Last week I launched a month-long series all about macros! It was really exciting. In case you missed it, check out last week’s post here. In this post, I shared a general overview and breakdown of macros, so be sure to read it before diving into today’s post.
As I continue to dive deeper into macros, I’ll be taking the next few weeks to break down each of the macronutrients. To kick things off, today’s post is ALL ABOUT PROTEIN. With protein being the building blocks of our cells and our muscles, it seems like a good one to start with. In this post I outline what protein is and how your body uses it, when you should be eating protein and how much, and good sources of protein to include in your diet.
I would like to note a little disclaimer with this post and future nutrition-based posts: I am not a nutritionist, registered dietician, or a doctor. All of my information comes from personal experience, my soon-to-be husband who is a soon-to-be doctor, and reading a lot of different books and internet articles.
WHAT IS PROTEIN & HOW DOES YOUR BODY USE IT?
Protein is a macromolecule made up of a bunch of amino acids, which are vital in forming cellular machinery needed for metabolism as well as rebuilding muscles after you train. When you train, you’re breaking down your muscles, which is part of the building process. Muscles are built by adapting to the stress you put on them through training and protein aids in this process. Here’s how:
When you consume protein, your body digests it in your stomach and it’s absorbed into your body through your intestines. It is then sent directly to your liver where it’s broken down into amino acids and distributed throughout the body via the bloodstream. Amino acids are the building blocks of your cells. Think of your cells as tiny machines throughout your body, and the amino acids as the parts that make up the machine, such as the engine, the nuts and bolts, etc.
There are twenty amino acids that the body needs to function properly. However, nine of these are known as essential amino acids. Essential amino acids refers to the amino acids that you must get through your diet because your body doesn’t produce them on its own. If the protein source you just consumed contains all nine, meaning it’s a complete source of protein, the body synthesizes the protein and it’s sent off to build new muscle fibers. Any protein that isn’t used by the body is either turned into glucose or fat for energy or storage.
WHEN TO EAT PROTEIN & HOW MUCH TO EAT
It’s important to eat protein throughout the day, however it’s very important to consume protein post-training or vigorous activity. As mentioned above, training breaks down your muscles in order to make them stronger, so it’s important to fuel them with protein post-workout to maximize that rebuilding process.
The amount of protein you ‘should’ be eating per day depends largely on your weight, your goals and what kinds of activities you do. If you are sedentary, your body doesn’t need as much protein as someone who is very active, such as a competitive athlete.
In general, the recommended daily intake (RDI) is 0.8 grams per kilogram (0.36 grams/pound) of body-weight, which is approximately 45-50 grams per day for the average woman; however that is the minimum amount your body needs to be healthy.
To calculate a ballpark amount, check out this equation:
weight in kg x 0.8-1.8 gm/kg = protein in grams
Start with your weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms.
Next, take your weight in kilograms and multiply it by the daily amount percentage, depending on your activity level. If you are generally in good health but sedentary, use a lower number (ex: 0.8), if you are in good health and exercise consistently and/or at high intensities, use a higher number (between 1 and 1.8).
Keep in mind this number is a ballpark number for what you should be consuming in regards to protein based on your weight and your exercise level. It’s not by any means a concrete number etched in stone, however, it should give you a better idea of what amount of protein to try and get into your diet each day. If you have specific weight-loss goals or physical/aesthetic goals, that number may vary.
SOURCES OF PROTEIN
Does the source of protein matter? The quick answer is yes, it most certainly does. The long-answer has to do with those essential amino acids I mentioned above. A complete source of protein is one that contains all nine essential amino acids. Not all sources of proteins do. Most animal proteins are complete proteins, however many plant and soy proteins are not. That doesn’t mean they’re ‘bad’, it just means your body uses them differently. It is also worth noting that some sources of protein can be high in fat, such as beef and pork (especially sausage and bacon) and nuts when consumed in large quantities. Again, it doesn’t mean these sources are ‘bad’, however there are leaner choices and know that these should be consumed in moderation.
So, with all that being said, what kinds of protein should you be eating. You'll often hear people or food marketing refer to ‘good sources of protein’. What does it mean to be a ‘good source of protein’? In my opinion, a good source of protein is:
LEAN: meaning it doesn't have a lot of fat
DENSE: meaning you don't need to eat a lot of it to get a sufficient amount of protein
CLEAN: if you eat a lot of animal protein it's best to try and choose sources that are as clean as possible. This subject can really be a rabbit-hole, so my rule of thumb here is to do as best as you can with where you're at. Eating all organic grass-fed meat is super ideal, but isn't realistic for a lot of people, including myself. I try to eat meat that doesn’t have any antibiotics or preservatives. But if good old chicken breast is where you’re at right now, that is perfectly fine, too. I’m going to leave it at that and talk more on that subject in a future post. (But if you have questions on this topic, ask me in the comments below!)
GOOD SOURCES OF PROTEIN
EGGS | Often referred to as mother nature’s perfect food, eggs contain 6 grams of protein and 5 grams of fat each, along with a ton of other important vitamins and minerals. Not into the yokes? Other than skipping out on those vitamins and minerals, egg whites are almost all protein.
LEAN MEAT | when it comes to meat, try to stick with white meat, which contains less fat than dark meat: chicken, turkey and pork tenderloin are all good options. And be sure to choose skinless, which contains less fat. Beef isn’t a bad option, as long as you buy the leanest cut(s) available. For ground beef, stick to 90/10 or leaner.
FISH | fish and other seafood is a great lean source of protein because it contains less fat than most other meat. Fish that tends to have more fat, like salmon, is still a good source of protein because the fat it does contain is healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
BEANS & LEGUMES | if you can tolerate digesting beans and other legumes (like lentils or chickpeas), they are a great source of protein AND fiber. They can be added to soups or blended into sauces or spreads adding extra flavor, protein and fiber to your meals.
NUTS & SEEDS | many nuts and nut-butters, like almonds and peanuts, and seeds, such as pumpkin seeds, are high in protein. However, they are also high in fat if consumed in large amounts. Keep these guys handy for a small, balanced snack or to top off a meal when you’re in need of a little extra protein.
DAIRY | if you eat dairy, skim and other low-fat dairy options are a good way to add protein to your diet. Sour cream, yogurt (low-fat greek yogurt especially), skim milk and cottage cheese are all lean dairy sources, just be sure to choose kinds that don’t contain added sugar.
PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTS | In general, protein powder is a great way to get protein in quick post-workout. It’s easy for the body to digest, especially after a hard workout when eating a steak may not be so appetizing. Think of protein shakes as a supplement to your nutrition, not as a meal-replacement. The purpose of the shake is to aid in post-workout replenishment and give your body some quick, easy to process fuel before you can get in a solid meal.
In regards to types of protein powders, I will be doing a future blog post all about different kinds of protein powder. So, if you have questions about this topic, post them in the comments below!
So, there you have it! A closer look at protein and its role in your body, your diet, and your training. Like I mentioned during the post, there are a few future posts I will be doing on topics I brought up during this post, but if you have any specific comments or questions that came up for you while reading this post, please let me know in the comments below or feel free to shoot me an email.