Everything You Need to Know About PROTEIN

The 3 macronutrients – carbohydrates, protein, and fats – are highly misunderstood. Often popular fad diets aim to drastically increase one of these while drastically decreasing another. That’s why I decided to start making individual posts about these macros. I don’t recommend fad diets to any clients for any reason; however, I am still a big advocate in “your body, your choice.” Meaning, whatever makes you feel good is what you should do. I am not here to persuade you to eat or do one thing over another; my only goal is to provide the most current information based on scientific research. You can do with that what you will.

So, let’s talk about protein. There is a lot of confusion around how much a person needs. There are also a lot of myths out there about protein as well. I’m not going to focus so much on the myths in today’s post as I am just giving you the basics about it. It’s difficult to talk about protein without getting heavy on the “science speak.” I am going to try to keep it as simple as possible, but there are going to be some basics I feel are important to know. Bear with the boring science geek stuff, and you’ll better understand the concluding protein recommendations.

Let’s talk about it.

What even is protein and what does it do?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients that are an essential part of the diet. Its role is primarily structural (i.e., muscle), though the body does call on it for energy during intensive exercise or when nutrition is inadequate (typically, carbs would be the ideal energy source). Protein is needed for cell production, growth, and maintenance. It is also important for the production of enzymes, hormones, and DNA expression.

There are two categories of protein: simple and conjugated. Simple proteins are made up of only amino acids whereas conjugated have non-protein molecules as well. We are going to talk about amino acids here in a second. Don’t worry about the technical side of all of this for now. Protein has a lot of crucial functions in the body, but we won’t get into those today. Let’s just focus on the bottom line: you NEED protein to survive. Fortunately, I have not heard of any fad diets that are advocates of decreasing or eliminating protein. There is a very good reason for this. If you ever see a diet or program that tells you to decrease or eliminate protein, RUN FAR AWAY.

6.2.2 (a) Reactions of Amino Acids - Ellesmere OCR A level Chemistry
Simple protein structure, or simply, an amino acid structure

Amino Acids

For the sake of simplicity, think of amino acids as the building blocks of protein. Each individual amino acid has its own function in the body. There are 22 amino acids that are considered biologically important. Originally, these amino acids were categorized as “essential” or “non-essential” – terms you may have heard before if you have taken a basic health or nutrition class. The newest terminology is now indispensable (formerly “essential”), dispensable (formerly”non essential”), and conditionally indispensable. Indispensable (or essential) simply means you have to get these amino acids from your diet as your body does not make them in sufficient enough quantities. Dispensable (or non essential) just means that your body makes them in sufficient enough quantities and are not necessarily needed from the diet. Conditionally indispensable is a newer category and this simply means that sometimes these amino acids are needed from the diet when the body can’t keep up with metabolic demands. We are going to focus on the indispensable amino acids today.

Indispensable amino acids

There are 9 indispensable amino acids. These HAVE to be consumed from the diet. They are:

  1. Histidine
  2. Isoleucine
  3. Leucine
  4. Lysine
  5. Methionine
  6. Phenylalanine
  7. Threonine
  8. Tryptophan
  9. Valine

Of these, 3 are Branched Chain Amino Acids (or BCAAs): Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine. BCAAs are drawn upon for their energy components, but I’m going to go into this later in a separate post. The research on BCAAs is fascinating, and they truly need their own post.

On some labels you may see amino acids listed with an “L” (or possibly another letter) before it (e.g., L-Lysine or L-Histadine). This (the letter “L”) indicates that the form of that particular amino acid is a biologically active form, which means it will be used to make proteins. The use of the different letters before the amino acids listed is inconsistent and not really regulated. Always check with the manufacturer of the supplement you are considering if you are unsure.

Complete vs Incomplete Proteins

Complete vs incomplete proteins are a hot topic among fitness professionals. The most common discussion surrounding this is when it comes to a vegan or vegetarian diet. I’m going to touch on that in a moment. For now, let’s define these terms.

Complete Proteins contain all of the indispensable amino acids in amounts that are sufficient for normal growth and body weight.

Incomplete Proteins are deficient in 1 or more indispensable amino acids.

So why does this matter? In order for your body to complete its biological functions, it needs complete proteins. If you are someone who consumes animal products daily, you are getting all of your amino acids, and you don’t really need to overthink your protein sources much. It becomes more of a concern if you are vegan. Don’t click off vegans! This is important! If someone who is vegan consumes only one protein source regularly (such as tofu) without other sources, this is problematic when it comes to getting all of the amino acids. There is not a SINGLE plant source that has complete proteins. HOWEVER, different plant sources can be combined at meals to create complete proteins. How does that work? That is a very complicated answer and that is for another day. I strongly recommend vegetarians and vegans work with a registered dietitian early on in their journey to discuss supplementation and combining plant protein sources so that they can ensure they are maximizing their nutrition, ESPECIALLY if they are athletic.

