Protein is probably THE most important macro for you to get in your diet…
But also the most difficult.
Probably the biggest struggle with majority of new clients is adding in more protein.
I mean what’s so great about it that we have to almost force ourselves, at first, to eat it?
A quick biology lesson.
Protein comprises almost everything in your body. You’ve probably heard about DNA. Your DNA is what makes you…well you. It’s your genetic code that essentially predicts everything about you and your life: hair color, eye color, height, skin color, overall size, and even diseases. You’ve probably heard about BRCA-1 gene that makes you more at risk for breast cancer. This is a mutation and gene that is present in your DNA. But DNA is just a clump of code and jumble essentially that exists in a little compartment in each of your cells. It’s like assembling a car and having all the needed parts that will determine what car it will be (Volkswagen, grey, Jetta, etc.) but right now it’s just a ton of parts that know what it’s going to be, but isn’t just yet. Your body then has to take that DNA and go through a series of steps and processes to turn into something functional. That “something functional” is protein.
Protein can be broken down into little building blocks, called amino acids. There’s 20 essential amino acids that our bodies need for survival because almost everything in your body comes from or contains protein (and amino acids). Unfortunately, our bodies don’t make amino acids or protein…they have to come from an outside source via food. Amino acids basically become stores that our bodies take from when turning DNA into protein. You have all types of protein in your body that vary by function. The arrangement and order of amino acids determines the protein and in turn functionality. It’s what distinguishes hair from muscle.
Everything in your body is protein. One common misconception behind protein is that protein is only needed for muscle. In reality, everything in your body is made of protein: your hair, skin, muscle, organs, teeth, ligaments, cartilage, etc. More than that, all processes that happen in your body are controlled by proteins: your immune system, your digestion, liver function, etc. You don’t need to eat protein simply to bulk up and becomes full of muscle. You need to eat protein because you need to survive.
Now there’s more than just basic biology for why you should be eating protein.
Protein is the building blocks for putting on muscle and achieving a lean and toned body. Low protein diets are what leads to “skinny fat” body types.
More calories (20-30%) from protein are needed simply for digestion. This means that if you eat 100 calories of protein (25g), that 20-30 calories alone will be used simply to digest and break it down. This is compared to 0-5% for fats and carbs. Because it takes more energy, this brings up your metabolism and increases your daily expenditure.
Protein is a lot more chemically complex compared to carbs and fats, which is why it takes more energy to digest it. It also takes more time to digest protein, which helps fight off cravings and keeps you satiated longer.
Protein has some of the most diverse and extensive micronutrient profile. This is usually a benefit solely attributed to fruits and veggies. Red meat, however, has one of the most micronutrient profiles and actually has the second highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids (anti-inflammatory fats!). Eating protein helps your overall health in many ways.
Why is protein so hard to eat?
There’s a number of reasons why protein is a lot more difficult to eat.
One of the biggest reasons stems from our society and Westernized diet. We simply haven’t glamorized protein like fats and carbs, so it doesn’t have the appeal that carbs and fats have. It doesn’t offer the same reward mentally and emotionally, which is the exact opposite with carbs and even fats. When we crave foods, we crave foods that will be rewarding…and protein isn’t that because we didn’t grow up with that reward process. As a kid, if you did something good, you got ice cream…not a bowl of chicken.
False studies in the past demonized protein and claimed it was toxic and damaging to your kidneys. This created a mindset that people can’t shake. Now, all of these studies have been debunked, but unfortunately remains in people’s minds. In fact, the one study that started this whole debate conducted its studies on patients with pre-existing kidney conditions. If you are a healthy individual without a pre-existing kidney condition, studies have shown that you can eat up to—if not more—double your bodyweight in protein.
Plant-based advocates have also demonized protein claiming its toxicity and damaging effects on humans and the human diet. If you look evolutionarily, our ancestors have survived on a protein-based diet. I used to follow an influencer who advocated against protein, claiming protein is what has caused autism, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and obesity in the US. Again, this has been debunked time and time again by scientifically validated and replicated studies. In fact, these issues are more likely related to the rise of processed foods and high-sugar diets and drop in whole foods (fruits, veggies, and high-quality protein). Also, you can be a plant-based advocate while still eating protein, so this isn’t the best reason to avoid protein. Protein doesn’t have to equal meat. Dairy, eggs, lentils, legumes, quinoa, tofu, etc. are all great protein sources that are meat-free.
How much protein??
Generally, body weight! The suggested range is 0.8-1.2g protein per lb lean body mass. If you meet in the middle at 1g/lb, you’re looking at roughly body weight.
This varies per person, though.
If you’re in a cut, trying to lose weight, you may want to consider taking protein up to 1.2x your body weight. This is going to help fight that hunger response and lower cravings.
If you have a decent bit of weight to lose, >25lbs, then you’ll actually want to set your protein intake to target body weight. If you’re 200lbs and trying to get to 150lbs, then set your protein to 150-160g protein/day.
If you’re a vegetarian, ideally, you should be striving for body weight protein, but that may be completely unrealistic to hit, also while having to keep carbs and fats where they’re supposed to be. For vegetarians, going more towards that 0.8g/lb may be more realistic.
Can you do more? Sure. As I previously mentioned, some studies have taken protein intake up to double body weight and so no adverse effects on performance, recovery, energy levels, digestion, and even health and kidney function. You can easily take protein up to double your body weight if that’s a diet you want to follow. There are a couple of reasons why we generally don’t do this. The first reason is that it all comes down to calories. If you’re eating 300g protein (double for a 150lb person), then that’s 1200 calories alone that you have to dedicate to eating protein. If your maintenance is 2000 calories, then this only gives you 800 calories left for your carbs and fats. This could mean only 50g fats and 100g carbs…which is not a lot and may be unsustainable for you to stick to. The second reason is that we don’t see much of an added benefit to a higher protein diet once you get past that 1.2-1.4g/lb mark. Unless that’s a diet you want, you don’t have to load up on all the chicken. (remember every diet works, just has to be what you can stick to.
