have fiber, including fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and beans.

chocolate cereal on white bowl near glass of milk
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com – Many of us think of high fiber cereals or bran but fiber is present in many foods!

Many foods that contain carbohydrates contain a combination of sugar, starch and/or fiber.

When people in general talk about carbs, they often mean different things. Some people just mean bread or pastries. Other people mean foods made with flour: bread, pasta, crackers, cereal. Some people mean all starchy foods and sweets: bread, rice, potatoes, tortillas, cookies. Some people mean any foods that contain any significant amount of carbohydrates at all – they include fruits and many veggies in this list (especially common when following a keto diet)

When dietitians talk about carbohydrates, we usually just mean a category of foods that are rich in carbohydrates. Usually this means: fruits, milk, starchy foods, sweets, sweet drinks, etc. But it is always a good idea to clarify. Most of us aren’t talking about molecules when we talk about what we eat.

I always have to be careful when I am speaking with a client about carbs that we are thinking of them same foods. If not, that’s ok – we just need to make sure we have the same understanding.

Are carbs bad?

No. See: what are carbs good for?

Are there a wide variety of carbohydrate foods with a wide variety of nutritional benefits and/or lack of benefits?

Yes. A can of Coke is very different than an apple is very different than a loaf of sourdough is very different from a pot of beans. All of these foods provide carbohydrates.

Do I need to restrict carbs? How much carbs should I eat?

This is a great question to discuss with a dietitian who can go over your individual needs with you. They can also determine if there are specific types of carbohydrate-rich foods that might be a better fit for you than others. There are many different diet patterns as far as carbohydrates go that are healthy options – telling you what pattern is right for you is NOT within the scope of this article.

TL;DR on Carbohydrates:

  • Carbohydrates are good for energy and to feed our gut bacteria
  • Carbohydrates come in three forms: sugar, starches, and fiber
  • There are a variety of foods rich in carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains. Different foods have different benefits and effects on the body
  • Talk to a dietitian if you need help figuring out how much carbohydrate or what type of carbohydrate you need.

If you’ve made it to the end of this article, here’s a reward. Crabohydrates is a common typo for me, so I finally illustrated it.

various carbohydrates but drawn as if they were crabs. (orange crab, crusty bread crab, cupcake hermit crab, ugly potater crab, le petit crabe croissant, tiny grain of rice crab)
Crabohydrates

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

How to stay more hydrated in the winter

I know for me (and for many people) it’s harder to stay hydrated in the winter. I don’t feel as thirsty. I’m not outside in the sun or getting as warm. Drinking cool or cold water doesn’t sound as refreshing as on a hot summer day.

Plus, the air is often drier due to the season and due to being inside with the heat on – so we might even need a little more hydrate than normal.

If that sounds like you, here are some ways to make winter hydration easier!

  • Drink decaf or noncaffeinated tea or coffee. The liquids in these hot drinks are still hydrating.
  • Drink herbal or other types of tea! Lemon, ginger, hibiscus, mint, chamomile, lavender – there are so many to choose from!
  • Drink hot or warm water – add a little lemon or other flavoring if you feel like the taste of hot water is weird
  • Regular coffee or tea – there is some thought that the caffeine in these drinks is actually dehydrating due to its diuretic effects, but research shows that in general the overall effect is hydrating, especially if you are drinking in moderate amounts and not more than you are used to. (Read about health benefits of coffee here)
  • Hot chocolate or other hot milk beverages like chai – these beverages can also provide extra nutrition like calcium, vitamin D, protein, potassium, etc.
  • Eat more soup! The liquid in soup can still hydrate you even if it’s not a drink! You can also drink broth – just choose one with a lower sodium content if you can.
  • Make sure you are still eating your fruits and veggies! Fruits and veggies have a high water content and can take care of a good portion of our total fluid needs for the day!
  • Make time to hydrate. Having a little tea or coffee break can be a nice cozy part of a cold day and can be a welcome break from work or studying.
  • If it helps, count your fluid intake. Just doing this for a few days might help you realize what times of day you need to add in fluids.
  • If you still like cold drinks in winter, enjoy!

How do you know if you are hydrated enough? Read this post for more information

How do you stay hydrated when it’s cold outside?

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

How much water do I actually need to drink?

How much water do you actually need to drink? Recommendations vary widely. I’m sure you’ve heard 8 glasses of water per day. I’m sure you’ve also heard 1 gallon of water per day, although I feel like that is more promoted by influencers selling giant water bottles.

The reality is – the amount of water you need to drink varies.

The amount of water you will need to drink is different than someone else and will also probably change day to day

The amount of water you need to drink can depend on:

  • how old you are
  • what size you are
  • what your body composition is
  • how hot it is
  • how much salt you eat
  • how much water you are losing based on your activity level
  • how much you sweat
  • how much water you lose through the air, which depends on your climate (both geographically and based on climate control like A/C or heating)
  • how much water you get from other drinks or food
  • if you are breastfeeding or pregnant
  • if you have certain medical conditions

So, how do you tell if you are drinking enough??

