One of the most significant changes I usually have to make to someone’s eating habits when working with new clients (besides managing calorie intake) is increasing the amount of protein in their diets. This is especially common with some of my female clients and it’s not unusual for me to more than double their current daily protein intake.
Hierarchy of Importance for Weight Loss
When, it comes to macros, my hierarchy of strictness goes like this (in descending order of importance):
- Don't exceed your daily calorie intake
- Don’t go below your daily protein intake
- Don’t exceed your daily fat intake
If you’re on pretty high calories, like someone in a lean-mass building (bulking) phase, getting enough protein is usually not an issue. However, if you’re on reduced calories, getting sufficient protein without exceeding your daily calorie intake takes a little more work and preparation.
Just eat high protein foods, right?
You might be eager to assume that just eating more high-protein foods will get you to daily protein levels without much hassle... you would be mistaken. While there are many foods that are high in protein, some of those provide protein with a much lower “total caloric value” than others, making them easier to fit into reduced calorie diets.
Protein per Calorie
I prefer to think of protein containing foods in terms of protein per calorie. With this in mind I created the following lists, which show the amount of calories provided by servings of food that provide exactly 25g of protein. Using servings with the same protein content allows for easy comparison of food based on the how many calories they provide along with the protein. Why 25g of protein? No reason in particular, I just consider it a good minimum level of protein to have per meal. All values were calculated using the USDA food database (one of my favorite nutrition-related resources). I highly recommend using it yourself to investigate the (many) possible protein sources that I haven't listed below.
Let’s start this off by looking at one of the most common protein sources in the diets of most people; meat, poultry and fish.
In the chart above, you can see that we have values for lean beef, standard beef mince (ground beef), chicken breast and salmon. As already mentioned each serving size provides exactly 25g of protein with the weight of the serving size at the bottom of the columns. The most important factor here is the calorie value per serving, shown in blue at the top of each column.
Chicken breast, commonly considered to be one of the “healthiest” sources of animal protein provides 25g of protein for only 133 calories. Pretty damn good right. The surprising thing is that lean beef (cuts such as “eye of the round”) is identical to chicken in both the amount of calories and fat for that same 25g portion of protein. This might surprise quiet a few people who would probably have considered all beef to be more calorific than chicken.
Well, if you look at the values for ground beef, we see a very different picture. With the same 25g of protein from ground beef, you also get a hefty 370 calories. That’s almost 3 times the value for lean beef or chicken breast. This all comes from the increased fat content of the standard ground beef (29g of fat versus 2.9g of fat in the lean beef). This just goes to show that not all meat is created equal. If your total calorie consumption for the day is relatively low, getting a lot of it from standard ground beef is not really an option as you would quickly run out of calories before you hit your protein goals.
25g of protein from salmon however comes with a reasonable 179 calories which is still higher than the lean beef or chicken but nowhere near as high as the ground beef. This is once again, due to the fat content of the salmon only in this case it provides an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Next, let’s look at some other common sources of protein in the standard diet that are suitable for vegetarians; dairy and eggs.
Now, there are some interesting points to be drawn from this list. Firstly you can see straight off that whey protein (in this case, whey protein isolate) is the least calorie-dense source of protein, providing only 104 calories per 25g portion of protein. It should be noted that this would be the case for most protein powders (casein, egg, soya, pea, rice etc.).
This is followed closely by egg whites (119 calories), which are virtually pure protein, and then by fat-free Greek yoghurt (145 calories, the extra calories coming from the sugars naturally found in milk). Whole eggs are significantly higher in calories (285) than egg whites as all the fat of an egg (along with most of its vitamins and minerals is stored in the yolk.
Cheddar cheese however is a bit of a calorific bomb, with an explosive 442 calories per 25g of protein. Once again, just like the ground beef, these extra calories come from the fat content of the cheese meaning it shouldn’t be relied on too much to help you hit your daily protein goals.
Finally, let’s look at some entirely plant-based and therefore vegan sources of protein.
It should be noted that both the lentil and quinoa samples here are “cooked” as both absorb water and therefore increase in weight significantly during cooking.
The least calorific of the vegan samples shown here is tofu (made from soy beans), which has a respectable 208 calories per 25g or protein, the extra calories coming mostly from the natural fat content of the soy. However, cooked lentils provide a hearty 322 calories but amazingly the so-called “super food” quinoa and equally popular almonds provide a whopping 682 and 684 calories, respectively. This comes from a mix of both carbs and fat with more carbs in the quinoa and more fat in the almonds. This would mean meeting your daily protein requirements from mostly quinoa or almonds would be very difficult indeed on a calorie-restricted diet.
