Protein is a super important component to our diet. Unfortunately there is a lot of confusion around protein...
What is it and why should I care about it?
How much should I eat?
What are the best forms?
PROTEIN - What is it and why should I care about it?
Protein is one of the three major macronutrients that is vital to life. We need protein in order for our body to thrive and function optimally. Protein is the major building block of life. The protein in our body is composed of smaller units called amino acids. These amino acids are the building blocks of our tissues, organs, glands, tendons, and arteries; in addition they play a key role in repairing damaged tissue, skin, muscle and bone. Without protein life would not be possible. Some of the amino acids our body needs cannot be made within our body. These amino acids are "essential", meaning we can not produce them and instead must obtain them from our diet.
Protein helps fuel us, and the essential amino acids we get from animal protein is a key component to energy, satiety, and increased metabolism. If you don't eat animal foods, it is a bit more challenging to get the essential amino acids into your diet.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I EAT?
This is where a lot of confusion lies. I want to preface this portion by saying that my recommendations come from personal experience, holistic nutrition education, and other nutrition professionals. If you have an underlying medical condition like kidney disease or are currently pregnant please consult your doctor prior to changing your protein intake.
Unfortunately, the RDA (recommended daily allowance) outlined in the United States is a little skewed. I say this because the RDA is the minimum requirement needed to prevent deficiencies or complications. Did you hear that? Minimum requirement, not suggested requirement! With this in mind, the RDA is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound.
This amounts to:
56 grams/day for the average sedentary man
46 grams/day for the average sedentary woman
I can almost guarantee that 90% of you reading this, are not sedentary 100% of the day. This means you need to eat more than the RDA of protein. For optimal health and wellness, I suggest finding the "right" amount of protein for you. Start with these general recommendations:
Moderately active (2-4 days/week): 25% of food intake
Fairly active or athletic (5-7 days/week): 30-35% of food intake
Not active or require fewer carbs due to low activity (0-2 days/week): 35% of food intake
Another popular approach is to aim for 0.8-1 gram per pound of body weight if you are strength training.
There is a lot of research that shows high protein diets up to 35% or even higher, in some cases, can be effective in both short and long-term weight loss. Protein boosts your metabolic rate and is very satisfying. Protein has a larger satiety factor than that of carbohydrates or fat. If you are unsure how much protein to aim for or don't have specific goals in mind, please don't stress about it! Simply start adding more animal protein into your diet and listen to your body. When plating your meal keep in mind that a piece of meat the size of your palm is roughly 4 oz and contains 30-40 grams of protein depending on the source.
If you are an athlete or train multiple times a week, you should aim to eat a quality source of protein with each meal and/or snack. Protein builds muscle and helps with recovery and overall performance, especially post-workout.
Although, don't force yourself to eat tons of animal protein if you don't feel like eating it. Listen to your body; if you're full, stop eating! Increasing protein does not mean increasing your overall caloric intake. It simply means you'll be balancing your plate a little differently. Instead of filling half of your plate with starchy carbs, make sure protein makes up almost 1/3 of your plate. Nutrient dense vegetables and a small amount of healthy fat should compose the remainder of your plate. If you gradually increase the amount of quality animal protein in your, diet you'll likely see positive benefits.
WHAT ARE THE BEST FORMS?
Quality protein is key! Instead of eating an entire case of lunch meat or 5 ounces of a processed summer sausage, focus on whole animal sources that go through minimal processing. Beef, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, and whole/raw dairy products are best. Personally, I like knowing where my meat comes from. I try to purchase organic meats when possible or go through a local farmer and buy grass-fed beef in bulk. Now, I understand that buying free-range, organic, grass-fed animal products is more expensive. My advice is to find a local farmer and stock up (buying in bulk is often significantly cheaper), and if you have to buy the cheaper meats due to finances look for leaner cuts of meat with less visible fat. Animals store most of their toxins in fat, thus we are less likely to consume the toxins from conventionally raised animals by avoiding the fat.
Whole food forms of protein are ideal! Since, we as a society no longer eat head to tail, we miss out on the healthy vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients (like collagen) that our ancestors greatly benefited from. There are amino acids found in liver, heart, collagen/gelatin, and bones that are not found in muscle meat. Try making your own bone broth in order to get more of these amino acids and nutrients into your diet. In addition, you can purchase collagen/gelatin peptides and bone broth online or at your local Whole Foods grocery store.
Protein powders and bars should be the last resort when trying to get enough protein. If you are an avid athlete or train fairly hard, refueling your muscles with protein powder after your workout is ok and most likely beneficial if you cannot eat within an hour of working out. If you want my recommendations on clean protein powders (whey & plant-based) check out the Things I Love page. For the general population supplementing with protein powder every single day isn't necessary. Instead, prepare meals that focus on quality protein or snack on jerky, dried meat bars, or boiled eggs to get the most natural form of protein. If you want some suggestions on high protein snack options see my Things I Love page.
Are you still confused about how much protein is right for you? I'd love to help! Send me an email and I'll be in touch soon.
3) Practical Paleo, Diane Sanfilippo