Hitting protein numbers is the most common issue my reverse diet clients struggle with. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of protein powders, supplements, and bars out there to choose from so it is no surprise that the nutrition world places the highest importance on this “golden child” of macronutrients. Why is protein so important and what does it do for us? Why are we all chasing protein goals and why is it such a big deal? In this article I am going to explain what protein is, what it does for our bodies, how much protein we need, and ways to increase protein in your diet.
What is Protein?
Protein comes from the ancient Greek word protos which means first or most important. It makes sense then that protein is the body’s main building blocks. Proteins are made up of amino acids that:
- give our body structure and strength;
- make many hormones and cell signaling molecules;
- make enzymes;
- make immune system chemicals; and
- make transport proteins
Our bodies can make some essential amino acids but we need to get most of our protein from food. In addition, protein is always being broken down and rebuilt so we need to make sure we continue to replenish and get enough protein to stay healthy.
Why do we need Protein?
As I mentioned above, proteins are the building blocks for our bodies. Yes, it helps us build those beautiful muscles but there is much more to it than that. During digestion, protein is broken down into essential amino acids and stored in what’s called amino acid pools which become the storage place of amino acids that circulate in our blood. Our bodies need these proteins and amino acids in order to produce hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies in order to function properly. Hence, if we do not eat enough protein our bodies do not work the way they are supposed to.
Another cool thing about protein is that it keeps you full for longer. It is digested slower than carbohydrates so it stays with your longer and increases satiety after a meal. In addition, protein has a high thermic effect, meaning that we burn more calories trying to digest and process protein. Hence, a higher protein diet does actually increase your total daily caloric expenditure overall!
How much Protein should we eat?
How much protein one needs can vary from person to person. Factors such as age, resistance training, overall caloric intake, and body weight and composition all play a role in how much protein one should consume. Protein intake will also vary based on goals but a general rule of thumb based on several studies is that .7-1.2g of protein per pound of bodyweight is sufficient. That being said, an individual who is overweight should aim to hit their protein goal based on their goal bodyweight. Most of the time 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight will work but again, it depends on goals. Someone with aesthetic goals will have a very different protein intake compared to someone who has performance goals and needs more carbohydrates for sports performance. Also, as we age our protein needs change and our body needs more.
How do I make sure I am eating enough protein?
This is one of the more frequent questions I see from clients. Protein seems to be one of the most difficult numbers for people to hit consistently. Especially those who have severely under-eaten this macronutrient for quite some time.
Primary Protein Sources:
- Meats (lean or fatty) beef, steak, or wild game
- Poultry – chicken, turkey
- Seafood – wild caught fish and shellfish
- High quality deli meats
- Dairy – greek yogurt, milk, cheese
- Beans and Lentils
- Tofu and Tempeh
- Protein Powders and bars
Of course protein can be found in all foods, including vegetables, but those are the basics with protein as the primary macronutrient. So, the question is, how do I reach my protein goal? A general rule of thumb is to try to make sure you have protein with every single meal. As mentioned above, it keeps you satisfied for longer, and if you have 3 meals with 2-3 smaller snacks every day and try to aim for 25 grams of protein in each meal, you will be either at or pretty close to your goal.
Ways to sneak in protein throughout the day:
- Collagen protein in your coffee – It is tasteless and dissolves completely. I use Great Lakes Gelatin and I get it on Amazon. Affordable, and an easy way to get 11g of protein in right off the bat. Not to mention it packs 12g of collagen peptides and the benefits of collagen protein are endless!
- Protein Bars – This can get a little sticky. Make sure your protein bar does not have a ton of ingredients that you cannot pronounce. Not saying that those are forbidden but we want to make sure our foods have whole and real ingredients most of the time. Some examples of good bars with solid ingredients are Perfect, Rx, Bulletproof, Epic, No Cow, and Macro bars. Stay tuned for a post on my preferred bars.
- Protein smoothies. Get creative here. You can even add greens and fruits to make it a nice sweet treat. The powder you use should be something you enjoy and can be whey, pea, casein, hemp, brown rice, or even egg based. Find the protein powder that is best for you and your needs.
- Deli meats – a quick and easy way to add some extra protein in at the end of the day. That being said, making sure your meats of choice do not have nitrates and nitrites is important. Use quality meats and pair it with some veggies at the end of the day to hit your goal.
I should note that as you are bringing your protein up to optimal numbers, hopefully under the guidance of a good nutrition coach, make sure it is gradual. For example, if you are used to eating just 100 grams of protein per day and your daily goal is 175 grams, take it in phases. Try to add 25 grams per day for a week and then the following week bump that number up again. Too much too soon can be very stressful and discouraging so take your time and ease into it. Eating should be fun, not stressful. Small habits turn into lifelong habits over time. Go easy on yourself and most importantly enjoy your food!