Why Protein Is So Important

Protein

CC Nick Harris

I’m going to preface today’s blog post, the way I preface most conversations that I have with clients about the various components of a human diet, by saying you don’t eat macronutrients like protein (or for that matter; Fat or Carbohydrates – the other two macronutrients), you eat food.

While today’s post is going to focus on why protein gets so much praise in the fitness industry — but also sometimes why it gets criticized — and why I think you may strongly need to consider eating more of it than you might think; keep in mind that the foods I’m recommending here are only mostly protein sources.

Almost all foods have trace amounts of the various macronutrients and some are not so easily classified into macronutrient dominant categories.

For example, one large egg has about 7 grams of protein per egg and 6 grams of fat.

From a gram point of view it has more protein than fat, and often gets labelled as a high protein food — also because egg protein is one of the purest most bioavailable sources of protein from an unprocessed food source. 

Yet if we look at eggs from a total caloric displacement, keeping in mind that fat has more energy per gram than protein does (9 kcal vs 4 kcal), we can see that there is actually more fat in an egg relative to it’s energy load; Or about 60% of the energy (calories) found in an egg is actually from fat.

With that in mind, I still generally classify eggs as an optimal protein source and you can reduce the fat load by cutting whole eggs with egg whites, which contain almost zero fat for the fat phobic.

Without getting too into detailed semantics about what’s a good protein source food and what isn’t, I want to lay some practical thoughts about protein down on you.

Protein Requirements

There is one recommendation I often find myself making to nearly every client (after I tell them to eat more vegetables that is…) and that is generally to consume more protein, specifically adding at least one serving to every meal, no matter how frequently you eat.

Now I realize that most people automatically jump the gun and assume that by protein I must mean meat and/or animal products, but not necessarily; I’m completely cool with cultural or ethical decisions to exclude meat or animal products from your life and diet.

I even enjoy me a meatless Monday from time to time…

If you’re a Vegetarian or a Vegan, that’s completely up to you, you can and still should try to eat more protein, but you also should know that hitting adequate levels of protein consumption can be a little more challenging to do for you.

It’s still possible, you just have to get a little more creative and in some cases you may want to consider a protein supplement of some kind like Vega Sport Protein, Genuine Health Vegan Proteins+, or something like Sunwarrior Raw Vegan Protein (if you’re into that kind of thing).

If you’re a Vegan, and exercising a lot, your protein requirements can be even higher than I’m going to explain below, so being a Vegan gives you less choice for high quality protein options, and as a result supplementation may be really important for you.

Of course if you’re a Vegetarian and you’re OK with having some or a combination of animal by-products in your food still, then you have slightly more potent food protein options available to you in the form of eggs and dairy.

You also have slightly more potent supplementation options, from things like a Milk Blend protein powder, a Whey Protein, a Casein Protein and/or an Egg Protein, but supplementation may not be needed, depending on your situation.

We’ll discuss more about this below, but the bottom line is that protein intake is super important for health and recovery purposes.

The smaller molecules called Amino Acids, that make up proteins, are contributing to pretty much every process in your body, at any given time, particularly in tissue synthesis (tissue building/remodelling).

This is why simplistically, they are frequently referred to as the building blocks of the body.

1 Palm = 1 Serving

One serving of a lean protein is approximately the size of your palm, and about the thickness of a deck of cards to maybe an inch.

I generally advise that women should go for one of these servings per meal and men should go for two, but like I said this could depend on your meal frequency, your objectives and your exercise requirements.

In total, when we look at the broad adherence to any given diet over a week, I generally like my clientele to shoot for an average daily consumption of an absolute minimum of 0.7 grams of lean protein consumption per pound of lean mass or 1.54 grams of protein consumption per 1 kg of lean mass.

So for example, if you’re a 125 pound female with 25% body fat, you should probably eat at least 65 grams of complete protein ([125 x .75] x 0.7 = 65.6 roughly). 

Which is about 3 complete servings of protein each day, or one with every meal for 3 meals.

Why 0.7 grams per pound or 1.54 grams per kilo?

Because the research I’ve read indicates that this appears to be the sweet spot minimum for most people, even though the recommended daily allowance (RDA) according to Health Canada, for protein is 0.8 grams per 1 kg of bodyweight.

Based on my experience I believe this to be inadequate, no matter what your objectives may be because I don’t believe these numbers have changed in 20 years, despite a plethora of new research on the subject.

If you’re 145 lbs female, who would like to be 125 lbs and 18% body fat, then you should probably alter your protein consumption to reflect that ([125 x .82] x 0.7 = 71.75) by eating 72 grams of protein per day.

Well what gives, why would you want to eat more protein if you wanted to lose fat? Why do I use lean mass?

Shooting for grams of protein per lean mass, gives you a good target for weight loss pursuits, and muscle mass gains, because now we can eat for the body we want, rather than the body we have.

It also reveals how you might otherwise displace other macronutrient intakes in your diet, so yes, your protein requirements could be more even with a weight loss objective, but that protein will displace something else in your diet (typically excessive energy in/calories), which goes a little bit further in helping you achieve your desired outcome.

