Is it a protein source?

what will add protein to your dietMy clients know this “game” well, especially my vegetarians (no slight intended towards my plant people – I was a vegetarian for 23 years, and at times a vegan and a raw vegan): is it a protein source?

When we get to Step 2 of talking about food and try to balance macronutrients (carbs, fat, and protein), most of my clients find that they’re coming in a little short on protein and overdoing it on the carbs, which not only keeps them from achieving the look or numbers that they’re after, but also cheats them out of energy they need for their day.  And then they tell me what they’re eating for protein….

  • Nuts
  • Beans
  • Cheese
  • Bacon
  • Milk
  • Smoothies
  • Protein Bars

…and I have to be the nutrition grinch and tell them that none of these foods are really protein sources.

Figuring Out if it’s a Protein Source

We’re going to have to cozy up to the Nutrition Facts label and see if a food is primarily made of protein or not.  Don’t worry – I’ve highlighted the parts that we need to look at to figure out protein stats – I know there’s a lot of info on these labels!  Let’s consider almonds…

almonds nutrition fat protein good to eat


…we see that they’re half fat – 14 out of 28 grams in this sample size – and that the other half is equally split between protein and carbs.  So, do you get protein from almonds?  Yes, but you primarily get fat, so almonds are better considered a source of healthy fats.

Let’s check out lentils…

lentils protein carbohydrates good to eat weight loss

…in this serving, there are more than twice as many grams of carbs as there are protein.  So, do you get protein from lentils?  Yes, but you primarily get carbs, so lentils are better considered a healthy source of carbs and fiber.

Finally, let’s check tofu (though there are many preparations of tofu, so check the label on the one that you’re buying)…

tofu protein fat good to eat

…in this serving, protein is the dominant nutrient.  Technically, you will get more calories from fat than from protein with this tofu, because fat has 9 calories per gram and protein has only 4; 6 grams of fat x 9 calories per gram = 54 calories from fat, while 10 grams of protein x 4 calories per gram = 40 calories…but we could probably still consider this a protein source, just one that’s relatively high in fat.

Totally confused?

A great place to start is to check the nutrition labels of your foods and make sure that the foods you consider to be protein sources have protein as their dominant macronutrient – that is, that the grams of protein are higher than the grams of fat or carbs.  Just because a food isn’t a protein source doesn’t mean you can’t eat it!  It just might mean that you have to reclassify it.  And if you need a place to start, here’s a starter list of protein sources to get you going.

Gradual changes are lasting changes, so be patient while you find a balance of foods that works well for you and your goals.  In the meantime, go shock your friends and co-workers with your new protein knowledge!

What about protein shakes?

What about them?  My recommendations for supplementing with a protein shake – and which ones to consider based on quality, price, ingredients, and protein content – are tailored to each of my clients, but in general I recommend trying to get your protein from food before worrying about supplementation.  Shakes can offer great convenience and a few clever recipe hacks, but they should almost never make up more than 30g of your protein for any given day.

What about protein bars/protein cereals/foods that say they’re a great source of protein on the front of the package?

nutrition label learn to readYou will have to be a nutrition label sleuth to know if they are telling the truth – labeling legislation allows manufacturers to use the “excellent source of protein” claim on the front of the package based on comparison to an accepted reference food.

Don’t panic – in plain English, this means that if 8oz of coffee typically contains 0 grams of protein, I can make a coffee drink that is an “excellent source of protein” even if it contains only 10 grams of protein (and regardless of how many carbohydrates I pack it with) because 10 grams is more than 0 grams. In other words, you can not rely on the “excellent source of protein” marketing claim.

One last example – Special K Protein Bars contain 12g of protein (48 calories), 4.5g of fat (41 calories), and 23g of carbs (92 calories). Despite their name, these are not primarily protein!  (The protein also comes from soy protein isolate, which may or may not be right for your health.)  Sleuth with confidence and look out for “protein” foods that are too good to be true – brownies and potato chips, even with a sprinkle of protein powder, are still brownies and potato chips.


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