If protein was a superhero, it would be some sort of a Spiderman-Hulk-Captain America mash-up. When you sort through the research, it seems protein is the macronutrient that can do it all to keep us safe and healthy.
You may know that protein helps us build and maintain muscle mass. But this overachiever is also necessary for hormone regulation, enzyme production, regulation of pH balance in the body and staying at a healthy body weight. This last perk can be chalked up to a few mechanisms, including taking longer to digest than carbs and also pushing your body to secrete appetite-regulating hormones, both of which lower hunger for better calorie intake control.
And if you’re committed to an exercise routine, you most certainly don’t want to take protein too lightly. But perhaps you’re pondering how much is enough and what sources are best. Read on to learn how to get the most out of this muscle macro.
Do the math
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, which is the minimum amount you need to be healthy, is 0.8 grams per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight per day. That’s about 46 grams for a 130-pound female.
There’s a catch, though. In no way is this amount adequate for anyone who maintains an active lifestyle. You need additional protein to support muscle recovery from training and stimulate the formation of new lean body mass – a key to building a strong, injury-resistant body. And the more lean body mass you have in relation to fat mass, the more your metabolism will be stoked, making it easier to stay trim.
If you’re active most days of the week, consider eating 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or about 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound) of body weight each day. More resistance training will require edging your intake towards the higher end of this range. If your exercise modality is predominantly endurance in nature, however, then it’s possible to get away with consuming a little less protein.
Spread it out
Most people tip the balance of their protein intake towards the end of the day by consuming higher amounts at dinner than breakfast or lunch. But science suggests it’s better to spread out your protein intake throughout the day so the muscle growth and muscle breakdown balance is tilted towards the former more consistently.
And you certainly don’t need to gnaw on Flintstone-sized steaks at every meal. A study from the University of Texas found that consuming 90 grams of protein at one meal provides the same benefit as eating a much more modest 30 grams. There’s only so much protein you can put in your body at once to maximize muscle protein synthesis; the rest is spillover. And this 30-gram mark seems to be the amount you want to shoot for shortly after working up a sweat for peak recovery.
So instead of eating 10 grams of protein at breakfast, 20 grams at lunch and 40 grams at dinner, you’re better served by being less erratic with your intake and eating 25 to 30 grams at each meal.
Know your sources
Active bodies can meet their protein needs with foods from both plants and animals. Studies have found that as long as we get enough total protein to meet bodily needs it does not matter very much where it comes from, be it chicken or chickpeas.
But there’s a catch. It’s simply going to be easier to reach a protein intake goal when you include animal-based foods in your diet. For instance, a 3-ounce serving of salmon supplies about 18 grams of protein – you’d need to eat roughly 1 1/2 cups of black beans to get the same amount. Not too many digestive tracts can handle that quantity of beans at once.
And due to its higher levels of essential amino acids, animal-sourced protein is generally more efficient at stimulating muscle protein repair and synthesis in response to training. If you’re following a plant-only diet, you’ll need to make sure you are eating a variety of protein sources in high amounts throughout the day. A faux plant-based hot dog with a measly 2 grams of protein isn’t going to cut it. But even if you’re a carnivore it’s a really good idea to include plant-based proteins like lentils into your diet, as they supply items like dietary fiber and antioxidants that aren’t found in foods such as beef and yogurt.
Try food before powders
Protein supplements like powders and bars are undoubtedly a convenient way to help nail your protein goals, and they easily fit into a well-balanced diet. As a rule, however, aim to get most of your daily protein from whole food sources – animal or plant.
Real food – say, a piece of fish or cup of beans – contains an arsenal of health-hiking nutrients and biological compounds typically lacking in supplements. And, as the chart below demonstrates, it’s not a Sisyphean task to hit your daily allotment of protein from whole foods. These foods alone add up to 93 grams of protein, enough to meet the needs of most 130-pound active people.
|Salmon, 3 ounces||18|
|Greek yogurt, 3/4 cup||16|
|Kidney beans, 1 cup||15|
|Chicken, 3 ounces||21|
|Quinoa, 3/4 cup||6|
|Almond butter, 2 tablespoons||5|
|Hard-boiled egg (1 egg)||6|
|Oatmeal, 1 cup||6|
Learn more about incorporating a variety of protein-rich foods into your diet: