Protein has been the focus of so many diets for many, many years now. Why protein? Is it the diet messiah it is promised to be? Then there’s the question of quantity: how much do I need and how much is too much?
First, we will look at the basic roles and reasons we need protein. Then we will get into the reality of healthy vs unhealthy approaches to adding protein to your diet. Finally we will get into the calculations for understanding how much protein needs to be consumed.
What is Protein?
Protein is the nutrient that needs no introduction. It is universally loved, adored, and painted as the angelic savior in most diet plans. But before you buy into the hype, it’s important to understand what protein is and why we need it.
Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids that comprise every protein chain. Of the 20 amino acids:
- Nine are considered essential for us to consume. These are the ones our bodies cannot make.
- The other 11 our body is able to make on it’s own if it needed to.
- Two are conditionally essential. If you are under high amounts of physical stress, it helps to have more.
Both fats and carbohydrates are made of Carbon, Hydrogen, and Oxygen. Proteins are as well, plus they have the addition of a nitrogen containing group and their individual side chain. It is the side chain that makes the difference between the amino acids, and defines whether is is essential (we cannot make that side chain) or non-essential (we can make that side chain).
Why Do We Need Protein?
Protein is an important part of the structure for every cell in our bodies. It is used to make certain hormones and to carry some nutrients through our bodies to the areas that need them most.
Unfortunately we do not store much protein. We have a small, limited amount we keep in our blood stream or cells that can be used to build new proteins, and that’s all.
Also, you need protein to build protein. So if you do not have the protein you need in your diet, your body will need to break down its own tissues to get it. That is not healthy or ideal.
For this reason our bodies are also good at recycling its own proteins. We are constantly turning over and building new tissues. From that recycling process, our bodies are also able to produce proteins.
The body prioritizes how to use the protein we eat:
- Build with it – muscle tissue, cells, enzymes, hormones, etc., the things only protein can do
- Store it – in the very, very limited ares we have
- Convert it – once the nitrogen group is removed, we can burn amino acids for energy, make glucose (sugar) from them or turn them into fat
Yes, you can convert protein into both sugar and fat. Our bodies are amazing, they are not wasteful and are extremely skilled at using what they are given. You can’t fool your body by eating truckloads of bacon. We can’t outsmart evolution.
So, why the focus on protein?
Why All the High Protein Diet Hype?
Remember that nitrogen group that had to be removed before it could be used for energy? When it is removed you also lose some of the energy. Then there is the whole conversion that needs to take place. So, when you are burning protein for energy you do not get 4 Calories per gram, you get a little less. High protein diets can be successful short-term, but they also come with long-term risks.
One of the biggest benefits seen are in short-term weight loss. Part of this is due to the energy lost in converting protein to glucose. When it is the majority of someone’s intake, it makes sense that even small amounts lost add up.
The other main benefit comes in the form of satiety, or the feeling of fullness. You get fuller faster eating protein. You also stay fuller longer. Because of these reasons, eating high protein diets tends to make people also eat less.
Another benefit is for people who struggle with blood sugar control. Protein converts slowly and inefficiently to glucose. Following a high protein diets makes maintaining steady blood sugar levels easier.
As protein is converted to energy, the nitrogen group that is broken off is converted to urea and filtered from the blood by the kidneys. Over time, consistently eating a high protein diet can put strain on your kidneys. People on high protein diets also tend to lose more calcium in their urine which leads to concerns of long-term bone health.
High protein diets are hard to follow in the long run. They are costly and don’t provide a lot of options. Over time they are much more challenging to make a lifestyle change with rather than following a balanced eating plan from the start.
Over time your body will adapt to them as well. This will cause a slowing of weight loss. Over longer periods of time, the benefits of high protein diets tend to equalize with other, more balanced approaches.
Unfortunately, many people on high protein diets view it as a free ticket to eat bacon, fatty steaks, and deli meats (editor’s/husband’s note: it’s true – I love this excuse to eat fatty steaks). High intakes of these types of foods are associated with higher risks of heart disease and cancers. Focusing on chicken, fish, and lean meats can help to mitigate some of this risk.
Finally, these diets often restrict eating many healthy foods that are rich in nutrients our bodies need. We need a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The healthiest groups of people usually have low meat intakes, with more fish, fruits, vegetables, and grains. They have much, much smaller portion sizes though. Interestingly often the groups with the longest life expectancy have been vegetarian, or vegetarian with small amounts of fish intake.
Are All Sources of Protein Equal?
The short answer is no. Protein quality is determined by: 1. how easy it is to digest 2. if it contains all the essential amino acids we need, and 3. the amounts that we need them.