It can be frustrating working in the fitness industry where every personal trainer thinks they are a nutritionist (sorry, but the 50 or less pages covered in the certification textbook does not a nutritionist make), and they can have a tendency to be close minded towards certain diets. I try to use science to make arguments for/against certain diets. Right now, I have not seen any scientific data that says you can’t be a healthy and athletic individual while being vegan or vegetarian. It just means you have to think a little bit more about your protein sources.

Now let’s get to what you’re all wondering:

How much protein do I need?

Fortunately, the answer to that is pretty straightforward as long as you don’t have any underlying health conditions. The recommendations here are based off the general population and are not individualized. If you have any questions or concerns about your own nutrition, please seek out a registered dietitian or other healthcare provider.

Let’s first talk about RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowances). The RDA is often cited as the absolute truth when it comes to any nutrient need. This amount is the MINIMUM intake goal for the general population. For most active people, this number is going to be far too low. Let’s first look at the RDA Protein Allowances:

RDA taken from ISSA Sports Nutrition textbook 5th edition by Daniel Gastelu and Frederick Hatfield.

What should you strive for instead? For optimal health and/or performance, this is the best way to calculate your needs:

From ISSA Sports Nutrition 5th edition

A note about lean body weight: This is ideally calculated from knowing your body fat percentage. If you do not have a way to accurately measure this (such as a fitness professional who can measure with calipers or an accurate body scanner), then you can use this recommendation instead of the one listed above:

0.8g – 1.0g of protein per pound of body weight. If you are overweight, eat on the lower end. If you are very muscular or trying to gain muscle, then aim for the higher end.

It should be noted as well that your protein amount needed may vary based off of your specific goals (e.g., are you powerlifting? Bodybuilding? Endurance running?). Generally speaking, endurance runners need only slightly less protein than the powerlifters of the same category. Specifics can be calculated by a registered dietitian or sports nutritionist.

How do I get enough protein?

If you are overwhelmed by discovering the amount of protein you actually need, don’t fret! Gradually introducing more protein into your diet will be key. If you are athletic, it may be worth considering supplementing your protein intake with whey and/or casein protein (discussed in a moment).

Any animal product will contain some amount of protein. Some examples:

  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Chicken breast
  • Pork
  • Cheese
  • Beef
  • Fish
  • Shellfish

If you are wanting leaner protein sources (i.e., lower fat), consider:

  • Most seafood
  • Lean red meats
  • Skinless poultry
  • 2% milk instead of whole

Plant based protein sources:

  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Some grains
  • Soy
  • Try to find multipurpose foods (such as quinoa providing protein and fiber as well as lots of other nutrients)

Whey Protein is derived from milk and can be a little pricey. It is an excellent source of fast-digesting protein (great for after workouts) if you are finding that you need to supplement. It enhances production of glutathione, one of the body’s most powerful antioxidants. It also contains high levels of BCAAs, is helpful for building muscle, can help improve performance, can raise IGF-1 (a muscle building biochemical), and it can help reduce cortisol levels (the “stress” hormone that breaks down muscle tissue when in excess in the body).

Casein is also derived from milk, but it is more slowly digested and provides a more sustained delivery of amino acids into the bloodstream. This could be beneficial to ingest before periods of fasting (such as before sleep) to help aid in exercise-related muscle recovery. It has the potential to also help increase muscle mass and strength gains.

The best advice I can give on meeting your protein goals: try to eat a decent amount of protein with each meal and try to have at least a small amount of protein with each snack. For example, at breakfast I will have a couple of eggs with toast and/or veggies. For lunch, I will have a salad with chicken breast. For dinner, I will have tilapia with roasted vegetables. For snacks, I really enjoy nuts and deli meat. Since I am fairly, active, I do supplement with whey protein shakes as needed.

Supplement as needed or desired.

A Note on Collagen

Collagen supplementation is big right now, and it has been for what feels like a few years now. My plan for now is to make a whole other post on collagen in which I provide you with all of the best scientific research on whether collagen supplementation is worth it.

I will just quickly summarize what collagen is before I wrap this up: Collagen is a component found in all connective tissue in the body (cartilage, tendons, ligaments, intervertebral pads, pads between joints and cellular membranes). It is the most common protein in the body, making up about 1/3 of your body’s total protein volume.

The Takeaway

  • You have to eat adequate protein in order to function properly.
  • Amino acids are “building blocks” of protein.
  • There are 9 indispensable amino acids, which means that you MUST consume them in your diet.
  • Most animal products contain all 9 indispensable amino acids, making them complete protein sources. A single source of plant protein is incomplete since it does not contain all 9 indispensable amino acids; however, sources can be combined in order to create complete proteins.
  • The RDA of protein is the bare minimum a person needs to survive; however, most people will need significantly more than this amount to function optimally.


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