You can use per pound or simple per kg of total mass if you are just trying to eat a well rounded diet, and in some cases I’ll progress clients to this model instead if I feel that it will work better, and sometimes it does.

A lot of the time it’s just a matter of getting yourself to a certain level and then tweaking appropriately, keep in mind that I think that altering your diet should be made as easy as possible on yourself.

There is a whole psychology aspect to eating too…

Sometimes simply getting in your minimum requirement needs to be the focal point until you’re ready to take on a little bit more.

Other times, just hitting a recommended minimum is enough to help some people reach their desired objectives.

However, keep in mind that these are my recommended MINIMUM requirements and I’m directly referring to sources of (generally lean) complete proteins — so I do not generally include the small amounts of incomplete proteins found in a lot of vegetables and plants, though if you’re a plant-based eater those foods may have to understandably hold a little more relevance.

I think if you want to gain muscle mass you may need to eat as high as 2.2-2.4 grams per kg of lean mass, if not total mass.

Also if you’re an athlete your protein intake might be recommended at a minimum of 1.8 grams per kg, or higher.

If you weight train a lot or do a lot of distance based endurance training, your intake may also need to be higher.

People who with a fat loss objective, who are training hard and have an energy/calorie restriction, may also need a higher protein intake too.

One additional benefit to protein consumption, that is often overlooked is that it helps preserve lean tissue mass, so if there is a going to be a macronutrient constant, in your diet, it should probably be protein.

Lean mass is more metabolically active for those with fat loss objectives, and preserving lean tissue for muscle mass gains, athletic performance and generally health and well-being, should hopefully go without saying at this point as being pretty crucial.

So, for your protein requirements above a recommended minimum, there are extenuating circumstances to consider, but a good starting place is with the minimum and then work your way up.

Ultimately it’s easiest to focus on protein consumption on a meal by meal basis, because each meal is more so under your direct control, but calculate your rough minimum daily requirements and then try to hit them, if you don’t see improvement towards your objective, make a modification or consider working with a coach.

Good Sources?

Let’s clear the air on amino acids to start and why I’m often specifying ‘complete proteins‘ vs ‘incomplete proteins.’

Technically there are 21 amino acids found in various proteins (depending on the source) and 12 of them we can actually manufacture within our own bodies, which makes these amino acids ‘non-essential.’

There are however 9 amino acids that are considered ‘essential‘ because we cannot manufacture them, so they have to come from our diets.

*It’s slightly more complicated than this, and there is some debate for a few amino acids that we may not be particularly efficient at producing on our own, but the above information is what is relevant to this discussion.*

Complete protein sources, means protein sources that have all nine essential amino acids.

Incomplete protein sources often need to be paired with other incomplete amino acids to form a complete protein food.

For instance the popular rice and beans combo, is considered solid complementary foods because when combined they become a complete protein.

Here are some recommended serving sources for meat-eaters and plant-based-eaters alike, that will yield roughly 15-25 grams of protein per serving:

  • 3-4 oz of cooked poultry breast/thigh, fish, lean cuts of beef, pork, bison, elk, ostrich, etc…

  • 1 cup of cooked seafood (shrimp, mussels, oysters, etc…)

  • 4 egg whites

  • 2 large eggs

  • ½ cup of cottage cheese

  • ½ cup of plain high protein yogurt

  • 2 oz of part skim cheese

  • 1 scoop of protein powder (Milk Blend, Egg, Whey, Casein or Vegan Options…)

  • 1 cup cooked lentils or beans (or combo of rice and beans, or beans and quinoa, etc…if you’re looking for a ‘complete’ protein combo)

  • 3-4 oz of tempeh or tofu

  • 1 small veggie burger

Remember that a palm size is a relatively easy way to remember depending on the source.

The Thermic Effect of Food

The first reason protein is such an important consideration comes down to the thermic effect of food.

Basically protein requires as much as 30% of it’s own energy intake to digest.

Meaning for every 100 kcal your digest of protein, about 30 kcal are burned off just digesting it.

Compare that to the relatively easy to digest fat (3-5% or 3-5 kcal per 100 kcal digested) or the slightly more difficult to digest carbohydrates (7-10% or 7-10 kcal per 100 kcal digested) and hopefully it becomes quickly apparent why you should include protein AT EVERY MEAL.

This recommendation comes regardless of objectives, you’re just going to modify your intake at every meal depending on those objectives.

If you have a muscle mass objective, then you might want to consume double the amount of protein at every meal as someone with a weight loss objective.

Ultimately introducing more protein into your diet automatically boosts your metabolism during the day, as digestion accounts for about 10% of your total daily expenditure.

Also, because you’re utilizing a lot of energy to breakdown protein, if you have muscle mass objectives, you may need to consume more for it’s building block role in building muscle and other lean tissues to be maximized.

It Increases Satiability

It takes roughly 20 minutes for the hormones in your body to signal that you’re full from a meal.

This wonderful little survival mechanism, is what allowed us to feast in times of need when we were hunter gatherers.

Of course, now, we are no longer hunter-gatherers, and food is in abundance, so we actually have to find ways to slow ourselves down and carry ourselves longer by feeling full.

