The World of Protein
Protein. Why is it important? What does it do? Why are gym bros obsessed with it? Is it bad for you? How much protein do you need per day? And, are the government guidelines accurate? Lots of questions, and a whole lot of misconceptions about it. Let’s go over it all.
I am sure you know that protein is SUPER important for us. Out of all three macronutrients, it is the most important one to focus on.
But, proteins don’t *just* build muscle even though that is what most people think they do.
The wound you had that has since healed, all the inches you have grown since conception, and the immune system you rely on are all heavily reliant on various proteins (AKA amino acids).
While protein does a lot of fantastic things for us, if you are protein deficient there are fairly bad things that can happen to you as well. The whole law of equal and opposite actions thing is in play here.
Protein is (nearly) Everything to Our Bodies
Let’s chat about why protein is so much more than you probably know.
Protein: The Bodies Bob the Builder
Building and repairing our bodies is tough. It has high calorie requirements and needs materials in order to repair and build itself properly. While carbs and fats provide energy, they are interchangeable for the most part. Fats have more energy within them but require a bit more energy to break them down and use. Carbohydrates are the bodies preferred energy source and will be burned prior to the body using fat. However, both are usable for energy and the body doesn’t discriminate. Protein on the other hand is the only non-interchangeable macronutrient out there.
Remember way back in biology class when the teacher would talk about proteins in the form of amino acids being the building blocks of life? In our bodies they form the basis of every cell, muscle, and tissue. If we use a home construction site as an example, protein would be the material used to build everything from the foundation to the walls to the individual items decorating a finished room. To carry on the example just to finish the analogy, our DNA would be the architect AND foreman, while enzymes are the construction crew bringing along power tools (in the form of carbs and fats) to build with.
Additionally, protein helps create important chemicals known as hormones, enzymes, and antibodies we need to unlock various body functions. It literally does do everything.
Protein and Muscles: A Powerful Friendship
Just like peanuts can become peanut butter, protein and muscles are two of a kind if done correctly.
While our DNA is not a protein itself, it has all the instructions for our bodies to synthesize various tissues, muscles, hormones, enzymes, and everything else that make us up. That is why I said it is both the architect and the foreman. It directs bodily functions from the blueprints it contains.
And, while DNA has all the instructions it also lacks the materials to finish the project. In order to make up for this lack of resources, we need to consume amino acids in our diet or at least consume the materials to build them.
Then, our DNA directs our bodies to make or repair tissues/lean mass/hormones/etc. with the protein we consume.
Considering proteins help build and make up muscle, whenever you use your muscles you are using the results of individual proteins transforming/building your muscles.
Protein and Hormones, Immunity, and Enzymes
Yea, sure it builds muscle, but what else does protein do?
And not just the kind that make us all mildly insane from the ages of 12ish to about 24, either. All hormones. Testosterone, estrogen, growth hormone, insulin, oxytocin, leptin, ghrelin, and so many others.
Hormones are built from amino acids. They govern crucial things like growth, metabolism, and even our feelings. Too little protein can cause hormonal imbalances, fertility issues, and irregular periods.
Proteins take on another role by teaming up with our immune system. While protein isn’t the end-all-be-all of a healthy immune system, it does go a very long way in keeping it strong and resilient against most issues.
Our protective cells, particularly the little warriors known as T-cells, require protein to stay in the game. Too low protein intake can cause issues here as well, such as low immune response. Too few t-cells can lead to opportunistic infections, higher rates of morbidity, and other things that can span from mildly annoying colds to more dangerous diseases.
Finally, Enzymes. These are our body’s magical workers that either break down food or help build new cells. Guess their secret source?
Bingo! It’s our beloved proteins! They make enzymes and equip them to tackle all kinds of tasks inside our bodies. These enzymes help us digest food, grow, and mend issues as they happen.
