The word protein alone conjures up images of muscle-bound gym-bros tossing back shaker-bottles full of chalky powder after grunting their way through a set. Whether you’re a long-term lifter looking for the gains, a fitness newbie worried about getting too bulky, or a busy working mom who just wants to keep up with all of her responsibilities getting the right amount of protein is essential to your fitness needs.
Pop Quiz: Where in the human body do you find protein?
If you answered muscles, you’re correct.
What about if you answered skin, hair, and nails, you are also correct!
Did you answer every single in your body? Ding ding ding! We have a winner.
The antibodies that fight off illness? Proteins. Enzymes that carry out chemical reactions? Proteins. Hormones? Proteins. DNA? Proteins.
Protein is one of the three macronutrients your body requires to run, along with fat and carbohydrates. (Be on the lookout for
upcoming posts on those other two.) All of these break down into smaller components – amino acids for protein, fatty acids for fat, and glucose for carbs.
Unlike fat and carbs, which can be stored in the body for later use, protein cannot be stored in the body for later use which means it has to be eaten daily. Your muscles are not “storage” for protein, they are essential parts of your body that provide you with the strength and structure to live your life. Making sure you eat the right amount of protein is key to keeping all your systems running at peak capacity.
The Goldilocks Rules of Protein
Figuring out how much protein you need is a little bit like goldilocks. The National Academy of Sciences recommends 0.4g of protein per pound of bodyweight daily. This is about 46-54g per day for adults and the number is bumped up to 71g for people who are pregnant or breast-feeding.
This is a bare minimum amount to avoid protein deficiency. Protein deficiency results in hair loss, nails becoming brittle, hunger pangs and cravings, and intense fatigue.
In case you want to know what 46 grams of protein looks like:
- 16 oz 2% latte (190)
- 1 single McDonald’s cheeseburger (300)
- 23 almonds (200)
- 8 ounces of greek yogurt (133)
- An iPhone sized piece of chicken breast (234 calories)
Not very much. Most lightly – moderately active people will likely find that this amount of protein is not enough to sustain all their vital functions.
Let’s take a hypothetical person, 5’ 5” and 150 lbs, who works in an office, drives to work, and goes for brisk walks once or twice a week.
Their caloric needs for the day are about 1900 calories. Their “recommended” protein is 60 grams. At four calories per gram, this comes to 240 calories. That’s only 12% of their daily intake, leaving the other 88% to come from carbs and fats.
Need to know your daily energy needs? Check out my calculator here!
This is fairly standard for the typical American diet, which has about protein standing at about 15%. And there’s pretty good scientific backing that this lack of protein may be part of the reason Americans struggle with obesity.
Why? Because eating too little protein leaves you hungry and more likely to over-eat less nutritious food.
So, just amp up the protein? The more the better right? Not so fast.
There is so debate in the medical field about whether or not there is such a thing as too much protein. Most blog posts or web articles tell you that 30 grams of protein is about what your body can absorb and synthesize per meal or snack. But there’s also evidence that the threshold may be much higher.
Yes, if you’re trying to craft yourself into the next Ms. or Mr. Olympia, you’re going to be able to utilize more protein than the average adult and average strength trainer. But the real issue with too much protein is not about wasting your gains, but about how we eat our protein.
The three big problem factors come down to the source, energy, and balance.
Another big factor of the American diet is that our protein tends to come from red meat and full-fat dairy, which include a lot of saturated fats. These type of fats, in particular, can hurt your heart (which more or less negates all the benefit that exercise is doing for you!) If you’re looking to up your protein intake, try to get it from sources like lean poultry and fish and plenty of plant sources – soy, quinoa, lentils, beans, and seeds are all good sources of protein.
So, you hear that protein is good for you and you start grabbing an extra shake to have with your breakfast, adding an extra 22 grams of protein to the day. Maybe toss in a banana and some peanut butter too, the fruit has fiber and peanut butter has even more protein! You’re so excited and you feel like you’re doing something good for yourself. You start drinking these shakes every day and in about two months you start to realize… your pants have shrunk.
As much as we need protein and fruit in our diets, simply adding it in on top of what we are already eating. A shake like the one I described could easily be 300 calories, if you’re heavy-handed with the peanut butter it could be closer to 500. If you’re not increasing your exercise by an hour a day, these calories will quickly catch up. Even just 300 extra a day can add 5 lbs in two months.
This brings me to my last point, which is balance. You know your daily calories and you bring your protein up to 70% of your daily intake! That’s gotta lead to some serious gains, right?
Not only are you going to give yourself serious gastric distress and possible kidney issues, but you’re also missing out on vital nutrients!!
Carbohydrates are the easiest source of energy for the body and are full of essential vitamins and minerals. Dietary fats are also essential because they transport fat-soluble vitamins around the body – primarily A, D, E, and K. And if you are on a ketogenic diet, fat is a key source of energy.
You need to make sure your drive for protein is not depriving you of your nutritional needs. So how much protein do we really need?
The average sedentary or lightly active person should be aiming for 0.5 – 0.7 grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day.
If you’re active and working out multiple times a week, you can up that to 0.8-1.0 g/lb.
Those who are looking to bulk up on muscle should be aiming for 1.2 g/lb.
Lastly, if you are on a strict low-calorie weight-loss regimen (like a 30% caloric deficit) you can up it to 1.5 – 2 g/lb of your goal weight. This will prevent muscle loss as you work to cut body fat.
As far as your balance goes, try to get an equal number of calories from each of your macronutrients. So about one-third of your daily calories should come from protein, carbs, and fats. This will make sure you get the right amount of each of them, without depriving yourself of anything you need.
Yes, this is the eating style promoted by If It Fits Your Macros. It’s also an eating style that scientifically promotes greater fat loss because you will feel satiated– both physically and on a hormonal level. Feeling full means you naturally eat less which will help you get that healthy body composition.
Need to know how many calories you need in a day? Check out my TDEE calculator here. Select Perfect Balance for that macro breakdown.