Fibre is another component in the diet that leaves people feeling full and fat also increases the satiability of food — but fat is also more easy to digest, is more energy dense, and is ultimately still easier to overeat in the long-run if we’re not careful.

When you combine lean complete proteins, with say fibre rich vegetables, and small amounts of healthy fat (a serving of fish, a tablespoon of oil to cook with, or a handful of nuts for instance), you wind up with meals that are surprisingly filling and yet less energy dense at the same time.

If your objectives are weight loss, this meal combination is typically awesome because you’ll eat less overall throughout the day, without having to worry a ton about things like calorie counting, or feeling hungry.

Not eating to lose weight? No problem add more energy dense foods to the mix, increase the speed at which you eat, and maybe the frequency you use too.

Want to improve your recovery from training? Again, no problem, just add more carbohydrates to this mix and reduce the fat content as close to post-workout as you can.

At the end of the day, no matter what the mix of macronutrients, meals with adequate protein make us feel more satisfied with our meal.

Displacement

An overlooked advantage of boosting your protein intake, and why protein intake may be so important is how it impacts your eating behaviors; you are far less likely to reach for a donut or sweet muffin as a snack if you know you have to eat some lean protein with it.

We can use the ‘eat a serving of lean protein with every meal’ strategy because it generally displaces other less desirable foods from your intake.

Also because it increases satiability, it also decreases the likelihood of overeating in the first place.

It also alters how other foods in your diet are digested, so you get better blood sugar control, better hormone management, and slower digestion – no matter what other combination of macronutrients you use really.

Having a full protein based meal, followed by a desert, appears to do a lot less damage in the long-run, than just having a desert on it’s own as a snack.

Isn’t Too Much Protein Dangerous?

Believe me this is a common misconception, I myself once held.

Maybe people have heard, or read that eating too much protein is bad for your kidneys.

Your kidneys though, actually run at about 400% capacity, so they’re actually really really effective organs at what they do; That’s also why you can live with just one of them.

The concern may have been warranted based on the information available to us 20 years ago, however, more recent research isn’t showing much in the way of damage to the kidneys via high amounts of consumption, even as high as 2 grams per pound of bodyweight or double my typical recommendations even for athletes and mass gainers.

In fact, because protein is so effective at making people feel full, it’s even really hard to over-eat protein from natural sources like those listed above, in the first place.

Often, the only way a lot of muscle mass wanting dudes, can meet their 1 gram per pound of body weight requirements without feeling like a stuffed turkey, is to use some liquid supplementation (because liquids digest more quickly).

Seriously, if you’re a 200 lbs male, try eating your bodyweight in grams of complete protein without a supplement. It’s really tough to do.

Outside of potential kidney damage though, there are certain syndromes that may affect some people and their ability to process certain proteins, in which case those people (a very small majority) may want to limit certain foods in their diets, or in other cases they may have to eat a lot of something, or supplement.

Most people are already aware of these issues by the time they are adults though, and have a good handle on managing it.

For health related issues like this, it’s best for you to talk with a registered dietician about your specific health needs.

Boom! Summary…

After all that hopefully I’ve convinced you that protein is an ideal starting point for crafting your ideal diet for the following reasons (Cole’s Note Version):

  • Proteins/Amino Acids are really important for vital bodily functions, particularly building and repairing tissues (it’s the building blocks of the body!), but also nutrient transport and a slew of other things I didn’t want to get into…
  • We can’t manufacture nine essential amino acids in our body, so we need to get them through our diets
  • It has the highest thermic effect of any macronutrient (increases metabolism)
  • It preserves more metabolically active lean tissues (maintains a higher metabolism)
  • It displaces other, often ‘less than desirable foods‘ from your diet
  • It increases satiety (meaning you’ll tend to eat less throughout the day)
  • It can help manage blood sugar, hormones, and other important stuff…

Recommendation Summary

Most people visiting this website will either be trying to train and/or altering their diets for usually fat loss purposes but to an extent muscle mass purposes; Or athletic performance.

I suppose you could be sedentary and be visiting this website looking for ways to improve your nutrition but the majority of people will fall into the 0.7-1 g per pound of bodyweight and 1.5-2.2 per kilogram of bodyweight. Keep in mind that more of often good insurance, and that some people have naturally or genetically higher requirements than others.

Here are are some more specifics:

  • Sedentary Males: 1.3–1.6 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (g/kg)
  • Sedentary Females: 1.1–1.4 g/kg
  • Endurance Trained Males: 1.6–2 g/kg
  • Endurance Trained Females: 1.4–1.8g kg
  • Strength Trained Males: 2.2–3 g/kg
  • Strength Trained Females: 1.8–2.6 g/kg

Older adults, teenagers, children should try to hit the higher ends of those ranges.

Add 10–20% if you are attempting to lose weight/fat (i.e. be in an energy deficit). So a dieting strength athlete might be better served by 2.5–3.3 g/kg, something like that.

The RDI of 0.8 g/kg is arguably based on out-of-date information and will likely be updated/increased in the next decade.