To keep on trend here, protein deficiency can cause issues with enzyme production, which in turn negatively impacts digestion and nutrient absorption as well as other issues. Obviously digestive issues can stack into other issues, so make sure you tackle them as soon as they appear.
Protein Party: How Much Should You Invite?
Ok, now that I’ve gone over why it’s important to focus on, how much protein should you consume each day? That’s a good question, and it turns out you’d be shocked at the next section (sarcasm, maybe?).
Here’s the crazy thing about government guidance on nearly any subject. It isn’t necessarily accurate. While they do provide guidelines on pretty much any subject, they always put it out there with the idea that one standard applies to everyone and it’s always a bare minimum. Unless you live under a rock you know that a single standard across the board cannot be very high, or even very good. Look at what standardized testing has done to public schools, for example.
I could go on and on about how ‘wrong’ their guidance is on any subject but at risk of being de-indexed by Google I will leave that comment there.
When it comes to protein, their baseline guidance leaves out genetic differences, goals, and age. It also focuses on bare minimums and not a standard for thriving in life.
According to the USDA, on most days adult men should aim to have about 56 grams of protein, while adult ladies should go for around 46 grams. This is the general rule of thumb they provide. To their credit they provide a calculator that somewhat takes into account different weights and ages, but it is still lacking.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Those numbers aren’t going to cause protein deficiencies. In fact, following those guidelines will pretty much ensure you don’t have any. But that’s all they will do. In fact, those numbers were formulated during WW2 as a way to guide people during possible food shortages and ensure they came back on the other side without any issues. You could say they are heavily outdated, but bureaucracy moves slow and government doesn’t seem in a rush to actually fix this issue.
How Much Protein Per Day
Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but 56 grams of protein (66 according to the calculator for myself) is incredibly low guidance according to every gym bro, bodybuilder, world class coach, athletic director, and even what the USDA used to recommend back in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
A hundred thirty years ago the government recommended 110g per day for everyone, for the record. Their stated guidelines were intended to help reduce infant mortality and other issues related to low protein intake. Closer, but still off the mark.
While you won’t be deficient with current government guidelines, you certainly will not begin protein synthesis, muscle growth, glycemic (related insulin sensitivity) control, and other positives. According to Heather Leidy, PhD (Purdue), there are a lot of benefits to eating a much higher rate of protein per day. Those benefits include better weight management and overall satiety (desire to eat more than needed) on top of larger muscles.
A lot of studies seem to endorse the traditional gym bro idea of 1g per bodyweight pound idea. While that seems like a LOT of protein, and it is, it’s a great intake goal for a lot of other reasons.
For starters, it is easy to calculate. You consume 1g per pound. A 150lb person consumes 150g of protein each day. That’s much easier than telling someone to find .65g per kilogram or whatever. People crave simplicity, and a 1:1 match can’t much easier.
If you get remotely close (15-20%) of that goal each day you are going to make progress, kick protein synthesis into gear, and generally thrive. Plus, you will feel much fuller, which is great while on a calorie deficit.
And, yes. This number works regardless of your goal: Increasing lean mass, decreasing fat mass, training for races, working in an office. Whatever your goal, you can’t go wrong.
Handle Protein with Care During Cut Cycles
Protein is obviously great to build muscles, but what about times when that isn’t your goal? Think you should cut back on protein when losing weight? You’d be as wrong as the government guidance to shut down gyms while leaving open fast food during 2020. When you’re trying to drop a bit of weight, protein becomes your muscles’ best friend.
In fact, you might even want to consider bumping it up slightly during those cycles for multiple reasons.
First, it ensures that your muscles don’t shrink when you cut down on your food intake. Since lean mass is metabolically expensive, your body will want to reduce it while you are in a calorie deficit. Your body does this in order to balance out calorie expenditures and focus on what it considers the more important survival systems. Consuming enough protein and actually using your muscles while on a cut will help reduce the amount of lean mass your body breaks down.
Secondly, higher protein intake keeps you fuller longer. I don’t think I need to go over why that is important while you are eating less, but to summarize:
Being fuller longer = less misery while eating fewer calories each day.