The best way to tell if you are hydrated is that your urine is light-colored. If it’s dark, or even very yellow, drink more. This gauge is helpful because it will automatically adjust depending on the above factors.

It’s also important to hydrate consistently throughout the day because we can’t store water. We are not camels. If you drink your whole “recommended amount” of water at the beginning of the day and then nothing during the rest of the day, you will not be well hydrated. (And the color of your urine will reflect this)

Can you drink too much water? Yes, but it is difficult. Our bodies are pretty good about keeping fluid balance correct by getting rid of extra water.

Drinking too much water can be dangerous, but in healthy people without kidney problems this is rare and usually only will happen if you drink extremely large amounts of water in a very short amount of time or if you have lost a LOT of fluid and electrolytes recently – like during a marathon or if someone is rehydrating after severe dehydration.

Most of the time, erring on the side of more water (unless you have a fluid restriction from your doctor) is the way to go. Especially if you are drinking gradually as you go through the day.

The bottom line: drink enough water and other fluids throughout the day so that your urine is light colored, most of the time

Obviously, if you have more specific instructions from your doctor, dietitian, or other health professional, follow those, but if you are just looking for general guidance, that’s the way to go!

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

Why I write about nutrition basics

I write posts about Nutrition Basics because nutrition terms get thrown around a lot. That can make words like calories, fat, protein, etc. seem familiar. It also means we can say the same words but be thinking of different concepts!

I write posts about Nutrition Basics because it’s important to me that my audience and I are thinking of the same things when I say protein, or carbs, etc.

I also write these posts because I want them in my voice. I want you to hear what I think and believe about carbs, or protein, or sugar, for example, and just to explain in simple terms what those things mean, with a little bit of basic background.

That way when I say, add some healthy carbs, or make sure you have enough calories! you know what that means.

Here are some nutrition basics I’ve written so far:

Protein

What is protein?

A list of protein foods
How much protein should you eat?

Plant-based protein

Hydration

How much water do I actually need to drink?

More to come!

Carbohydrates

Carbs, what are they good for?

What nutrition basics do you want me to write about? Add your suggestion to the comments or send me a message!

New year, new you? Try one small habit, not two

Click here if you want to watch/listen instead of reading

My New Year’s Resolution is to start writing titles that sound like Dr. Seuss books.

Haha not really.

I know there will be approximately 70,000 blog posts or articles about making New Year’s resolutions and why you should or shouldn’t, etc. I’m not here to convince you about whether you should make a resolution or not.

What I do know is that the beginning of a new year causes lots of people to think about goals and aspirations. And a lot of those goals will be related to nutrition, so I’m here to tell you what I know about nutrition goals.

Nutrition goals are hard.

Changing anything is hard. If you’re trying to start doing something that you’re not used to doing, it’s going to be hard. If you’re trying to stop doing something you’re used to doing, it’s going to be hard. It’s just the nature of making changes.

There are surely psychological and behavioral studies that will explain the how and why it’s hard, but look – you probably know that from experience. I know it from my own experience and from the experience of working with probably thousands of people trying to make nutrition changes.

So here’s two things I want you to remember:

Start small

Choose 1 or 2 small things that you are confident you can do. And by confident I mean, you are like 95% sure that you will do it. (I know I said not 2 in the title, but it just rhymed, just don’t choose too many) Something that even seems a little bit too easy is fine, especially if you are just starting this change.

If you have a big goal like “eat healthier” or “lower my cholesterol” or “cook at home more” or “run a 5k” – that’s good! You set those big goals as your end game and use them to decide what your small goals are.

Choose small goals that will move you toward your big goal.

For example:

  • Eat healthier -> eat a fruit with breakfast every day
  • Lower my cholesterol -> find a whole grain bread you like to eat instead of white bread
  • Cook at home more -> Find two recipes that you can make easily and wouldn’t mind eating once a week (or talk to someone about planning meals for you so you don’t even have to think about it)
  • Run a 5k -> Commit to walking 10 minutes 3 days per week

Making these small goals gives you a hit of accomplishment along the way, before you make it to that long term goal. Kind of like a save point in a video game. This gives you more confidence and motivation to make new goals (a cycle of accomplishment) instead of making large unrealistic goals and feeling bad when you don’t reach them (a cycle of defeat)

There are lots more people who have written more about starting small/achievable goals; I really like how the Lazy Genius explains it here

Give yourself credit

Remember what I said just a few paragraphs ago? Making changes is hard. So give yourself credit when you’ve made a change, even if it’s a small one!

Did you hear that?

Give yourself credit for making even a small change!

If you eat a fruit with breakfast most days when you didn’t before, or you now cook two meals at home per week instead of one – good for you! You made a change! You are progressing in the direction you want to go.

If you’ve made progress – you eat more veggies, you drink less soda, you walk more often than you used to – give yourself a sticker*, or a pat on the back, or a little dance in your kitchen, whatever helps you celebrate

*The stickers thing is working for me right now. It gives me a small bit of childlike delight when I can mark that I exercised or completed a blog post with a pretty sticker hehehe

Then take that celebration energy and decide the next change you want to make!


