What is protein?
Protein, in the scientific sense, consists of large molecules composed of one or more long chains of amino acids. It is an essential part of all living organisms. Protein has many important functions in the body, including muscle maintenance and building, repairing all cells, immunity cell production, and maintaining healthy hair, skin, and nails.
How much do we need?
Determining how much protein is appropriate for an individual varies based on genetics, height and weight, body composition, and activity level. The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) estimates 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight is fine, but studies show this can lead to negative nitrogen balance in some individuals. Negative nitrogen balance means that the body is losing more nitrogen and therefore losing muscle mass, which is rich in nitrogen-containing amino acids.
Here are the recommendations that the literature point to as the current best guess:
- People engaging in strength training: 1.6 to 1.8 grams of protein per kg body weight daily. .
- People engaging in endurance training: 1.2 – 1.6 grams per kg body weight daily.
- Non-exercising maintenance (inactive or taking an extended break from exercise): 1.2 grams per kg body weight daily.
How to determine what these ranges mean for you:
Take your weight in pounds and convert it to kilograms (multiply by 0.453). Then, multiply that number by the low- and high-end factors in the bullets above to see what your daily intake range is.
What are good sources of protein?
Examples of high protein foods include fish, seafood, poultry, lamb, beef, chicken, pork, cheese, egg white, tofu, beans, lentils, yogurt, milk, nuts, and seeds. Fun fact: Eating protein with a meal can improve satiety and slow carbohydrate absorption, preventing spikes in blood glucose.
- A palm size of chicken, fish, beef, or pork has about 25 grams of protein.
- One egg has 7 grams of protein.
- 1 cup low fat yogurt has 120 calories, 10 g protein, 15 g carbs as sugar
- 1 cup cottage cheese has about 15 g protein.
- 1 cup cooked lentils has 220 calories and 18 g protein, 40g carbs.
- 1 cup cooked chickpeas has 270 calories and 15 g protein, 45 g carbs.
- ½ cup tofu has 10 g protein and 100 calories.
How should I time my protein intake on days that I exercise?
- Before weight training and interval training, it is best to get a small portion of carbohydrate in at least an hour beforehand. This will provide glycogen/glucose substrate for a better workout, as these more intense workouts tend to burn more glycogen (stored carbohydrate) than fat during the exercise session itself (and more fat in the hours following).
- As far as protein timing, protein before a work out is fine, as it will still be digested during and after the workout. The key is to get enough protein each day, regardless of timing.
- There is some minor benefit to getting protein in within the 30 minute window after a workout, especially if your goal is to gain muscle.
- Protein powders are processed and are utilized more quickly than whole foods, so they are best used during or after workouts rather than before. Studies on supplements are pretty inconclusive or unconvincing, so they probably are not needed.
Tips for vegetarians and vegans:
- It is difficult for vegetarians to meet the protein requirements sometimes, especially if they don’t eat dairy. Try dividing protein intake up between three meals.
- Healthy plant-based sources of protein include legumes, soy products, whole grains, and nuts. Legumes, such as black beans and lentils, are excellent sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals and low in fat.
- Though it is preferred to get protein through whole foods, vegetarians or vegans might consider a protein shake with hemp, whey, or soy protein powder to help meet protein needs.
- Soy products, such as tofu or tempeh, are some of the most versatile vegetarian protein sources. Tofu can be incorporated into soups or stir-fries, and tempeh can be marinated or grilled to be included in salad or sandwich.
Do you have a favorite healthy high protein snack? Share with us in the comments below!