Why Protein Is So Important

Vegans and Vegetarians…look away…

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.

First by saying you don’t eat macronutrients like protein, you eat food.

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.

We’ll also touch on why I think you should strongly consider eating more of it. More than you might think or already do.

Protein Can Be Complicated

Keep in mind that the foods I’m about to discuss 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.

Classification as I’m about to do it, just makes things a little easier on you.

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. They often get labelled as a “high protein food.”

This also as something to do with the quality of egg protein. It’s one of the purest, most bioavailable protein sources you can ingest from an unprocessed food source.

Yet if we look at eggs from a total caloric displacement. You’ll see that an egg actually has more fat that protein, relative to its energy load. 6 grams of fat times 9 kcal vs 7 grams of protein times 4 kcal.

Fat makes up about 60% of the energy (calories) available in an egg, even though there are fewer grams of it.

With that in mind, I still generally classify eggs as an optimal protein source. 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.

I just want to make sure you’re informed, that hitting adequate levels of protein consumption can be a little more challenging for you.

It’s still possible, you just have to get a little more creative.

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.

Being a Vegan gives you less choice for high quality protein options, and as a result supplementation may be really important for you.

Vegan Protein Sources
Legumes are an excellent option for Vegans

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. 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. If you exercise (and you should be) then your protein requirements go up.

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

This is why simplistically, they are frequently referred to as the building blocks of the body. Or the glue that holds everything together.

Your body is mostly water and proteins.

How Much Should You Get?

1-2 palm sized servings per meal

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.

If you’re the kind of person who snacks 0.5-1 of these may be more ideal for small well crafted snacks between full meals.

If you want to get all “macro” about it. We’re looking for a 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 for the metrically minded.

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 three palm-sized servings of protein each day, or one with every meal for three meals.

Frankly that specific is more complicated than most people need.

It’s easier to focus on per meal (or per snack) breakdowns to hit your requirements.

Figuring out your lean mass for a hyper specific protein intake is overkill for anyone not competing on stage in a bikini or speedo.

More Than You Need To Know

For the sake of discussion or perhaps those ready for the next level above my first recommendation.

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 and new research I believe this old minimum recommendation to be inadequate.

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.

*I still prefer to break that down into palm sized servings though, rather than dealing with grams. Easier…

Well what gives, why would you want to eat more protein if you wanted to lose fat? Should I eat less?

Well the thermic effect of food discussed below for one. Energy displacement for two.

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’ll likely eat less overall if you consume satiating protein at every meal. I’m thinking mostly about satiety.

If you’re more satisfied, you’re less hungry. When you’re in an energy deficit, regular protein consumption helps manage hunger. Hunger sucks.

Why do I use per lean mass?

Shooting for grams of protein per lean mass, gives you a good target for weight loss pursuits, and muscle mass gains. With it, 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.

Yes, your protein requirements could be even higher with a weight loss objective. Energy deficits increase protein requirements.

You can use per total pound or simple per kg of total mass if you are just trying to eat a well rounded diet. It’s just not as accurate or appropriate for the types of clients that should be using a macro-based approach.

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

Think of it as three steps:

  1. Get frequent 1-2 palms per meal consumption first
  2. Manipulate other things and see how they play
  3. Maybe…consider shooting for a total number based on bodyweight
  4. Still not enough? Go to the more specific ‘per lean mass’ numbers.

Minimums Don’t Mean Optimum

Keep in mind that these are my recommended MINIMUM requirements.

I’m directly referring to sources of (generally lean) complete proteins.

*For my rough calculations, I do not generally include the small amounts of incomplete proteins found in vegetables and plants. 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.

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.

A critical benefit of higher protein intakes is that higher intakes preserve lean tissue mass. If there is ever going to be a macronutrient constant, in your diet. It should be protein.

Lean mass is more metabolically active for those with fat loss objectives. Preserving lean tissue for muscle mass gains, athletic performance and generally health and well-being, is crucial.

There may be extenuating circumstances to consider for optimization but a good starting place with a palm-sized serving or two at every meal.

Ultimately it’s easiest to focus on protein consumption on a meal by meal basis. Each meal is under your direct control.

If you want to get more specific about it, calculate your rough minimum daily requirements and break down your palm-sized servings to meet those by a bit.

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 and why I’m specifying ‘complete proteins‘ vs ‘incomplete proteins.’

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

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

*It’s slightly more complicated than this. There is also some debate for a few amino acids that we may not be particularly efficient at producing on our own. However, the above information is most 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.

Not at every meal mind you. That’s an old wives tale. You just need a decent average daily intake from a variety of sources if you’re not consuming complete proteins with all your meals.

There is nothing wrong with popular rice or corn and bean combos. Yes, when combined like that, they make a complete protein, but it’s not necessary to do this at every meal.

Poultry is really lean and rich in complete protein

Here are some recommended serving sources for meat-eaters and plant-based-eaters alike. These recommendations 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-sized serving is an easier way to remember.

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 its 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).

Hopefully it’s 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.

For a weight loss objective, I’d keep intakes high. If you’re hunger between meals, eat more protein.

If you have a muscle mass or athletic objective, you might want to consume a little more protein at every meal. Training induces more muscle protein synthesis, so you want protein to be available for that.

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

It Increases Satiety

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 as hunter gatherers.

Of course, now, we are no longer hunter-gatherers. Food is in abundance, so we actually have to find ways to slow ourselves down.

Back in the day, hunger was a motivating sensation in the quest for enough food. These days we need strategies to help avoid the sensation.

There are other things that help that, like fibre, but protein is the most potent.

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 awesome. You’ll eat less throughout the day. Without having to worry 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. Add more carbohydrates to this mix. Maybe 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.

The most troublesome foods in modern society are often low in protein and low in satiety. i.e. cakes, cookies, candy bars, chocolate, etc…etc…

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.

It increases satiability, so it also decreases the likelihood of overeating problematic foods, even when you do eat them.

It also alters how other foods in your diet are digested. You get better blood sugar control, better hormone management, and slower digestion.

It doesn’t matter what other combination of macronutrients you use really, when you’re consuming complete meals with a protein base.

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 appear fine. That’s double my typical recommendations for athletes and mass gainers.

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

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

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. If you’re concerned get some renal testing done.

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…

Recommendations

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.

For general and non-complicated recommendations. Females should opt for 1 palm-sized serving at every meal. Males should opt for 2. Then adjust upward or downward as needed.

Let your results dictate the changing you make.

If you want to take things to the next level you can calculate how many palms 0.7-1 g per pound of bodyweight or 1.5-2.2 per kilogram of bodyweight is.

Keep in mind that some people have naturally or genetically higher requirements than others.

Here are are some more advanced specifics:

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

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

Once you have your numbers, I still think you should work backwards based on palm-sized servings. Again, it’s just easiest to manage. 5 servings (~125 grams) is easier to figure out daily than counting the grams.

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.


Also published on Medium.