It is a great way to replace sugary beverages or junk food while on a calorie deficit and not suffer (as much).
Bringing Protein To Your Plate: How and When?
Getting your daily dose of protein isn’t as hard as you think. It’s actually pretty simple once you figure it out and get going.
Protein-Rich Foods: Star of the Show
For starters, vary your protein sources. There are tons to choose from and this helps keep you from getting bored. Animal proteins are superior because they are considered complete proteins (amino acids we cannot produce in our own bodies), but there are also plant based proteins for those with moral objections of food sensitivities. Here is a short list of ideas and how they are categorized.
- Lean Meats: Turkey, chicken, shrimp, and certain cuts of beef all live here. They are pretty much pure protein and great sources of complete amino acids.
- Fish: Anything that swims and has fins. This group is packed with protein and heart-healthy omega-3 fats.
- Eggs and dairy: Delicious and packed with protein and healthy fats as well as the good type of cholesterol, dairy includes animal milks, eggs, yogurts, and cottage cheese.
- Beans and Legumes: Plant based sources that are high in protein and great for you. Don’t hold off on these.
Meal Plans: Your Personal Protein Script
With 80%+ of your diet needing to come from whole food, you might wonder how to reach your daily goals. Simple. Spread your protein intake throughout the day. Shoot for 30-40g per sitting/meal of high quality protein.
3 meals + a snack = 120g of protein right off the bat. Throw in a protein shake post workout and you are somewhere between 140g and 160g at minimum. Obviously, you may need to throw in another snack or slightly increase your intake at meal time if you are more than 160lbs but by spreading it out you are making it easier to get it all in.
Here are some examples:
- Breakfast: 3 scrambled eggs with whole grain toast, serving of fruit, and a Greek yogurt with coffee or water
- Mid-Morning Snack: A handful of almonds and a cup of cottage cheese.
- Lunch: Grilled chicken, mixed vegetables, and a cup of rice.
- Afternoon Snack: Post workout shake.
- Dinner: Grilled salmon or a lean piece of steak with sweet potatoes and vegetables.
The important thing is to spread it out and ensure you are focusing on whole foods for the most part.
Shakes and Powders: Protein Supplements
A supplement is just that. A supplement. They are not a replacement for real food. You should ALWAYS aim at getting at LEAST 80% of our diet filled with whole (read: real) foods. For any gaps you may have while consuming a whole foods based diet, or in the post workout period, supplements like shakes and powders can help you meet your protein goals.
- Whey Protein: Quick to digest and packed with protein. Whey is one of the two types of protein found in milk, and is highly digestible. It is also relatively cheap and a complete source of protein. That’s why it is famous in the gym.
- Plant-Based Protein: Great for vegans, vegetarians, and people allergic to dairy. The upside is they are helpful. The downside is that they usually have less protein, are slightly more expensive, and have to stack protein sources in order to get close enough to complete as possible. That’s why you will often see a pea/rice combo with slightly higher calories per scoop.
There are other types out there as well such as beef, soy, casein, egg, and hemp. Each caters to a different need or flavor, and can be helpful to those looking to fill gaps. Like everything else in the fitness world, there is no one-size-fits-all here. It is all preference and goal oriented. If you want help picking out a good shake: Click here for some things to look out for
Busting Some Protein Myths
Protein is great for us, but sometimes people have ideas about protein ingrained into them that aren’t correct. This misinformation can stem from lots of places, such as prior government guidance, TV, and even doctors who are operating with information from the 1970s instead of staying up to date on nutritional studies and reports.
Life tip: Just like with any other expert, if your doctor looks like they don’t follow their own advice why should you? If your GP looks like the Health Minister from Belgium or they would be a patient of Dr. Nowzaradan, you should probably not trust their nutritional expertise. Stick with them for their specialty or general physical guidance about illness, but that’s it. You probably wouldn’t ask a general practitioner to perform brain surgery. Why would you ask them about nutrition? There are specialists for a reason. Instead, find a quality nutritionist or dietician with active licensing and proven track record who takes their own advice to heart. You’d be shocked at just how different their guidance can be from that of a GP.
