There are very few foods we eat these days that haven’t been idolized or crucified by one group or anther for it’s supposed disease-causing, or disease-curing properties. Everything from fats and carbs, to the minerals in water, or hidden toxins in food packaging have all been blamed for our health issues. It’s particularly confusing and frustrating for anyone keeping up with media reports, where every day the nutrition advice is changing, and what was healthy for us yesterday is the worst thing we could eat today.
In reality though, nutrition science moves a HECK of a lot slower than the media does. Everyday I see dozens of click bait nutrition articles on my social media feeds, but to be honest most of them are complete junk. As a Dietitian I know not to get too excited about every study that gets published, because it takes YEARS of good quality research to prove that something has solid enough evidence to require a change in my practice. So, despite the media changing their mind about each new supplement or fad diet everyday, real nutrition professionals are sticking to what is proven to actually work!
When it comes to protein, it seems as though on the one hand it’s being added to EVERYTHING (I’ve even seen high-protein water!), yet we’re simultaneously being warned of too much protein being bad for us . With the recent popularity in vegan diets, and a simultaneous and completely contradicted revival of low-carb diets (such as the ketogenic diet, among others), we’re left very confused about protein and how much we should really be eating.
On the one hand, we have team vegan warning us of the dangers of animal proteins, their disease-causing and cancerous effects. “Humans were not meant to eat meat!” they exclaim. “It’s unnatural and detrimental to our health!” Their belief is that we should eat a diet that is made of only plant foods, which by nature is higher in carbohydrates vs protein.
Yet, at the same time the low-carb diet advocats shout from their equally tall soap boxes “Humans were not meant to eat carbohydrates!” “It’s unnatural and detrimental to our health!”
As humans one thing is absolutely certain….we NEED food to live (unless you’re a breathatarian, but that’s a whole other thing) but in today’s world deciding WHAT to eat can be a real challenge….
Protein is an essential nutrient because it is responsible for building and maintaining our bodies cells. We can’t create something out of nothing, and protein is what gives our bodies those building blocks to build new tissue. We are in a constant state of turnover within our bodies where old cells are broken down and shiny new ones replace them. When we exercise we cause even more damage to the muscle cells and protein is responsible for repairing and rebuilding new, stronger muscle. If we have an injury, protein plays a role in our body’s ability to heal, such as a cut, bruise, or surgical incision.
So, how much protein you personally need depends on a few factors: your body weight (bigger people need more protein), your activity level, and whether or not you’ve had a recent surgery or illness that has increased your protein requirement.
A sedentary or lightly active person who is trying to maintain their current weight requires about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of their body weight. So, if you weigh 70kg, you should make sure to get about 56g of protein everyday to maintain your muscle mass. This amount of protein means that your rate of muscle building (synthesis) equals your rate of muscle breakdown.
What about active folks who are trying to increase their muscle mass?
They do need to eat a little more protein to support muscle growth and recovery (because their rate of protein synthsis would be higher than their rate of muscle breakdown = muscle growth). But, the amount of protein they need is not nearly as much as a lot of online sources say. For example many body building websites will encourage 1 gram of protein per pound of your body weight. That’s a LOT! (If you weigh 160lbs, that’s a whopping 160g of protein!) It’s important to remember that although protein isn’t a main energy source for our bodies like carbohydrates or fats are, it is still not a calorie-free food. Protein provides us with 4 calories per gram of protein, so if we’re overeating on protein, our total calorie intake might be higher than we expect.
The real number is actually closer to 1.2 grams per kilogram of your body weight. So, for a 160lb person (72kg), the protein recommendation is about 87 grams per day. This is usually my target for my clients regular exercisers who are looking to increase their muscle mass, but aren’t training for hours everyday like a pro athlete would. To put it into perspective a serving of meat (which is about the size of a deck of cards) contains about 25 grams of protein. Pulses, dairy, nuts and whole grains also contribute considerable amounts of protein into our diets, so meeting that target is pretty manageable without needing protein shakes or supplements. However, for convenience sake they can be a good on-the-go option.
Higher level athletes (who are training for several hours per day) should eat up to 1.5 grams of protein kilogram of their body weight, but research has shown that there is no benefit to going over 2 grams per kg per day. So that 1 gram per pound recommendation is just too much, no matter your activity level. Which brings up an important question…
What happens if we eat too much protein? Can we even eat too much protein?
Unfortunately we don’t have a way to store protein in our bodies so we can use it later (like we can with muscle glycogen from carbohydrates or body fat from fat). Our bodies being the clever, resourceful things that they are though save the excess calories from protein for later in the form of body fat. Protein provides us with 4 calories per gram, so, if you’re consistently eating more protein than your body can use, it’s really not beneficial, and could be adding up in terms of your total calorie intake. If you’re a very active person you’re actually better off getting some of those extra calories from carbohydrates instead which will provide more fuel for your next workout rather than over-eating high protein foods, which will just be converted into fat.
More protein does not equal more muscle growth. We need a combination of adequate nutrition PLUS strength training to stimulate muscle growth
It’s also important to note the importance of timing our protein intake throughout the day. Our bodies can only digest and absorb a limited quantity of protein per meal (depending on body size), so it’s important to space our protein intake throughout the day for optimal benefit, rather than skimping on protein at breakfast and lunch and having a 16oz steak for dinner. Because we can’t store that extra protein for later, it’s best to space out our intake more evenly throughout the day.
Do we need to eat meat to get enough protein?
Nope! There are plenty of plant-based foods out there that offer us great sources of protein. Depending on your specific protein target you may easily be able to meet your protein needs eating foods like pulses, nuts and seeds, soy, and whole grains. If your needs are higher however (say, if you’re a competitive athlete), you may find this to be more of a challenge. This is where protein supplements such as shakes or protein bars may play a role. For busy individuals who have a difficult time meeting their protein needs just with plant-based whole foods, a protein bar or shake can be a convenient option. As people are incorporating more plant-based foods into their diet gains popularity, vegan protein supplements are growing both in number of options and quality. If you choose to go animal-free you can still get all of the protein you need. It is important to note however that unprocessed or minimally processed animal foods (like fresh meat, eggs, or dairy) are not associated with any increased risk of disease.
So for most of us, paying a lot of money for a flavored water beverage with added protein is probably overkill. The vast majority of us can pretty easily meet our body’s protein needs by simply choosing whole foods that are sources of high quality protein. Protein supplements can come in handy for those who like a convenient meal option, but are not a necessity for recreational athletes.
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