Sometimes knowing what small steps to start with can be difficult – this is where a professional can be helpful. A good dietitian (or other professional if your goal isn’t nutrition related), can help you figure out the first steps to take to reach your big goal.

If your goals are related to meal planning, prep, or cooking, I can help with that! I’d be happy to help you get those wins – click here if that sparks your interest

If you are looking for nutrition help and advice in general (not related to meal planning, etc.), you can find a dietitian near you here

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

What does a dietitian – nutritionist eat? The truth.

“so what do you eat?”

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.

Protein source with each meal.

Benefits of protein with each meal

  • Personally, I feel full longer and have better energy between meals if I eat some protein.
  • Helps ensure I get enough protein during the day.
  • Spreading protein through the day has been shown to be helpful in building and maintaining muscle mass
  • Many foods that are sources of protein are also important sources of other essential nutrients, like iron, calcium, or B-vitamins.

Vary sources of protein, and include plant-based proteins frequently.

Learn more about protein , and specifically plant-based protein

Benefits of varying protein

  • Gain the different benefits of different types of protein (e.g. omega-3 fatty acids in fish)
  • Spreads out the drawbacks of different types of protein (e.g. high sodium content of cheese)
  • Keep it interesting
  • Eating more plant proteins generally reduces cost of meals and environmental impact

Keep nutrient-dense snacks around.

So when I’m hungry between meals I have something available to eat that will help provide me with more nutrients and energy as well as satisfy my hunger.

Learn more about what I think about snacks.

Some snacks that I like to have around:

  • Roasted salted almonds
  • Roasted salted mixed nuts
  • Yogurt
  • Dark chocolate
  • Cheese
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Hummus
  • Carrots
  • Popcorn
  • Mandarin oranges/tangerines
  • Whole grain muffins
  • Dried fruit
  • Lara Bars (snack bar made with dried fruit and nuts)
  • Cottage cheese
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Peanut butter
  • Seaweed snacks

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.

Benefits of sweets/desserts

  • Delicious
  • 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!

What small thing can you start doing?

How to Lentils: Low-effort & low-cost plant protein

Before I tell you how I cook lentils, if you need reasons why you should eat lentils, here’s a list:

  1. Really nutritious*
  2. Really cheap
  3. As they are usually sold canned or dry, they keep for a long time
  4. Pretty environmentally friendly*
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 :/
  4. 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.
  5. Put the lentils and water in that pot along with a little salt.
  6. Put the pot on a stove burner or hotplate and cover with a lid.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.
  9. Taste, add more salt and other seasonings as needed.

Done.

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.

in case you prefer a video

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.

The good nutrition news about lentils:

1 cup of cooked lentils has:

  • 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?

Plant-Based Protein (Protein for vegans, vegetarians, or just people who like to eat a lot of plants)

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.

I also often post plant-based meal and snack ideas on my instagram @nutritionforrealhumans – feel free to follow 🙂

What other questions do you have about plant-based proteins? Or a plant-based diet? Or protein in general?

How much protein should you eat?

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.

Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images from Pixabay

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 egg
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.

Question time!

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!

Resources if you would like to learn more:

What is protein?

Plate full of protein foods: tofu, beans, nuts, shrimp, chicken, eggs

When dietitians speak about eating protein, or “proteins”, they usually mean eating foods like these, that have a lot of protein in them.

Image used with permission by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics

But what is protein actually? Proteins are large and complex molecules made out of different combinations of amino acids. Amino acids are like the LEGO blocks that make up proteins.

Amino acids combine in nearly endless ways to create nearly endless different types of protein. These proteins are the building blocks that make up animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, and humans.

Amino Acids

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Proteins

When we eat foods with protein, our bodies take apart the protein into the amino acids it’s made from (like you might take apart a LEGO structure) and use those amino acids to build new proteins in our bodies that become hair, skin, muscle, hormones, mitochondria, etc.

Our bodies use 20 different amino acids to build the proteins it needs. Nine of these amino acids we must get from the food we eat. The other eleven our bodies can manufacture, but we can also get them from food.

That’s why its so important to eat enough foods with protein in them, so our body has all the materials it needs to grow, maintain bones and muscles, make hormones and neurotransmitters, and heal itself, among many many other things.

Our bodies can also burn protein for energy. If we have enough protein for our building needs, our bodies take the extra protein and either burn it for energy or, if it already has enough energy, will store it as fat for future energy.

On the other hand, if we are not eating enough to meet our energy needs, (and especially if we are also not eating enough protein) our bodies will begin to break down the protein in our muscles to use for energy. Of course, it will also begin to break down stored fat, but most weight loss involves some muscle loss.

Now you know what protein is, but how should you eat it? How much should you eat? What are “lean” proteins? What are plant-based proteins?

Check back next week for the answers! Do you have other questions about protein? Leave it in the comments and I’ll try and incorporate it into next week’s post.

(Sorry, this wasn’t an intentional cliff hanger, it just seemed better to break it up rather than doing a super long post!)

If you want to see a list of foods that have protein, click here.