Don’t take my word for it either, go read the nutritional studies and compare to what some doctors ‘prescribe’ or find the licensed dietician and test this out yourself.
Let’s break down some of these myths.
Myth 1: “Protein Makes You Bulky”
Some folks think protein is like a muscle magic potion! But it’s not. While it will help you build lean mass, it won’t do it all by itself. How you train is important. If you lift lighter weights with more volume will yield you different results than if you lift heavier with lower volume. Same with those who are lifting versus those training for a marathon.
How you train dictates what you look like. Protein just provides the building blocks to get there.
Myth 2: “You Can Never Have Too Much”
Some of us think that because protein does some amazing things, we should have unlimited amounts of it and nothing else. But just like having too much ice cream can give us brain freeze, having too much protein isn’t the best idea.
Consuming more protein than needed can lead to it being stored as fat. Plus, it gets expensive. When you start hitting over your daily needs you are just wasting money and no one wants that. Unless you are a professional bodybuilder or training for certain events, you can easily stick with 1g per bodyweight pound each day without any issues.
Now, while for most of us you won’t have any physical issues other than a bit of gas when you reach a certain threshold, some people truly do need to be on a low protein diet such as those with kidney issues or certain cancers. In this specific case of diagnosed disease, please do follow what your doctor tells you.
Myth 3: “Supplements are Only for Bodybuilders”
Protein supplements aren’t just a bodybuilder’s best pal.
Anyone building up their muscles can benefit from protein supplements, not just serious bodybuilders. Even if you’re ‘just’ an active person without any dreams of making it big time, a carefully chosen protein supplement can be your go-to option!
Just make sure that it is truly a supplement and not a primary relied upon source of protein. Most of your daily intake needs to come from food. Gaps and post workout is where protein shakes come into play.
And, of course, if you are in a rush a meal replacement protein powder is acceptable in a pinch. Just don’t make it a habit to replace meals with powders. Entire pyramid schemes have been made with that concept in mind and the evidence of those fads not working is everywhere.
Wrapping Up This Adventure
Let’s take a moment to wrap this up. Hopefully you have learned something about protein along the way.
Protein: More than Muscle
We’ve seen that protein isn’t just about building muscles or looking like the Hulk. It’s an all-around great macronutrient that helps keep us healthy. Every person interested in their own health should remember:
- Protein helps our muscles repair, even after light workouts.
- Apart from muscles, it helps keep our skin, hair, and nails looking fantastic!
- Protein is essentially the building block for every single cell in our body!
- Our immune system and hormone production relies on it.
Keep the Party Going
Always feel encouraged to do more research and dig deeper into the world of protein (or anything for that matter. Learning is life long!).
Consult with a licensed nutrition expert for personalized advice (they love to talk about protein as much as I do!), creation of your own nutrition plan, double checking what a doctor told you, or if you want to verify what I said here.
Remember, every body is unique, and what works for one person may not work for another. Keep looking until you find the plan that makes you feel your best.
Let Us help You Out
At CONDITIONerd we are here to help you achieve better physical and mental health through exercise. Check out the plans we offer to our customers and see if you could benefit from working with our team. And if you have questions, you can always contact a CONDITIONerd team member.
Personal trainers, like those found here, can help guide you on your pathway towards reaching your fitness goals, whether that is getting bigger, stronger, faster, more lean, or just generally feeling better.
We can get you setup with a periodized workout plan, supplement information, and advice on nutrition to help you reach your goals.
The only thing you need is some motivation and a willingness to change some old habits.
Get into contact with us to find out what membership is right for you. In a CONDITIONerd program, you’ll be surrounded by others who can help you to get where you want to be.
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