If your New Year’s goal is to get into the habit of working out, you might be wondering if you need to eat more protein. 

The best answer is perhaps not eating more protein, but spreading the protein you do eat throughout the day. Timing matters.

But first, how much protein do we need? The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, regardless of age or activity.

For a 150-pound person that would be 54.5 grams of protein; a 180-pound person would need 65.5 grams of protein. 

If you want to build muscle, you may want to look at consuming a little more protein: 1 gram per kilogram of body weight, or 68 grams for a 150-pound person and 81 grams for a 180-pound person.

The exact amount you need depends on several factors, such as age, weight and activity level.

Protein needs can be as much as 1.2 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of weight, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.

Not only is protein important for sculpting muscles, but it’s critical for preventing muscle loss that occurs naturally as we age — up to 1% a year after middle age sets in.

Losing muscle mass can have consequences of reduced mobility, increased risk of falls and decreased quality of life.

We know that muscles need protein to maintain their size and strength. If we don’t eat enough, especially later in life, our bodies will burn existing muscle tissue for fuel.

Too little protein can also mean it takes longer to rebuild damaged muscles.

It’s important to eat foods rich in protein to keep muscles strong and healthy, like meat, fish, dairy, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and soy foods.

It’s also important to consume protein at every meal. This allows the body to use protein from each meal to repair muscles and build lean mass.

A 2019 study in the journal Nutrients found that spreading protein throughout the day can increase muscle size and strength while reducing hunger.

The bottom line is nutrients — protein, carbohydrates and fat — become more important as we age and as we push our bodies to exercise.

Nutrient-rich foods are important in every meal to fuel our bodies and workouts. Aim for your meals to include protein, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean dairy. 

Q&A

Q: Can a Mediterranean diet improve physical fitness?

A: A review published in the journal Advances in Nutrition finds high adherence to the Mediterranean diet is associated with higher levels of physical fitness.

Other studies have shown that the Mediterranean diet has been associated with favorable health outcomes over the entire life span.

Hallmarks of the diet include antioxidant-rich ingredients such as olive oil, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish.

The authors of the study searched scientific literature for relevant studies as far back as 1972.

They found high Mediterranean diet adherence was associated with higher levels of cardiorespiratory fitness, musculoskeletal fitness and overall physical fitness in the entire adult population.

Baked Tilapia with Tomatoes and Feta

Here’s a recipe for baked tilapia with tomatoes and feta that fits into the Mediterranean diet plan — and offers plenty of protein.

Sometimes we hesitate to cook fish because we think it’s hard; this recipe is super easy and tastes great. It’s from Sonja and Alex Overhiser of acouplecooks.com, authors of Pretty Simple Cooking.

Ingredients

» 1 pint cherry tomatoes, sliced in half

» 1 large shallot, thinly sliced

» 3 garlic cloves, minced

» 1 small lemon, thinly sliced into rings

» 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

» ¾ teaspoon kosher salt

» 4-ounce block feta cheese

» 1½ pounds tilapia

» 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning

» 1 pinch red pepper flakes (optional)

» ½ teaspoon smoked paprika (or standard paprika)

» 2 tablespoons drained capers

» Finely chopped fresh parsley or basil, for garnish

» Fresh ground black pepper

Directions

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Chop the tomatoes, shallot, garlic and lemon. Place the chopped vegetables and lemon slices in the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and mix with 1 tablespoon olive oil, ¼ teaspoon salt, and fresh ground black pepper. Crumble the feta cheese into rough chunks and add it to the pan, tossing gently to combine.

Pat the tilapia dry. Rub it with 1 tablespoon olive oil and ½ teaspoon kosher salt, split between the filets. Place it on top of the vegetables and feta in the pan. Sprinkle fillets with the Italian seasoning and a few grinds fresh ground black pepper, then add the red pepper flakes and smoked paprika. Sprinkle the capers over the top.

Place the pan in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes (depending on the thickness of the fish), until the fish is flaky and the internal temperature is 145 degrees.

Garnish with chopped parsley and remove the lemon slices when serving.

Details

Serves 4

Per serving: 320 calories; 39.2 grams protein; 6.3 grams carbohydrates; 16.2 grams fat (6.3 grams saturated); 1.2 grams fiber; 3.7 grams sugars

Charlyn Fargo Ware

Charlyn Fargo Ware

Charlyn Fargo Ware is a registered dietitian with SIU School of Medicine in Springfield, Illinois. Contact her at charfarg@aol.com, and follow her on Twitter: @NutritionRd. The opinions expressed are her own.