How do you meet your daily protein prescription?
Now the part you’ve been waiting for…because this is where people, likely you, struggle the most.
Step 1. Decide how much protein you’re going to eat, which you should have done above. Remember, generally body weight or target body weight.
Step 2. Decide on how many meals you’re going to eat in a day.
The best meal frequency and meal timing is the one that works for your schedule and your lifestyle. A teacher, for example, will probably follow a 3-4 meal/day plan because their schedule isn’t as flexible as say mine, someone who works from home and controls 95% of her schedule. Look realistically at your schedule. When do you eat or prefer to eat? When can you eat? If you can follow a schedule that lets you eat 4-5 meals/day, then that is going to be the best because that’s typically the number of meals we see work best for the majority of people. If you’re a grazer and it works with your schedule, you’ll eat more meals in a day. If you’re not a grazer and like bigger meals, you’ll probably stick to 3-4 meals/day.
*Note – a post-workout shake with or without carbs does count as a meal! You’ll see why in a second.
Step 3. Evenly space throughout the day.
Protein consumption is not like carbohydrates. Carbs fuel your workouts…so it’s best to center majority of your carbs before, [during], and after training. Protein is different. As I first mentioned, protein is needed for everything in your body. It also keeps you full and reduces cravings. Therefore, you want to constantly give your body protein throughout the day. To do this, you’ll divide the amount of protein you plan to eat in a day by the number of meals, which will give you roughly how much protein to eat at a given meal.
Example: I eat 160g protein daily and 5 meals: breakfast, lunch, pre-workout, post-workout shake, and dinner. 160/5 = 32. This means that I should eat 30-35g protein/meal, which truly isn’t a lot. It equates to 5-6oz protein/meal, which is only about a handful of protein…something that is very manageable.
Step 4. Meal prep.
Preparing ahead of time is going to save you.
I love keeping meals interesting, but rather than have every single meal something new and exciting, I choose dinners as my chance to cook and bring in some creativity. The other meals are generally much more boring…but way more consistent, which makes my life a lot easier.
Pick at least 2 proteins that you’re going to make in bulk on Sundays. For me, this varies between shredded chicken, turkey burgers, chicken burgers, and beef burgers. I make roughly 2 lbs/week every week. You can also get deli meat, rotisserie chicken, pre-grilled chicken. You can then use these to prep lunches and/or breakfasts.
Then dinner, I always have something on hand either made or ready to be made. This is usually when I eat fish, most cases salmon, pork chops or steak. If I’m not craving or wanting an animal source, I’ll use this meal to get more creative with some bowls and use quinoa or lentils, eggs, black beans, etc. The point is that I’m prepping for 3 meals, which leaves me that one meal to have some fun with.
Step 5. Pre-log
The key to hitting your protein goal is to plan ahead the night before. Go into MyFitnessPal and plug in what you’re going to eat the next day. Always start with protein.
I always first put in my post-workout shake. That will never change and always puts me on track to hitting my protein goal. I generally have the same thing for breakfast…either some form of egg scramble or 2-3 homemade chicken sausage patties (recipe guide coming soon!), so that goes in second. Then I’ll put in what I want to have for dinner. I have a 6oz pork chop left, so that will be my dinner. Now I have two meals left over. I have two proteins prepped for the week in the fridge, so I will make my meals from that…and boom! 5 easily constructed meals getting me right to that 160g goal!
If you eat fewer meals, then you would simply want to add more protein to each meal OR rely on some additional snacks and tricks…which brings me to Step 6.
Step 6. Snacks and alternatives
You don’t always have to rely on meals or large portions of chicken or turkey to help you hit your protein goal.
Other forms of protein include dairy, oats, quinoa, beans and legumes, and lentils. A Greek Yogurt snack with some berries is 20g protein… and you don’t even have to make this a whole meal. Overnight oats (with or without protein powder) is a great alternative. This will also let you reduce the number of meals you’re eating and be able to incorporate some smaller snacks.
You’re also seeing protein-packed foods enter the grocery aisles nowadays. Protein pastas and breads are popping up. Don’t avoid these at all! Double check the ingredient list so they’re not loaded up with hidden ingredients but most are just black bean or lentil pastas, which are derived from whole foods and great for you.
Bone broth is also another great alternative. Some drink this…I have yet to get there. Instead, I make my rice using bone broth instead of water for some added protein (and flavor!) Just make sure you create a recipe on MFP and use servings from that added entry so it takes into account for the added protein.
If you’re struggling to hit your protein goal, don’t be afraid to use protein powders to help reach your goal. Are you better off with whole food sources? Yes. Is it better to just not eat protein or hate your diet than drink a protein shake? No. In fact, this is often a starting point for many of my clients because it helps me convince them and educate them on the benefits of protein. Once they see that, they are then more motivated to physically eating more protein. This is also especially true for vegetarians. I would stick to no more than 2 servings of protein powders/day, but there is no reason why you can’t use their help.
Step 7. Practice makes perfect
Protein doesn’t have to be some impossible macro that becomes a thorn in your side.
It does take a bit of preparing on the front end to practice and perfect your protein game. I promise you that even just 2 weeks of effort will be enough to convince you 1. how great protein is and 2. how easy it actually is to consume in a given day!
This is what I do for every single client when they sign on. They have these calculations done for them. I go into their daily schedule and food log and make suggestions as to when and what to eat based on their lifestyle. If you want to have all of this without the stress of actually having to do any of the hard work, apply here for a free consult call to set up your individualized coaching plan.