Protein, protein, protein.
Protein is made up of amino acids that has many different functions for your body. It helps build and repair tissue and muscles and is necessary as one of the three needed macronutrients our bodies thrive on (other two are carbohydrates and fat). Not only that, but a lot of research has shown protein to contribute to satiety, the feeling of fullness, which is helpful in weight maintenance and to avoid overeating. Protein is the backbone for muscle synthesis, and more muscles = faster metabolism.
“How much protein do I need per day?”
The recommendations from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is very general when it comes to protein: it states protein should be roughly 10-35% of total calories per day. This means that if you consume a 2,000 calorie, diet, anywhere from 200 calories (50 grams) (10%) of protein to 700 calories (135 grams) (35%) is recommended. What a huge range! The best way to figure out how much protein you specifically need for your body and lifestyle is to use a different equation. For general adults, the minimum amount of protein required each day is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight. (Don’t know your weight in kg? Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2). For example, a 140lb woman (63.6kg) needs about 51 grams per day, minimum. If said person was active, they would need more. 0.8 grams per kg per day is for sedentary individuals. Certain medical conditions require more protein, such as kidney patients on dialysis, those with severe burns, trauma, or surgical patients. For the general adult population, roughly 1.0 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight is how much you need per day. (Ex. I am 125 lbs, and active, therefore I need roughly 57-68 grams per day). A bit more is needed for athletes, especially body building and weight training to aid in muscle synthesis. Find your basic needs and go from there. ðŸ™‚
“What if I’m an athlete? Do I need more protein?”
Yes, but it depends how often and what type of exercise is being done. For a true athlete (someone who trains professionally, for college, or exercises >5 days per week), there is a need for more protein intake to help with muscle synthesis and recovery. Here are the recommendations based on type of athlete:
- General person who “works out” – 1.0g protein per kg body weight
- Endurance Athletes (cycling, long distance runners) – 1.2-1.4g protein per kg body weight
- Soccer, hockey, track, tennis, swimming, basketball, etc. – 1.4-1.7g per kg body weight
- Strength training (weight lifters), football – 1.6-1.7g per kg body weight
“What’s the deal with red meat/bacon & Cancer?”
Yes, red meat and highly processed meats like bacon and sausage HAVE been linked to cancer, the WHO (World Health Organization) classified processed meat (i.e. sausage, luncheon meat, salami, hot dogs) as a carcinogen (something that causes cancer) and red meat as a probable carcinogen. Specifically it has been linked to colorectal cancer (processed meat) and stomach , pancreatic, and prostate cancer (red meat). Not only that, but red meat and processed meats are high in sodium and fat, which increase your risk for heart disease. Does that mean you have to completely give it up? No, not necessarily, but it would be mindful to decrease your intake. Enjoy in moderation and treat as a TREAT every once in a while. Love hamburgers? Try to do half with ground turkey to limit the fat. Love bacon? Eat it for special occasions, not every day. I’m all about the evidence, so check it out here if you’re nerdy like me: Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. Also, buy local! Grass-fed meat is leaner than regular store-bought meat, and tends to have a litttttle bit more omega-3s (the good kinda fats). What is also beneficial to reduce your risk of cancer? Maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular physical activity, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and consuming a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nuts and seeds/
“How much protein can be absorbed at one time?”
It is best to split up protein throughout the day rather than just eat one large steak for your protein all day. Our bodies can use a max of 20-30 grams of protein for muscle resynthesis at a time, so eating a huge steak after a training session of 80 grams of protein, those extra 50 grams consumed won’t necessarily aid in muscle growth, but rather be stored as extra calories. Split your protein up throughout the day for better absorption and use, and always have protein at every meal and snack! As for athletes that are a bit larger, such as a 300lb football athlete, they can utilize more protein at a time to fuel their muscles, but for the general population, it’s better to break down your total protein into smaller servings throughout the day.
“Do I need a protein supplement?”
Protein is best absorbed from food. It is most bioavailable via animal proteins (dairy, meat, fish, eggs) and a little less bioavailable from plant proteins (beans, tofu, tempeh, soybeans, nuts, lentils, etc). You only need a protein supplement if you are not able to reach your protein needs with your diet. For example, a large male who exercises daily has higher protein needs, and may benefit from adding a protein supplement (i.e. protein powder) to his daily routine to ensure he is reaching his protein goals. Also, vegetarians and vegans may benefit from protein supplementation due to their limited sources of dietary protein (although yes, it is ABSOLUTELY doable to reach your protein needs on a vegan or vegetarian diet!!).
Protein powder is more processed, so getting protein from whole foods is best, i.e. fish, eggs, chicken, turkey, nuts, seeds.
Work with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist if you are unsure if your current diet supplies all of your specific protein needs.
If I do want to include protein powder in my diet, which is best?
