Protein matters! It’s part of every single cell in your body. It helps build and repair your muscles, bones, cartilage, skin and blood. Your body uses it to make antibodies, enzymes, hormones and more. You can’t live without it! Here’s my top ten list of what you need to know about this important nutrient:
1. Animal Versus Plant Source
Protein is made up of amino acids. They are the building blocks of protein. There are nine amino acids that are essential to good health. The protein found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs and milk products contain all nine essential amino acids. Protein found in plant foods like beans, nuts and grains have less of one or more essential amino acids. As long as you eat a wide variety of protein-rich foods (animal or plant source) throughout the day, your body should get all the amino acids needed for optimal health.
2. The Optimal Amount
The Institute of Medicine states that adults need a minimum of .8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight per day to build and maintain body tissues. That means a woman who weighs 60 kg (132 pounds) needs a minimum of 48 grams of protein per day and a man who weighs 75 kg (165 pounds) needs a minimum of 60 grams of protein per day. Recent research from the University of British Columbia, however, suggests that the optimal protein intake for men and women is 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. That means a 60 kg (132 pounds) woman should have at least 72 grams of protein daily and a 75 kg (165 pounds) man should have 90 grams of protein. Further research will tell us more. In the meantime, I say shoot for the higher number. It may be beneficial and is not harmful to health (unless you suffer from kidney disease and must limit protein intake).
3. Protein For Children & Teens
Research from the University of British Columbia says that children also benefit from more protein. Current recommendations state that children (age 4 to 18) need between .85 and .95 grams of protein per kg body weight. Researchers believe that getting 1.6 grams per kg body weight each day may be ideal.
4. Aging and Muscle Mass
By age 50 and beyond, most men and women experience a gradual loss of lean muscle mass. Lose too much muscle and you end up with a decline in muscle function (called sarcopenia). You can offset this loss with a steady intake of protein, combined with aerobic activity and weight training exercises. In the Aging and Body Composition Study involving over 2000 men and women between the ages of 70 and 79, participants consuming the most protein (an average of 91 grams daily) lost 40% less lean muscle mass over three years than those consuming less protein (average 57 grams a day).
5. Athletes Need More!
If you are an endurance athlete, like a runner or a cyclist (especially if you exercise for 90 minutes or more in one session) or if you do regular resistance training (lift weights), you need more protein – about 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kg of body weight daily. Some of this protein (about 10 to 20 grams) should be consumed as soon as possible after each training session (along with carbohydrate). You need this to start the recovery process – the building and repair of muscle tissue.
6. How Much Is Too Much?
Can too much protein harm your health? The Institute of Medicine states that the upper limit for protein is 35% of calories per day. For someone who consumes 2000 calories per day, that means no more than 175 grams of protein daily. Higher protein diets may lead to a greater decline in kidney functioning in those with impaired kidney function or chronic kidney disease. Animal protein appears to be harder on the kidneys than plant protein. My recommendation is to keep your protein intake close to recommended intakes (1.2 grams per kg body weight and higher if you are an athlete).
7. Eat Protein At Every Meal
Perhaps the most significant news I can share with you is this: while most people eat enough protein, most do not distribute the protein they eat wisely. Many people are short on protein at breakfast, sometimes at lunch and then overload on protein at dinner. Research from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston says the best meal plan for healthy aging and the maintenance of muscle size and strength contains an equal distribution of protein throughout the day. Researchers found that as they increased protein intake up to an amount of 30 grams per meal, muscle protein synthesis increased in lockstep. After the 30 gram threshold, muscle building and repair leveled off. When protein was dropped from 30 to 15 grams per meal, muscle protein synthesis dropped by half.
Bottom line: eating enough protein at each meal matters! Look at your own eating plan. Cereal eaters, for example, often don’t get enough protein at breakfast. Look for a cereal that contains more protein (for example, Kashi GOLEAN cereal contains 13 grams of protein per cup). Add some nuts or ground flaxseed to your cereal. Be generous with the milk you use on your cereal or enjoy your cereal with a serving of Greek yogurt. At lunch don’t just have a salad, but have a salad with grilled chicken, fish, beans or nuts. Have a glass of milk or soy milk with your meals (remember – most milk alternatives, like almond, rice or coconut milk are low in protein). At dinner, watch your serving sizes. Just a deck of cards serving size of meat, fish or poultry is all you need. Make 25 to 30 grams of protein your goal for each meal.
What about snacks? While a protein-rich snack may having more staying power (keeps you full longer), it appears that getting enough protein at each meal is better than dividing it up into smaller amounts throughout the day.
8. Slim Your Waistline With Protein
If you want to lose weight or maintain a healthy body weight, protein is important. While I don’t advocate super high protein diets, like Atkins, it is important to get enough protein. Protein helps you maintain lean muscle mass, encourages fat loss (by impacting hormones and calories burned) and increases satiety (you feel full longer after a protein-rich meal). In research from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, getting 1.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight each day was more effective than .8 grams for preserving resting energy expenditure (amount of calories burned at rest) and maintaining lean body mass.
9. Protein Shakes Not Required
Most people, including athletes, can meet protein needs with food and do not need protein powders or amino acid supplements. For optimal protein use and performance, however, you must be eating enough calories to maintain your body weight. If your calorie intake is too low, protein will be burned for fuel rather than for building and maintaining body tissues.
10. Healthy Protein
Where you get your protein from makes a difference. Plant sources of protein, like beans and nuts, are loaded with valuable nutrients, antioxidants and fibre. They definitely deserve a regular place in your diet. With animal sources, enjoy them in moderate amounts and choose lean options, including leaner cuts of beef or pork (sirloin, filet mignon, extra lean ground beef, pork tenderloin), poultry without the skin, and low fat milk products. Enjoy fatty fish like salmon and trout, but again, keep portion sizes to about the size of a deck of cards.
Protein is essential to build and maintain body tissues, including muscles, and for the maintenance of a healthy body weight. Aim for about 1.2 grams of protein per kg body weight daily. Athletes need more. Distribute your protein evenly – about 25 to 30 grams of protein at each meal. Both plant and animal sources of protein can be used to help you meet your needs.
P.S. My new book should be available through Amazon and Chapters Indigo in the next week or so. Details to follow!