The Perks of Protein

If you've ever been hit with the 3 p.m. sleepies (and who hasn't?), you may have been tempted to head to the nearest coffee bar for a caffeine infusion. But while java will give you a jolt, you have other pick-me-up options that may be less jarring to your system. Consider forgoing the caffeine for a protein-rich snack.

Why does protein rev us up? Our bodies contain cells known as orexin neurons that control our feelings of energy and wakefulness. Scientists at the University of Cambridge in England conducted experiments on mice and found that foods containing glucose muted the orexin neurons' function while amino acids (the building blocks of protein) stimulated the orexin neurons. This explains why a carb-heavy lunch can cause you to start yawning shortly afterward while a protein-rich meal leaves you feeling lighter and more alert.

If you overdo the pasta at lunchtime and find yourself slumped over your desk mid-afternoon, here are some protein-based snacks that can snap you out of your lethargy:

  • Mini veggie wrap. A small whole-wheat tortilla can be filled with hummus, black beans, and chopped vegetables.
  • Power smoothie. Blend protein-rich Greek yogurt with berries and a dollop of honey.
  • Edamame. These easy-to-eat soybeans are an Asian staple. Roast with a little oil and salt or boil and pop them right out of their casings.
  • Trail mix. Nuts are an easy, portable snack that's full of protein. Dried fruit adds a little sweetness.
  • Hard-boiled egg. Eggs are not just for breakfast. Keep a couple handy to munch on midday with a little salt and pepper. Or mash them up with low-fat mayo and spread on half a whole-wheat bagel.
  • Cottage cheese. This staid diet staple can be jazzed up with cinnamon and a little sweetener, or fruit and nuts. Put a scoop on a small baked potato and top with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese for a savory treat.
  • Turkey. If you haven't carved a bird recently, slices of lunch meat will do. Roll them up in a whole-wheat tortilla and salsa for a Mexican-inspired wrap or put them between two large lettuce leaves for a low-carb treat.
  • Steak. You don't have to tuck into a four-course meal to enjoy the benefits of red meat. Dice up some dinner leftovers, bring a few toothpicks, and you've got the perfect afternoon snack.



Kamani M M, Apergis-Schoute J, Adamantidis A, Jensen L T, de Lecea L, Fugger L, Burdakov D (2011). Activation of Central Orexin/Hypocretin Neurons by Dietary Amino Acids. Neuron, 72(4), 616-629

American Dietetic Association,