If you’re anything like me, upon learning about the importance of protein in my diet, I found out two things. One, I wasn’t eating nearly enough protein; and two, it felt impossible to consume the advised amount daily. Similar to my exercise plans and programs, it is my desire to help the general population understand what the over-the-top science world is throwing at you and clean up the garbage the media is butchering for you. Here are the basics and how understanding protein in your diet can not only help you with strength gains and fat loss, but that achieving the right amount for your body and activity level aren’t impossible.
I consider myself a nutritional realist because while I do understand the progress and success you can make with relatively strict dietary guidelines, I often deal with clients who find a regimented diet schedule to feel like punishment. I’m a firm believer that higher quality foods produce the best results, but I also understand that sometimes there are choices; ones that require you to pick the lesser of two evils. I also believe that while trainers and coaches often lead by example, it’s important that my clients know that I make pretty good choices most of the time. But under no circumstances can I live without red wine and homemade pizza. It’s a funny thing about diets. The word “diet” immediately inflicts thoughts of restriction and sadness before you even get started. “Would you like to indulge in a meal of hearty deliciousness?” “No, I can’t. I’m on a diet.” 🙁 You see, diets can work, but generally only for a quick minute. There’s a sad cycle of restriction, binge, remorse, repeat; week after week, year after year. If you spent more time on learning how to eat well and slowly making better choices while still enjoying the treats you like in acceptable portions, you’d be a lot further along at this point.
Before we get into protein, you’ve probably heard the term “macros”, or macronutrients, being thrown around. The macronutrients most people assess their meals with are proteins, fats and carbohydrates. The latter two have been vilified quite aggressively over the years; they’re really struggling for a comeback in the marketing world. I will get to those in Part 2 and Part 3. But for today, we will tackle protein, leave the science to a minimum and I will keep it simple.
Proteins are made up of amino acids: more popularly recognized as the building blocks of life. These amino acids can be characterized in two different ways. First, we have nonessential amino acids; these are usually manufactured by our own bodies. Secondly, we have essential amino acids. Our bodies don’t make them on their own, so we need to get them from the foods we eat. Because proteins produce a lot of super important molecules in our bodies, we rely on them to keep us functioning at our best. Think: better immune system, better performance and feelings of fullness. But what do you really want to hear? Protein is really good at helping you control your body fat. Unfortunately, telling you exactly how much protein you need isn’t always a direct answer. This will depend on your activity levels and it sometimes takes a few weeks or months of consistency in your workouts and food intake to realize what works and what doesn’t. For the purposes of keeping the post simple, here are general guidelines.
“The basic recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 g per pound) of body mass in untrained, generally healthy adults.” – Precision Nutrition. This calculation means that if you weigh 160 pounds, you should be consuming around 58g of protein a day. What is also important to note about this calculation is that this is simply the amount to be consumed at bare minimum to avoid a deficiency; meaning, if you don’t move around a lot and have a sedentary job, you still should be getting in 58g of protein each day at 160 pounds. If you are active (I’m not just talking Olympic athletes here), you would do best to have more protein than bare minimum. Consider a calculation closer to 1.5-2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. (Math: 1 pound = 2.2 kilogram *brain explodes*) So, for the 160 pound adult, 109g-145g of protein each day is the optimal range. I know. It feels like a lot. But, this is the higher end of the spectrum and it doesn’t mean you need to go from your habitual 20g of protein a day to 145g tomorrow.
For some reason, higher protein diets have long been associated with having huge muscles. Sure; big, strong bodybuilders are consuming a lot of protein, but they are also consuming a lot of other macros and lifting more than you can even imagine. For years I thought that taking in too much protein would somehow magically make my muscles massive. <- dumb. That is absolutely NOT the case. It’s also important to know that taking in extra protein than what is recommended will not help you shed more fat either. There are still calories in protein, which means overeating anything (even the good stuff) can lead to increased body fat overall. Calories still help control your body composition.
