Protein is totally the “in” macronutrient right now, and while there are certainly benefits to focusing on protein intake, I think a lot of people don’t understand how much we actually need, and what that looks like in food terms. Let’s talk about it.
Why do we need protein?
First, let’s backtrack. There are three macronutrients that make up all foods – fat, carb, and protein. Carbohydrate and protein have 4 calories per gram, fat has 9 calories per gram. Each of these macronutrients has a different basic chemical structure, and they are each used by the body for different things.
Protein makes up your body structures. Skin, hair, bones, nails, muscles – these things are all made of proteins. Clearly, the stuff is important. Unlike carbohydrate, protein cannot be made from other macronutrients because proteins contain a specific nitrogen-containing component that neither fat nor carbohydrates have. Therefore, these structures can only be made if the body has enough protein, either from other body proteins or from dietary protein. Since you don’t want to break down your muscles in order to make fingernails, it’s really important to eat enough protein.
What foods contain protein?
A lot of people don’t realize this, but there is protein in more than just meat and beans! Check it out:
|Meat||7 grams per ounce|
|Milk||8 grams per cup|
|Cheese||8 grams per ounce|
|Yogurt, Greek||23 grams per cup|
|Yogurt, regular||10 grams per cup|
|Egg white||3.5 grams per one egg white|
|Tofu||10g per ½ cup|
|Peanut butter||8g per 2 tablespoons|
|Bread||3g per 1oz slice|
|Rice||4g per cup|
|Quinoa||8g per cup|
|Beans||13g per cup|
|Potatoes||4g per 1 medium potato|
|Nonstarchy vegetables||2g per ½ cup cooked, 1 cup raw|
There is a lot of protein in foods that we don’t traditionally think of as “high protein foods”. Even in vegetables!
How much do you need?
The average person needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight. This increases with athletes to 1.2-1.7 g/kg, because they typically have more muscle (more protein to maintain) and break it down more often (more protein to repair). Beyond that, if an athlete is trying to build muscle or lose weight, they need even more protein – up tp 2 g/kg – to make sure that weight lost is not from body proteins being broken down (i.e. to ensure that weight loss is from fat mass) or to make sure that the building blocks are there to add extra skeletal muscle. REMEMBER: in order to gain lean mass, the proper training stimulus must be applied – you need resistance exercise in order to build muscle. Eating extra protein alone will not result in bigger muscles, it will just result in greater net calories and therefore make you fat.
|Group||Protein requirement in g/kg|
|Athletes losing fat mass or gaining lean mass||Up to 2.0|
What does this translate to in food terms?
In short, a lot less than you think. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples: a 145 pound casual exerciser, a 130 pound runner who wants to gain muscle mass, and a 175 pound soccer player who needs to be strong and fast.
145lb casual exerciser
145lb = 66kg
66kg x 0.8g protein/kg = 53g protein
130lb athlete, muscle gain
130lb = 59kg
59kg x 1.8g protein/kg = 106g protein
175lb = 80kg
80kg x 1.4g protein/kg = 111g protein
As you can see, NONE of these examples required protein supplements in order to reach their protein goals. In fact, while typing them up I often had to reduce the protein that I had planned for their meals. Do you know how big a 1-oz meatball is? Way smaller than a golfball, that’s for sure. Most people would be able to far exceed these protein goals without even trying.
Things can get tricky, however, when larger athletes want to bulk up – think 200+ pound linebackers trying to gain muscle. These guys can easily require upwards of 200 grams of protein per day – the equivalent of five chicken breasts. My jaw hurts just thinking about it! In these cases, supplements may be essential. They are not essential for the rest of us, however, as much as the industry would like you to believe.
How much should I eat at one time?
Around 20g results in maximum rates of muscle synthesis. You can see that several of our fictitious meals easily soared over this 20g mark – it’s easy to reach. The point here is that you don’t need to cram in some outrageous supplement in order to ensure that your muscles are able to rebuild to their max.
Why else may I want to increase protein?
There is a lot of hype about protein in the media these days, especially for weight loss and muscle building. We’ve already discussed that protein is essential to build muscle. It can help in weight loss because it keeps you full for longer, which makes you less likely to snack in between meals or overeat at your next meal. Often, when I have patients who turn into a bottomless pit in the late afternoon or when they return home after work, too little protein at lunch is the culprit.
However, you should beware that adding protein for the sake of adding protein is not the best option – it needs to be balanced with overall calories. If you aren’t getting enough protein, you may be getting more starch than you need. A detailed analysis of your current diet is essential – call up your friendly neighborhood sports dietitian!
What is the best type of protein for me?
This is really splitting hairs. For maximum muscle growth, certain amino acids (the building blocks of protein molecules) can stimulate this process better than others. These AAs are the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), particularly Leucine. Leucine is present in high concentrations in whey protein. If you’re looking for a good powdered supplement, go whey protein. If you’re taking a whole-foods approach, include lowfat dairy in your diet. This isn’t something you need to obsess about, as you will gain muscle with resistance exercise as long as you have enough protein around. Like I said, splitting hairs.
- You probably need less protein than you think you do
- Lots of foods contain protein
- If you’re an athlete, you need more
- We can calculate how much you need!
- Milk = big stong muscles (mama wasn’t lyin’)