Two weeks ago I waxed poetic about how much I love (love LOVE) carbohydrates. This week, I want to get into some of the nitty gritty details on the macronutrient that I think we can ALL agree is absolutely vital: protein.
High-protein diets have been in vogue since at least the 1960s, starting with the Stillman Diet – a high-protein, low-fat, NO-carb protocol that was, clearly, very unbalanced. High-protein stayed popular through the 90s, and now, whenever high-fat, low-carb diets pop up, they often also include a large amount of protein.
Like all things in nutrition, protein intake needs to be personalized – based on your size, activity level, and goals. Do strength athletes and endurance athletes need the same amount of protein? What about athletes vs. completely sedentary people? Can vegetarians and vegans really get enough protein? Can I subsist on protein powder alone?
Below, we’ll discuss what protein is, what it does, and the things you need to know to understand how much and what types of protein you need to perform and feel your best.
What is protein?
We all think of protein as the “building block” of muscle, and for good reason. Protein is a macronutrient clocking in at 4 calories per gram (just like carbohydrates). Proteins are large molecules, called polypeptides, which include anywhere from 10 to 100 amino acid molecules linked together. You’ve heard of essential amino acids or branched chain amino acids? They’re components of protein. We’ll get into them more in a minute.
Protein plays a ton of roles it the body, and each individual amino acid works and functions in different ways. Primarily, protein is needed for the growth, maintenance, and repair of cells in the body (hence, the building blocks of muscle). It produces enzymes and hormones needed to keep your body functioning, and at its core, control how your genes are expressed via your DNA. How freakin cool.
Again, proteins are made up of 21 different amino acids, of which there are 3 types (this is important):
- Indispensable (or popularly, Essential) Amino Acids – CANNOT be made by the body, so must be consumed as part of the diet
- Conditionally Indispensable Amino Acids – your body CAN make these, but not always in the amounts you need, so you’ll need to get at least SOME via diet
- Dispensable (or Non-Essential) Amino Acids – your body CAN make these in sufficient quantities (but you may still want to consume some, as you’ll see)
You can probably guess that it’s best to consume a diet that includes lots of the 9 indispensable amino acids. It’s also important to consume protein foods and beverages that are “high-quality”, meaning they are easily digested and readily absorbed by the body. Additionally, those foods would be primarily made up of complete proteins, meaning they contain all of the indispensable amino acids your body needs.
That’s the ideal. But before getting into optimizing the proteins you eat, you first need to be sure you’re eating the right amount!
How much protein should we be eating?
There is SO MUCH conflicting information out there about how much protein we need. Usually, the numbers are based on bodyweight, so at least they’re somewhat personalized. The official RDA for healthy adults: 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. Using myself as an example at 140lbs or ~63kg, I’d be eating just about 50g of protein per day.
Does that sound disturbingly low to you? Remember, the official RDAs (or recommended dietary allowances) are catered towards basic health, the amount of a nutrient most people need to stave off deficiencies. So basically, that amount will keep you alive, but may not let you thrive.
Additionally, active people, particularly people who train frequently, who are tearing up muscle tissue in order for it to come back stronger, need MORE protein to recover from that activity. So as activity level and intensity goes up, so too should protein intake.
(Because I’m American and I think in Freedom Units (™),
lets talk about protein requirements using pounds.)
“So what’s the ACTUAL number,” you ask? To keep it simple, anywhere from 0.5 grams per lb of bodyweight (for the sedentary) all the way up to 1g/lb of bodyweight (for the highly active strength athlete). So again, for me, that’s anywhere from the (still low) number of about 70g per day, all the way up to about 140g if I’m training hard.
If you come from an “old-school” strength or bodybuilding background, those numbers may STILL seem low. Some coaches will advocate for up to 2-3g/lb every day! And while there is probably no real harm in this approach for most healthy people (without kidney disease), it’s extremely expensive and leaves little room in the diet for fats and carbohydrates. Like all calories, extra energy in the way of protein will either get converted to glucose/sugar (via gluconeogenesis) for use as energy or… stored as body fat. So don’t waste the money.