One other thing to take into consideration is the evil way products sell you on “high protein” snacks and foods. Make sure you are looking at all the macros on your food label. A lot of “healthy” snacks on the shelves of our beloved Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s need further investigation by you. Just because a product that calls itself “high protein” has carbohydrates, doesn’t mean it’s a bad product. I’m simply pointing out that realizing where the marketing can screw up your plans for taking in more protein. Taking a look below, I have two snacks that can be used for protein. The first is a fiber bar from Trader Joe’s with packaging stating “a good source of protein”. This is simply a glorified candy bar. Sure there’s a bit of protein and fiber and less sugar. Is it better than a snickers? Well, it’s not too far off. A Snickers at the same weight as this fiber bar stands at 8 grams of fat, 22 grams of carbohydrates and 2.7 grams of protein. In my opinion, this isn’t enough of a difference to make the fiber bars worth my time. If I have a hankering for a candy bar, I’d probably give in to the real thing instead. (Although, Snickers wouldn’t be my first choice 🙂 If I’m going candy; jellybeans it is!)
As you can see, 1 small serving of tuna has a whopping 15 grams of protein! But, I can feel your laser eyes from the other side of this blog. Tuna in a can is not your idea of pleasuring your palette. All of your lean meats (turkey, 93% and above beef, chicken) and fish can also provide you with great protein options and you don’t need platefuls to get the job done. If you are a vegetarian, the internet is flooded with ideas beyond tofu for you. One of my absolute favorite recipe websites is Skinnytaste. She has legitimately delicious ideas for those looking to include protein into their meals; both carnivores and vegetarians alike! I just made an eggplant rollatini the other night and in all of it’s cheesy goodness, there were 17grams of protein in a serving.
As I stated earlier, if you find that you are really lacking in the protein department (I find this to be true with a high percentage of my female clients early on), don’t try to completely overhaul your diet tomorrow. Let’s say your goal is fat loss. First, try to estimate how much you are actually taking in on a daily basis. The MyFitnessPal app is pretty good at breaking this down for you. Fill in one whole week (yes, this includes weekends) of food consumption. Then, average out your protein intake over 7 days. If you find that your protein intake is much lower than it should be, figure out a few ways you can incorporate more protein in without adding more carbohydrates or fats. Sometimes it’s as easy as 4 egg whites instead of 2 each morning. An extra yogurt in the afternoon and voilà! That’s around 20 extra grams of protein in your day.
One question you may be wondering is where protein shakes fit in. First, please be very aware of the protein shakes they have out on the market and their lack of credibility or usefulness. Always consult your doctor if you are unsure about anything nutrition-relate. Believe it or not, pseudoscience nutritionists and personal trainers don’t always have your best interest in mind (imagine that?!). These are becoming increasingly popular ways to get all that protein in during your day. They are also really portable and have come a VERY long way as far as taste is concerned, but this might be at the expense of being highly processed. (Another reason to do your research if you look to include shakes.) Because I can’t do any better than this article, give it a read to better understand the value of protein powders and whether they are for you. This article also breaks down all the types of protein powders without bias. I personally use 15g of a whey isolate right after a workout as I chose to keep dairy in my diet and have no adverse GI reactions.
For me, I realized the value of protein and its effects about 4 years ago. I started to increase my protein consumption and moderately decrease my carb and fat consumption. (NOT because they are bad, but because they needed to be lower in order to to get enough protein in.) A few things happened. First, I panicked. I had never thought about taking in that much protein in my life! Once I started take it a day at a time, I realized it wasn’t so overwhelming. By simply adding an extra egg or two, replacing “trail mix” with yogurt and cottage cheese, and making sure I was eating a fully balanced dinner, I was hitting my protein goals pretty quickly. I also found myself subconsciously drinking a lot more water and less coffee. You hear it but don’t believe it – my energy was amazing. To top it off, I was getting leaner without losing my strength or stamina. I was better able to see the definition in my muscles that I had worked so hard on over the years. These are all things that you read about but have a hard time believing. If you are patient and give yourself the time to adjust, this will happen.
So while I know you were hoping for me to tell you exactly what to eat for the ideal body composition, that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m simply letting you know how important it is and that it won’t turn you into the hulk. Start with recognizing how much protein you are getting in, how much more you need and where you can add it into your meals daily.
Basically, I’m trying to get you to eat more (good stuff). Who doesn’t want to eat more AND improve their body composition?! Crazies. That’s who.