Get Lean With Protein

We're fired up about protein—in a good way. It's a calorie sizzler, an immunity booster and, well, basically the holy grail of a healthy, strong body. But you need to know how much to eat, and when, to get the benefits: too much or too little of the stuff can jeopardize your well-being. Learn how this wonder nutrient can help you burn more calories, even while sitting and reading this! Plus, find out the best pre- and post-workout foods.

MoreProtein: Pros, Cons and Confusion

Protein Demystified

Proteins are macromolecules made up of 20 different amino acids, compounds that help control hunger and build muscle, skin and more. Eleven of the acids are nonessential, meaning our body produces them, so we don't need to get them from food. The other nine are essential—we can't make them and must replenish our supply from one of two camps:

Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids and include animal products (meat, fish, dairy, eggs) as well as soybeans and quinoa.

MoreProtein Facts and Fallacies for Athletes

Incomplete proteins, as the name suggests, fall short. "Nuts, seeds and grains are all missing or low in the same essential amino acids," says Diane McKay, Ph.D., assistant professor of nutrition at Tufts University. "Legumes, fruit and veggies all lack other essential amino acids." Combine one food from each incomplete group and, voil?, full package. In an ideal world, you'd have complete protein at every meal to ensure all nine essential amino acids are there when you need them. But that's not always possible or even necessary. A quick rule of thumb: If you have only incomplete proteins at one meal, have complete ones the next time you eat.

More: Good Carbs, Good Protein, Good Fats

Best Food Combos for Complete Protein

Because a food cheat sheet is always handy, we did some easy, tasty matchmaking for you.
 

Incomplete

Protein

To Complete It...

Total

2 Tbsp
peanut butter

8 g

Spread on 1 whole-wheat English
muffin. Adds 6 g protein

14 g

1/2 cup uncooked
oatmeal

6 g

Cook with 1/2 cup skim milk; add 1 sliced
medium banana. Adds 5 g

11 g

1 oz walnuts

4 g

Mix with 1/2 cup part-skim ricotta,
4 g 1/4 cup chopped apple. Adds 14 g

18 g

1/2 cup cooked
whole-wheat
spaghetti

4 g

Cook with 1/4 cup cannellini beans, 1/2 cup
torn fresh spinach, 1/4 cup shredded
mozzarella, 2 teaspoons olive oil. Adds 12 g

16 g

1/2 cup cooked
quinoa

4 g

Quinoa is a complete protein, but you
have to eat a lot of it to get a decent dose
of protein-and the calories add up.
Toss it with 1/4 cup chickpeas. Adds 4 g

8 g

1/4 cup black
beans

4 g

Stuff beans and 2 tsp shredded
Mexican cheese inside an 8-inch whole-wheat
tortilla. Adds 8 g

12 g

1/2 cup
unsweetened
almond milk

1 g

Make a smoothie: Blend with 1/2 cup
nonfat plain Greek yogurt, 5 frozen
strawberries. Adds 12 g

13 g

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