In my experience, for most people who like to train, aiming for at least 0.8g/lb every day is the sweet spot. In general, endurance athletes are probably fine around the 0.7-0.8g/lb mark, and strength athletes can stand to go a little higher.
Going beyond the basics
So with all that, you have a solid number to shoot for. Once you’re consistently getting that amount of protein every day, you can start thinking about optimizing that intake. Here are some of the fun, nuanced bits for other people that like to nerd out about nutrition.
If you’re restricting your caloric intake in order to lose weight, you’ll probably benefit from increasing your protein intake a bit. A higher protein intake will be “muscle-sparing,” so as you continue training will cutting calories, your body is still being provided with the amino acids needed to rebuild muscle tissue.
Most of the time, protein isn’t used as a fuel source. However, when you’re training hard, the indispensable amino acids called the Branched Chain Amino Acids CAN be used directly for fuel. We also tend to use a disproportionally high amount of BCAAs while recovering from injury or heavy training. If you run out of glycogen stores during exercise and need energy fast (faster than your body can utilize its body fat stores) it’s coming for those BCAAs in the form of your actual muscles. That’s catabolism baby, and no one wants that. This is why you’ll often see recommendations to consume a BCAA drink right before or during a workout. I like to use them before long cardio sessions, and like to prioritize protein sources that include a large amount of them in my general diet.
You’ve probably heard a lot of talk about complete vs. incomplete proteins. While it is true that most “complete” proteins (containing all 9 indispensable amino acids) are found in animal foods, that does NOT mean you can’t get all of the amino acids you need consuming only plant-based foods. The truth is, it’ll be a little harder. First, remember that quinoa, buckwheat, and soybeans are complete protein sources, so if you love tofu, keep it up. Plus, you can learn to combine protein-containing foods properly to get them all the line up. The most common and delicious combo: beans + rice. Others include peas + corn, nut butter + whole wheat/grain bread, and beans + nuts or seeds (think a salad with lots of chickpeas and sunflower seeds).
With all that in mind, it may be beneficial for plant-based athletes to aim to consume a higher amount of protein than omnivorous eaters. Plant-based sources of protein may not be as easily digested or absorbed, so getting just a bit extra will give you some cushion.
What about protein powder? It’s true that whey protein is particularly useful for athletes. It is highly bioavailable, quickly absorbed, and contains lots of BCAAs. It also has been shown to promote protein synthesis, which explains the frequent recommendation to get a protein shake in within 30 minutes of a workout (anywhere within an hour is probably fine, and again, these are details). In contrast, you can also purchase casein protein powder, which is another milk-derivative. This one is kind of the opposite of whey in that it absorbs very slowly. A lot of coaches will recommend this as the last thing you consume before bedtime. If you want the benefits but hate the idea of buying more processed foods, yogurt is also a high-casein option.
Plant-based protein powders are useful too, as long as they use a combination of sources. My favorites have been pea+brown rice protein (Vega One makes a decent one that also includes “greens powder”).
What about collagen protein powder? Collagen powders are a nice supplement, but not a complete protein. If you want to add them for the skin, hair, and nails benefit, go for it. But they don’t replace whey or plant-based protein powders.
Finally, one of my personal favorite qualities of protein is that it’s highly satiating. It tends to keep you feeling full and happy for longer than a meal low in protein. I usually recommend starting the day with a meal high in protein for that reason!
That’s a lot of information – what can I say, protein is a really interesting topic! Hopefully, you’ve come out of this with an idea of at least HOW MUCH protein to eat each day (and why).
Finally, a reminder: my free 6 week beginner/returning runner program starts this weekend! I’m collecting emails right up until Friday evening at 5pm EST. With this program, you’ll have access to the template I use to get back into running shape quickly, which includes three weekly run (or walk) workouts PLUS an optional strength-based workout to help keep your joints strong and healthy as your weekly run times increase! All you need to do is enter your name and email below.