Protein: Muscle builder or bust

Protein is hailed as the king, the star that takes center stage at meals. For much of our history and even today, it seems as if a meal is not complete without meat, fish, or poultry – that slab of animal flesh. This is obvious when I watch the reality show Top Chef – as the chefs are off and running to compete in the next challenge, they are often seen grabbing the “protein” first and then the rest of the ingredients are chosen to highlight that.



Why have meat, fish, and poultry (MFP) been elevated to star status? We seem to enjoy eating it as much as we enjoy watching it being cooked since the typical American diet provides twice as much protein as we require. Out of the three macronutrients (carbohydrate, protein and fat) protein is needed in the smallest quantity per calories, only 20% of our daily calories. Remember that protein is found in more than just MFP. The other animal sources of protein include milk, dairy foods and eggs and the plant sources of protein are vegetables, grains, dried beans and peas (legumes), and nuts and seeds.

There are a couple of reasons why MFP foods have taken center stage for so long. One is that MFP as well as milk, dairy foods and eggs are considered high biological value protein foods. What this means is that they are ‘complete’ proteins, providing all the ‘essential’ amino acids needed by our bodies to perform a variety of important functions. There are a total of twenty amino acids which are the building blocks of all protein molecules. Of those twenty, nine are considered essential – they must be provided by our diet since our bodies cannot make them. The other eleven amino acids are equally important yet they can be metabolized from other foods in the diet.

Another reason for the elevated status of MFP is that they are a source of ‘heme’ iron. Heme, from hemoglobin in red blood cells, is found only in animals. Another source of iron, nonheme, is found in plant foods such as dried beans and peas as well as grain products enriched or fortified with iron. Heme iron from animal flesh is better absorbed and utilized by the body than nonheme iron. Iron is a mineral that your body uses to transport and metabolize oxygen and is vital for growth. There does seem to be something so primal and satisfying about eating meat, think of the smell of meat sizzling on a grill. When I was a little girl I would watch my mom make meatballs and before she put them in the pan to cook, she would sprinkle salt on a small piece of the raw mixture and give me a taste – so delicious! To this day, I love raw meat.

While high biological value protein easily provides nutrients needed for health, there can be a down side. The marbling in higher fat cuts of beef and pork, the skin on poultry and the fat in whole, 2% and 1% milks and yogurts, high fat and reduced fat cheeses and eggs provide varying amounts of saturated fats and cholesterol. Leading health organizations have shown that foods higher in saturated fats and cholesterol are linked to heart disease and are rarely Guiding Stars-worthy. High biological value protein foods that do get stars include lean beef and pork, skinless poultry, fish and low-fat and fat-free milks, yogurts, and cheeses. Enjoying these starred foods in your diet will provide you with a wealth of nutrients.


Vegetarianism is an approach that many have taken to limiting or eliminating MFP and high biological value protein foods. It is possible to get complete proteins by pairing foods from plant sources so that the amino acid compositions complement each other since these foods do not provide complete proteins when eaten alone.

Complementary pairings include:

  • Grains and legumes
  • Legumes and nuts
  • Legumes and seeds
  • Nuts/seeds and legumes



Legumes are dried beans and peas such as split peas, lentils, garbanzo (chick peas), and black, pinto, kidney and navy beans. Peanuts and soybeans are also considered legumes. Soy comes in lots of different forms – tofu, tempeh, soy milk, soy nuts, etc. Nuts include walnuts, almonds, cashews and pecans. Seeds to include are sesame, pumpkin and sunflower. Butters of nuts, seeds and legumes can also be used to complement proteins – peanut butter, sesame seed paste aka tahini, and nut butters.

Dried Beans

Some easy to make examples of grain and legume pairings are:

(remember to use whole grains!)

  • rice and beans
  • whole grain tortillas and beans
  • whole wheat bread topped with peanut butter
  • brown rice and tofu
  • whole wheat pita bread stuffed with hummus


And finally, a word about building muscle and protein intake. What builds and strengthens skeletal muscle is the work performed by that muscle. Eating a healthy and balanced diet that includes the lean protein foods mentioned above will help keep you fit. One recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (1 kg = 2.2 lb) body weight per day. For a 180 pound male (82 kg), this translates to 65 grams of protein or about 2 to 4 ounces of lean meat (1 ounce = 28 grams). This is a piece of meat about the size of the palm of your hand. There is no evidence that adding more protein to your diet will increase the strength or size of skeletal muscle. There may be increased need for protein in circumstances such as during pregnancy, lactation, wound healing and endurance training which can be met through dietary intake.

Stay tuned for my next blog post on Fats: The good, the bad and the yummy.

About our Nutrition Expert

Lori Kaley MS, RD, LD, MSB is a member of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel. Lori has 30 years of combined experience working in healthcare and public health creating policies and environments to help families and children have access to healthy foods and beverages. She is currently Policy Associate at the University of Southern Maine’s Muskie School of Public Service.

Lori’s greatest achievement and joy has been in raising her three daughters to be healthy and productive young adults, each with their own particular love of food, cooking and being physically active. Lori’s passion for nutritional community outreach has been a cornerstone of the Guiding Stars Scientific Advisory Panel. Lori regularly contributes to the Guiding Stars blog.