Over the next 2-3 months, I will be publishing three articles breaking down the three macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fats – and the role they each play in our daily nutrition and around exercise.
I am starting with protein. Understanding proper protein intake is the first step in taking control of your hunger and mood, managing your weight, powering your exercise, and getting restful sleep.
The Roles of Protein
- Repairs damaged muscles and allows for muscle rebuilding and recovery
- Improves immune function
- Involved in muscle contraction (including the heart)
- Balances blood sugar levels
- Increases caloric burn after meals
- Building block of all cells in the body (hair, skin, nails, cartilage, blood, bone)
- Regulates hormone production and release
I. Best Sources
Protein is found in a variety of animal- and plant-based foods: meat, fish, dairy, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, soy, grains, and even some vegetables (Did you know that 1 cup of steamed broccoli has as much protein as an egg??)
Animal protein contains all of the essential amino acids (building blocks of protein), which makes it easier to use for our body. However, whether you are vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, flexitarian, omnivore, carnivore, paleo, or keto – we can all benefit from eating more plant-based proteins. They contain little-to-no saturated fat, and cholesterol, and are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The key is eating unprocessed sources of protein, wherever it comes from, and understanding when your body can benefit from different sources.
When it comes to animal-based protein, here is a list ranked from best to worst choices:
Seafood: Aim for at least 4 servings weekly; wild as much as possible
- Best choice: Wild fatty fish (salmon, sustainable tuna, herring, trout, sardines, anchovies)
- Good alternative: white fish (cod, rockfish, sole); wild shellfish, clams, oysters, mussels
- Avoid: tilapia, catfish, farmed shrimp, deep fried and breaded seafood, imitation crab
*Seaweed also comes with health benefits, and can easily be found in groceries.
Wild game: If you catch it, eat it! Wild game, whether fowl, elk, bison, or crocodile, is lean, full of iron, and untainted by our commercial food system.
Poultry: Organic as much as possible
- Best choice: chicken and turkey breast and tenderloins, or buy a full bird and use the carcass for stocks. Eggs should also be organic.
- Good alternative: free range, vegetarian fed – if buying ground, make sure it says “100%”. Ground turkey and chicken are great substitutes for ground beef or pork.
- Limit: eating the skin, especially if you can’t buy organic since the fat is where the hormones are stored. Limit chicken and turkey sausage – although they are a better option than their beef and pork counterparts, they are still high in sodium.
Red Meat (beef, pork, lamb): organic as much as possible; eat no more than 2x weekly
- Best choice: lean cuts like loin, round, chuck, and flank
- Good alternative: grass-fed. If buying ground, buy at least 90/10.
- Limit: processed and cured meats, including bacon, sausage, hot dogs, corned beef, pepperoni, SPAM, lunchmeat, salami, chorizo, Canadian bacon, etc.
Dairy: organic as much as possible
- Best choice: fermented and cultured – plain Greek yogurt, kefir and cottage cheese. If you like sheep/goat milk and cheese, they are more digestible than cow dairy.
- Good alternatives: aged white cheese – what color is cream when it comes out of a cow?
- Limit: sweetened dairy, fat-free milk, American cheese, any cheese in a can or jar. Try not buy pre-shredded cheese, which has preservatives added to it.
Soy: should always be organic
- Best choice: whole soy foods – tempeh, sprouted tofu, miso, natto, and edamame.
- Limit: soy sauce, soy milk, soy cheese, soy flour, so lecithin, and soy protein. Limit “fake meats” such as Soyrizo®, soy cheese, and other processed patties and nuggets.
- Good alternative: Opt for coconut aminos, Braggs, or gluten-free tamari instead of soy sauce. Use almond or other nut milk over soy milk; and if looking for a burger or nugget, buy one that uses peas, beans, and grains instead of wheat gluten and soy.
II. When to Eat It
The human body has adequate storage space for excess carbohydrates and fat. However, protein is not stored in the same capacity. Thus, it is important that protein is consumed at moderate and regular intervals throughout the day.
Including protein, every time you eat helps to stabilize blood sugar to prevent spikes and dips. This is especially important your first meal of the day when blood sugar levels can be at their lowest.
One other critical time to ingest protein is after exercise, due to its key role in muscle recovery. It is best to get protein in as soon as possible, ideally within 15-30 minutes; the longer you wait, the less protein will be used by your muscles. Make sure to include carbohydrate with your protein to help with easy and quick absorption. Research shows that 20-30g protein after a workout, with a 3:1 ratio of carbs: protein, is the gold standard for muscle repair, recovery, and growth, as well as hormone and immune recovery. If you can, choose a protein source high in leucine, one of the branched-chain amino acids. Examples include dairy (specifically sources high in whey), eggs, seafood, beef, chicken, and pork. Soy is the only plant source with significant leucine, but by combining plant proteins (legumes + seeds + nuts) you can meet your leucine needs.
III. How Much Is Enough?
There seems to be a lot of confusion over (a) how much protein we actually need, and (b) what that looks like in a “rea food” sense. How much you need can depend on a lot of factors: age; gender; weight; exercise type, frequency, intensity, and duration; personal goals; and other factors like injury and illness. Athletes and active individuals need more protein than inactive individuals. The recommendation ranges from 1.2-2.2g protein per kg body weight (divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to find your weight in kg). Generally, this breaks down to 20-30% of your total calories.
How your spread out your protein intake is almost more important than how much you eat in a day. Adequate protein is important, but because we do not store protein well, any excess leftover from a meal (whatever goes unused by our body) gets stored as body fat, and the waste products are shed through our kidneys, which can be taxing over time. Depending on age, gender, and the other factors mentioned above, the body can only use up to 30-40g protein in one sitting. Males, elderly individuals, Masters athletes, and those who are seriously ill are on the higher end of the spectrum.
Generally, these recommendations are a good place to start:
- Female athletes: 20-30g with meals, 10-20g with snacks, 20-30g with post-workout snack*
- Male athletes: 30-40g with meals, 15-25g with snacks, 30-40g with post-workout snack*
*These numbers are generalizations – the number of meals and snacks you eat daily, as well as how you time your workouts with meals, will vary based on your personal performance and body composition goals.
To paint a picture of what this looks like, here is a female and male meal plan:
Female Male Breakfast 1 cup plain Greek yogurt topped with fruit and muesli 4 egg scramble with veggies & cheese (optional lean protein i.e. fish or poultry)
*sub 12oz sprouted tofu or tempeh
*Can add toast or fruit
Snack #1 1-2 boiled eggs with fruit or 1 cup plain Greek yogurt or cottage cheese with fruit Lunch Salad with ½ cup beans, ½ cup grains, ½ cup animal protein (or ½ cup beans). Add seeds, avocado, or olive oil. Burrito bowl with ½ c rice, ½ cup beans, ½ cup animal protein (or ½ cup beans), cheese, avocado, veggies. Snack #2 Handful of trail mix or RX bar Handful of trail mix or RX bar Workout Run 30-90 minutes Run 30-90 minutes Dinner 4-5 ounces salmon, chicken or steak with roasted veggies and potatoes 5-6 ounces salmon, chicken, or steak with roasted veggies and potatoes
Want to know more about how much protein is right for you? Email Heidi at Heidi.firstname.lastname@example.org. She also offers meal plans, nutrition programs, and one-time phone sessions to help you understand how you can use nutrition to meet your goals.