Another very practical point that needs to be taken into consideration is the volume of food required to get 25g of protein from vegan sources of protein. In the examples here you can get that quantity of protein from 250g of tofu, which is a seriously huge block of soy cheese. 277g (1½ cups) of lentils is much more manageable but 568g (around 3 cups) of quinoa might leave you struggling to finish it. The almonds (118g) could be eaten pretty easily, however. Also, a vegan protein powder (such as soya, rice, pea, hemp etc.), as mentioned earlier, would be a much less calorific and less voluminous way of consuming the same quantity of protein.
I was a vegan for a time a number of years back and my only issue with the diet was the quantity of food I needed to eat to get sufficient protein from wholefood sources. I remember meals taking me quite a long time to finish due to all the beans, peas, lentils and tofu I ate (on top of the huge amount of fruit and vegetables I was consuming). A vegan protein powder would have made things a whole lot easier for me.
So, should I just get my protein from lean meats, egg whites and protein powders?
These lists simply serve to as very important reference to help you decide on the best ways to fit protein into your diet, especially if you’re trying to keep calories low. If you take anything away from this article it’s that you shouldn’t focus on one single source to fill your daily protein needs.
While I’m neither a vegan nor vegetarian, I might at most have one small serving of lean meat a day. The majority of my daily protein intake is met with legumes such as beans and lentils, eggs, wholegrains and by various protein powders.
It’s perfectly fine to include more calorie-dense protein sources, such as quinoa, in your diet as long as you supplement it with less calorie-dense sources such as tofu, protein powders or what ever suits your needs, so that you get the protein you need without going over calories.
Take for example:
- a female fitness competitor weighing 60kg
- who is losing weight for a competition
- on 1700 calories/day
- keeping her protein relatively high (2.3g/kg of body weight) in order to maintain muscle mass as she loses weight meaning she needs 138g/day of protein.
If she were to get all that protein exclusively from quinoa, for example, she would need to consume 3765 calories of food. Not only is this way more calories than she should be eating but it is also a ridiculous volume of quinoa and she would probably get really sick of it, really fast.
However, she could instead eat:
- 208 cals of tofu
- 322 cals of lentils
- 682 cals of quinoa (total 75g of protein)
- 262 cals of protein powder (vegetarian or vegan) (63g of protein)
This would provide her with all her daily protein along with plenty of carbs and fiber leaving her with 226 calories to spend on healthy fruits, vegetables and fat sources. This leads to a much more varied and satisfying diet. Playing around with the relative quantity of each protein source would leave her with more or less calories to use after her protein needs were met.
***This is an intentionally extreme example as I find extreme cases do a very good job of explaining concepts. Obviously, the majority of people reading this are not fitness competitors and don't need to diet to such extreme levels. The same principals, however, still apply to people who want to lose body fat while maintaining muscle mass.***
Variety is the spice of life
This article shouldn’t put you off using higher calorie protein sources. Rather, it should just make you aware that you shouldn't rely on them for all your protein needs.
For example, I would never rely exclusively on cheddar cheese to provide all my daily protein. It would be ridiculously high in calories and probably not particularly satiating. Does that mean I avoid cheddar entirely? Absolutely not! In fact, I use cheese regularly in my diet, in small quantities. Why?... because it’s delicious. A small amount of cheese adds a huge amount of flavor to food. Similarly, I don’t rely on nuts and seeds as my main protein source but often add them in small amounts to salads or oatmeal to improve the flavor and texture and to add fiber and fats.
Balance is important in life and this is readily obvious when it comes to diet. Having a varied and balanced diet not only makes it easier to get all your vitamins, minerals and nutrients but makes the diet far, far more enjoyable. Sounds like a good deal to me.
Eat well folks.
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Write a comment
Jo (Sunday, 27 February 2022 02:30)
Amazing read. Thank you
Jason (Saturday, 31 December 2022 06:31)
Thank you for this article. Calories to protein ratio is critical and you have laid this out wonderfully. This helps me to shoot for my protein intake goals without blowing my calorie budget. In the same way, I shoot for satisfying my hunger without blowing my calorie budget via volumetrics.