People tend to over complicate nutrition. (Heck we over complicate most things. Remember, keep it simple). What if I told you there was one very simple thing you could do that would improve your body composition and improve your health? There is. It’s protein. The number one thing you can do to change the way your body looks and benefit your overall health is to eat more protein. Eat it at every meal. Yes. Every single time.
So, what is protein?
Protein is one of three main macronutrients that make up our food (fat and carbohydrates are the other two). It is a molecule made up of amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks for most of our body. There are two types of amino acids, essential (our body cannot make them so we must get them from food) and non-essential (which our body can make).
Our bodies break down the protein from our foods into amino acids and we store them in our blood. Our blood stream can then supply our body with aminos as needed. Aminos make up important molecules like enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies. We need a pretty steady supply of amino acids, if our blood supply is low our body will take them from itself (like from our muscles).
What does protein do?
Protein helps support optimal health, including a good immune system (no one wants to be getting sick all the time), healthy metabolism (burn more calories), satiety (keeping you feeling full longer), weight management and athletic performance.
Studies show diets high in protein are associated with a lower BMI and lower waist circumference. They have also shown to help increase HDL levels (the good cholesterol). High protein diets help support better weight management, weight loss and better body composition (less body fat and more muscle). They can also increase satiety and help keep you feeling full longer and intern help you eat less overall calories. Age related sarcopenia (the loss of muscle as we age) can even be slowed or even prevented when older adults combine high protein diets with regular exercise.
How much do I need?
Our current RDA set by Institute of Medicine states we need .8 grams/kg of body weight. That comes out to 55 grams for a 150 Lb. person. Now keep in mind, the RDAs were originally created to prevent disease (and death). Not create optimal health! Basically that is what you need to survive, not necessarily thrive.
A range of 1.2 -1.6 g/kg body weight are ideal for optimal health for healthy adults. (That comes out to 81-109 grams for 150 Lb. person). Athletes and people undergoing intense training and exercise will need more, up to 2-2.2g/kg. Its is important they get plenty of protein both before and after exercise.
Aim to get protein, at least 20-35 grams, at every meal (and snack). Athletes and those that are very physically active will need to consume more. Make sure you are choosing high quality lean protein sources. Like chicken, turkey, lean pork, eggs, low fat dairy, beans, and lentils. While I am a huge (huge!) fan of nuts and nut butters, it is not beneficial to think of them as great protein sources. While one serving of peanut butter does have 8 grams of protein (28 calories from protein) it also has 16 grams of fat (135 calories from fat). Protein bars can be good in a pinch, but it is always better to choose whole food sources when you can. Same applies to protein powders.
But I heard too much protein is bad for my liver/kidneys?!
In normal, healthy people with functioning kidneys, there is no health risk associated with high protein diets. People who already have damaged kidneys, however, do need to eat a low protein diet. That does not mean high protein diets will damage healthy kidneys. Same goes for the liver. Those who already have liver disease or damage, will need a low protein diet. Studies show that high protein diets (2.2 g/kg body weight) will not damage a healthy liver or kidneys.
The Bottom line
- Get protein with every meal. Aim for at 20-35 grams per meal.
- Choose lean healthy sources.
- Vary your sources. Don’t forget about non meat options, like beans and lentils.
- If you are an athlete or partake in intense activity, you may need more.
- Make sure you are consuming protein around exercise.
Still feeling confused? It’s okay. Let’s work together to find out exactly how much protein and other nutrients you need to be eating. Fill out the contact form for more information.
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Arentson-Lantz E, Clairmont S, Paddon-Jones D, Tremblay A, Elango R. Protein: A nutrient in focus. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2015 Aug; 40(8):755-61. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2014-0530.
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Pasiakos S, Lieberman H, Fulgoni V. Higher-Protein Diets Are Associated with Higher HDL Cholesterol and Lower BMI and Waist Circumference in US Adults. J. Nutr. March 1, 2015 vol. 145 no. 3 605-614.