Lots of foods have protein. Some proteins are complete proteins. They have everything we need, in the amounts we need them. This means they have all the essential amino acids plus some nonessential amino acids. Examples of these complete proteins include soy and animal protein.
Incomplete proteins, on the other hand, are low in one or more of the essential amino acids. Most all plant foods fall into the incomplete group including: beans, grains, and legumes.
A neat trick with incomplete proteins is that you can combine plant proteins to create complete proteins. For example, beans and rice are both low in different essential amino acids. By eating them both you are completing an essential amino acids puzzle to get all of the amino acids you need! Another interesting fact is that you don’t need to eat them together, but can just eat them both on the same day. But why you would do that — they taste great together!
With that, don’t forget the infamous whey protein. Whey is one of the all-around best protein sources. It is a complete protein and easily digestible. This is why they make most protein supplements from whey.
How Much Protein Should I Eat?
There are usually two ways to look at this. One way you look at your total Calorie intake and ensure that 10-35% of those calories are coming from protein. If you are eating plant-based incomplete proteins (i.e. not soy), or are on a calorie-restricted diet, you will want to be in the middle to higher range of this spectrum.
Most Americans get about 15% of their calories from protein and we tend not to have issues with deficiency in the healthy population. That’s all well and good, but how do you calculate your protein needs? Fortunately, it’s very simple. you only need to know two things: 1. Your total Calorie intake or goal. 2. Protein is 4 Calories per gram. With those to pieces of info you can calculate your protein needs following this example:
Protein Needs Based on 1600 Calories:
- 1600 Calories x 10-35% = 160-560 Calories from protein
- At 4 Calories per gram 160-560 Calories / 4 Calories per gram = 40 – 140 grams
Wowza! Thats a range, isn’t it?! Before you think, “I can’t eat this much!” take a look at the numbers: first, 1600 Calories is not much food. For most people you would either need to be small and relatively inactive (or older) or you would be eating a low calorie diet. Remember what I said before, if you are on a Calorie restriction, I would aim in the middle to high end range, which means 70-140 grams of protein per day.
In the case that you are petite, the low-end of the range (40 grams per day) is the minimum amount you would need to consume. Otherwise, your body will suffer from malnutrition and begin digesting its own muscles and organs to build the essential proteins you are not eating. Professionally, I never like putting people on the lowest end of the range unless their health issues require it.
There is another calculation you can use which is based on per kilogram of body weight. To get there, you divide your body weight in pounds by 2.2. The minimum amount of protein required to prevent malnutrition and disease is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. So, let’s say, like the example above we want to do more with this than just walk the border of disease. So we will aim a little higher: 1-1.5 grams per kilogram body weight. Follow this handy example to determine your needs:
Protein Needs for a 150 pound person:
- 150 pounds / 2.2 pounds/kilogram = ~ 68 kilograms
- 68 kilograms x 1-1.5 = 68 – 102 grams protein per day
This isn’t too bad right? But what does this mean with food?
Turning Protein Needs into Food
All of these numbers are great, but they don’t mean a whole lot unless you can turn them into food. I mean, what does 70 grams of protein even look like? Each ounce of meat is 7 grams per ounce. Milk is 8 grams per cup. There are about 6 grams in an egg and 7 grams in an ounce of cheese. 1/2 cup of beans is 7 grams of protein.
A 3-ounce serving of meat is the size of a deck of cards. Since most servings are closer to 4-6 ounces, that is 28-42 grams in that chicken breast or small steak. 2 eggs or 1/2 cup egg whites is about 12 grams. And if you also had 2 ounces of meat and 1 ounce of cheese on your sandwich (21 grams), we are already up to 61-75 grams.
That doesn’t even include any protein you got from other foods like rice, oats, bread, or vegetables. Rest assured — it is really, really easy to get what you need.
Building Your Eating Routine
So, how does it all fit? The short version: I encourage protein at every meal to help with satiety (feeling satisfied) and to help with achieving steady blood sugar levels. Also, if you are exercising you want to make sure the amino acids are always available to the muscles that need them.
This can easily become 3-6 meals/snacks per day with a protein source at each meal. There are no needs for large portions of meat. Just a steak, chicken, or fish cut to the size of a deck of cards or to fit in the palm of your hand should suffice.
Bonus: there is no need for protein supplements! But they are great to use as a snack between meals, or as a quick and easy carbohydrate/protein supplement after a workout. Or, like many people I talk to, if you’re not crazy about breakfast, they make an easy alternative.
With these tools you can adjust your protein intake to achieve good health within a diet plan that can last a lifetime.