Protein is essential for muscle gain, fat loss, strength gain, and performance. But not only that, it’s critical for our health and vital bodily functions too.
If you’ve ever wondered about what dietary protein is, why it’s so important, and how much you actually need, then this article is for you. This simple guide will answer all of your questions about protein and help you personalize your daily needs.
What Are Dietary Proteins?
Protein’s are organic molecules made up of different combinations of amino acids — the building blocks of life.
To form proteins, amino acids are linked together by chemical bonds and then folded in unique ways to create 3D structures that serve various functions in our bodies.
There are 20 amino acids that can be divided into two primary categories —outlined in the graphic below.
Nine of them are essential, meaning our bodies can’t make them, so we have to get them from our diets. The rest are non-essential because our bodies can manufacture them.
But under some circumstances — such as infancy, illness and stress — arginine, cysteine, glutamine, and tyrosine become conditionally essential. During these times, our bodies can’t always make as much as we need, so we have to consume them.
In order meet our body’s essential amino acid needs, we have to include foods that are high in protein at most meals.
A protein source is considered complete if it provides all of the essential amino acids. Animal proteins like meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy are complete proteins. There are also some plant-based proteins that are complete — including soy, hemp, and quinoa.
Any protein that is lacking one or more of the essential amino acids is considered incomplete. Most plant-based proteins (with the exception of the three listed above) are incomplete.
If you’re vegetarian you can use different combinations of incomplete proteins to form a complete protein meal. However, keep in mind that plant-based protein sources typically deliver far less protein per gram, so your total intake must be higher to meet your protein needs.
You really only need to worry about complete versus incomplete proteins if your overall protein intake is really low. If you meet your daily protein requirements and eat a variety of both animal and plant sources, you’ll get all of the essential (and non-essential) amino acids that your body needs.
Why Is It So Important To Eat Enough Protein?
Protein is probably best known for being the macronutrient most critical for building muscle, but it does so much more than that.
- help build and repair most of our body’s tissues, including muscles, bones, organs, blood vessels, skin, hair, and fingernails.
- help synthesize important molecules like enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and antibodies that are critical for normal bodily functions.
- support our immune system.
- boosts our metabolism and keeps us satiated, which helps us lose body fat and stay lean for life.
How Much Protein Do You Actually Need?
The amount of protein you need depends on a few factors — like body weight, amount of lean mass, and gender — but the most important factor is probably activity level.
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) for protein is currently set at 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. So… for a 150 lb. woman, this would equate to about 54 grams per day. Now if that number sounds surprisingly low to you, that’s because it is.
The RDA was based on a sample of sedentary adults and is the minimal amount of protein needed per day to prevent deficiency. In other words, it’s not optimal, especially for athletes and people that exercise regularly. So if you’re an active woman, you need to eat more than the current RDA prescribes.
Here are some daily protein intake guidelines based on current research:
- Sedentary women looking to lose body fat need about 1.0 - 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram bodyweight. (About 68-102 grams of protein per day for a 150 lb. woman.)
- Active women and athletes that primary do endurance training, should aim for 1.2 - 1.5 grams per kilogram bodyweight. (About 82-102 grams of protein per day for a 150 lb. woman.)
- Women that strength train, participate in strength or explosive sports, and active women looking to build muscle should shoot for closer to 1.6 - 1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. (About 109-122 grams of protein per day for a 150 lb. woman.)
Any recommendations above 2.0 grams per kilogram bodyweight isn’t well-supported by current scientific literature. It seems that intakes this high don’t contribute to increased protein synthesis (i.e. growth and repair), so anything in excess of 2g/kg is essentially “useless”.
How To Apply These Recommendations In Real Life
At this point you might be thinking:
"Gah! All of these numbers are confusing, just tell me what to eat!"
Unless you’re an athlete competing at a very high level or a physique competitor, you don’t have to base your intake on fancy calculations.
All you have to do is aim to include a serving of lean protein at each meal (and snack).
Here’s a list of protein sources that will help you get the most bang for your buck:
- Poultry such as chicken and turkey
- Lean meats such as beef, pork, and wild game
- Fish and seafood
- Eggs and egg whites
- Lean dairy products such as cottage cheese or plain Greek yogurt
- Cooked legumes such as beans and lentils
- Tempeh or tofu
Start with a serving of protein that’s about the size of the palm of your hand and then make adjustments from there. (That’s the recommendation for women, men start with a serving that’s about twice the size of your palm.)
A palm-sized serving provides about 20-30 grams of protein and is equivalent to:
- 3-4 oz. of poultry, meat, fish, or seafood
- 3 large eggs or 1 cup of egg whites
- 1 cup of low-fat, plain Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
- 1 scoop of protein powder
- 1.5 cups of beans or legumes
- 6-8 oz. of tempeh or tofu
Like I mentioned before, a palm-sized serving is just a starting point — some women will need a little more, others a little less. In order to figure out what works best for you, you’ll have to experiment a bit and tune into your body’s natural hunger cues.
If you’re still feeling hungry after your meals, try increasing your protein intake a bit. If you’re starting to feel full before finishing your meals, on the other hand, cut back your serving size slightly.
Also be mindful of how you’re recovering from your workouts. If you’re feeling sore all time, you might need to up your serving sizes just a bit.
What About Protein Powders?
High-quality protein powders can be convenient and portable sources of protein.
But lets be clear here, protein powders aren’t magical weight-loss or muscle-building catalysts and you don’t need them in your diet.
I recommend prioritizing whole food protein sources and only using protein supplements when you need them for convenience or if you’re really struggling to meet your requirements with whole foods.
When choosing a protein powder, stick to the basics…
- Look for one without a lot of additives, especially sugar, food colouring, artificial flavours, artificial sweeteners, added “performance supplements” or “muscle building agents” that your body doesn’t need. Like most other packaged foods — the shorter the ingredient list, the better.
- Choose a type you know you can digest well. I you have a dairy allergy or intolerance, then avoid whey or casein and try a plant- or egg-based protein powder instead.
- If you’re using a milk-based protein power, then look for digestive enzymes on the label. Digestive enzymes will make the protein powder a bit easier for your gut to digest.
- Avoid soy-based protein powders if possible because they can potentially have negative digestive and/or hormonal effects if used on a consistent, long-term basis.
How To Incorporate Protein Into Your Daily Menu
As I mentioned above, if you aim to include about a serving of protein at every meal and snack throughout the day, you’ll get all the protein that your body needs to thrive.
Here’s a sample meal plan for one day to give you some ideas about how to make this work…
- Omelete: 2 eggs, 1/2 cup egg whites, handful of spinach, handful of diced peppers, and a bit of chopped green onion
- 1 small apple
- Super smoothie: 1 cup almond milk, 1 scoop of protein powder, 2 handfuls of kale, 1 tbsp almond butter, 1 cup of mixed berries
- Salad: 4 oz. grilled chicken breast, 3 cups mixed greens, handful of chopped cucumber, handful of cherry tomatoes, 1/4 cup cooked quinoa topped with homemade balsamic vinegar/olive oil vinaigrette
- 4 oz. grilled shrimp
- 1/2 roasted sweet potato with 1 tsp butter
- 2 cups asparagus pan-fried in 1 tsp olive oil