At the start of the year, I signed up for an eight-week group fitness challenge to stay motivated and active during the winter.

My first week of fitness classes was tough. Really tough. By Friday, my legs refused to do another squat. After a particularly intense set of tricep dips, I visited a new restaurant a few days later, and it hurt to pick up a cheeseburger. No kidding. Talk about calorie control!

Our group fitness instructor reminds us to eat protein after class for muscle recovery. It got me thinking about a conversation I had a while ago with the folks at the Iowa Beef Industry Council when they helped launch the 30-Day Protein Challenge.

The challenge encourages participants to spread out their protein intake throughout the day, to about 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal, instead of what most people do: eat one protein-heavy meal in the evening.

Out of curiosity, I started tracking my meals and snacks on the MyFitnessPal app to see how much protein I eat at every meal. The results were surprising.

I discovered that most mornings, and sometimes at lunch, I don’t get close to the recommended 25 to 30 grams of protein per meal. This probably explains why my stomach is rumbling by 9 a.m.

There’s also a lot of interesting research about the health benefits of protein in the diet. Studies show that protein helps prevent muscle loss, which is especially important for those of us who are 40 and older, when our bodies start losing muscle.

And although I’m seeing a lot of plant-based protein alternatives, such as pea-protein drinks, new research shows that animal-based proteins are especially beneficial to our health.

High-quality, or "complete," proteins found in animal-based foods, such as beef, pork, poultry, eggs and dairy, contain all the essential amino acids and are easily digestible.

Most plant-based proteins are "incomplete" proteins because they lack one or more essential amino acids and are less digestible.

Since my goal in signing up for the fitness challenge was to get leaner and build muscle, I’ve started adding more protein to my breakfasts.

I’m not much of a breakfast eater, but I have found that I enjoy a hard-boiled egg or a scrambled egg mug in the morning.

Jimmy Dean turkey sausage sandwiches are also high in protein, and they are made in Iowa, which is a plus if you’re a locavore like me.

Beef jerky, Greek yogurt and string cheese all make great, protein-rich snacks. And don’t forget smoothies and oatmeal made with milk, which has a higher protein content than nut-based beverages.

So take the protein challenge, enjoy an egg and a glass of milk for breakfast tomorrow and see how much more energetic you feel in the morning. A few tricep dips and a cheeseburger are optional, but highly recommended.

By Teresa Bjork. Teresa is Iowa Farm Bureau's senior features writer.