I get this question ALL. THE. TIME. as a dietitian. And I love to answer it! Protein powder comes in many, many forms, so it can be quite confusing when trying to find the “best” one at the store. Let’s keep it simple and break it down into 2 categories: milk-based protein powder, and vegan/plant-based protein powder:
DAIRY: Choose Whey Protein Isolate
“Isolates are the purest protein source available. Whey protein isolates contain protein concentrations of 90% or higher. During the processing of whey protein isolate there is a significant removal of fat and lactose.” As a result, individuals who are lactose-intolerant can often safely take these products (Geiser, 2003).” –source
- Opt for 100% whey protein powder. Need some flavor? I know I do. Try this brand here which uses only monk fruit extract and stevia for sweetening, natural sweeteners that are calorie-free.
PLANT-BASED: Choose 100% pea protein powder
Pea protein has the highest amount of protein than any other vegetable-based protein (more than soy, hemp) when it comes to protein powders. Low in fat, high in protein. BAM! Get more bang for your buck with pure, 100% pea protein powder if you want a vegan, plant-based protein powder.
“Are there any people who shouldn’t eat a lot of protein?”
People who should avoid high amounts of protein in their diet are those with Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD), not yet requiring dialysis. This is because the kidneys help to break down the waste products from the protein we eat, therefore when the kidneys are unable to get rid of the waste, it starts to build up in the blood, causing problems. If you have CKD and are on dialysis, your protein needs are actually GREATER than normal, because your body needs to replenish what is being taken off via dialysis. Questions? Work with your local Dietitian to find out your specific needs.
“Which are better, animal proteins or plant-based proteins?”
To start off, lets talk about amino acids, the building blocks of protein. There are 20 in total, 9 of which are essential, meaning our body can’t produce them, so they must come from our diet. And then there are 11 non-essential amino acids, meaning our body can produce them, so they aren’t a must-have in our diet. Animal proteins contain all of the 9 essential amino acids (phenylalanine, valine, threonine, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine, and histidine). Plant proteins do not contain all of the essential amino acids, so if you are a vegetarian you must consume a variety of different sources of protein to make sure you are receiving all 9. The one rare exception is quinoa, which is a plant protein that does contain all 9 essential amino acids. For example, beans contain some essential amino acids, but not all of them, so you should include other protein sources with other essential amino acids, such as nuts, soy, beans, and lentils. We don’t need to consume all essential amino acids at every meal every day, but on average we need to consume a mixture of them all during the day.
In general, animal proteins supply more protein and all 9 essential amino acids than vegetables sources, but they also come with saturated fat, which too much of could increase your risk for heart disease.
Plant-based proteins (tofu, nuts, beans, lentils, soy, etc.) don’t contain all essential amino acids, but come packaged with fiber, less fat, and more healthy unsaturated fats.
As for processed meats, we already discussed it may be healthy to limit red meat and processed meats due to their higher sodium and fat levels and their risk for increasing cancer. Beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds are all wonderful sources of protein that also are packaged with fiber and healthy fats, making them a wonderfully healthy protein option. My tip? Get a variety. Plant-proteins are naturally lower in fat and cholesterol, and tend to have fiber, beneficial for your gut and feeling full. There are so many studies on the benefits of a plant-based diets, so go meatless every now and then to help your health. Animal proteins are beneficial in that they tend to be higher in protein, and better absorbed. All proteins come with a variety of other nutrients, which is important to look into. For example, Dairy contains vitamin D and calcium and eggs contain Vitamin D and zinc. Beef is a great source of iron in addition to good-quality protein. Including a variety is key!
“What are branched chain amino acids and do I need them?”
Branched chain amino acids refer to 3 amino acids with a different structure: they include a side chain of one carbon and three hydrogen atoms.
“The BCAAs are the only amino acids not degraded in the liver. All other amino acids are regulated by the gut and the liver before being circulated elsewhere in the body. However, BCAAs head directly into the bloodstream. This means that dietary intake of BCAAs directly influences plasma levels and concentrations in muscle tissue (Layman DK 2003). Interestingly, BCAAs are burned for energy (oxidized) during exercise, so theyâ€™re also an important exercise fuel.” —source
What does this mean exactly? This means that basically of the essential amino acids (9), the BCAAs (isoleucine, leucine, and valine) have the greatest potential for being used for muscle and protein energy and function as they don’t have to go through the liver, they go straight into your bloodstream. Therefore if you aren’t consuming adequate protein before or after workouts, your muscles aren’t going to have adequate fuel for growth and repair, thus making all your hard work in the gym useless. In general, there is no need to supplement BCAAs if you eat enough protein in general around your strength training workouts (dairy, whey, beef, chicken, cottage cheese, fish all contain BCAAs). However, many fitness folks like to use BCAA powder to add to their water for before/during/after workouts to ensure they are getting adequate BCAAs to fuel their muscles for maximum muscle synthesis and recovery.