Q. Depending on my level of activity, how much protein should I be consuming in my diet? -Amy
A. Thanks, Amy, for this excellent question! Opinions on this controversial topic vary widely. Your dietary belief system and what type of exercise or activity you participate most in may determine your protein consumption. Most power lifters, body builders, CrossFitters, and Paleo diet followers partake in a very high protein diet. Vegans and many endurance athletes do not. The research is still mixed on whether a high protein diet can be helpful or harmful.
The answer may be more subtle and complicated than you think. It depends on how your body responds to protein in general. The type of protein you eat (and its bioavailability) is also a factor when considering health optimization. An important point may not be about protein at all. Instead, how many carbohydrates do you eat and from which sources?
Plant-based protein sources, such as hemp, pea, and quinoa, and animal-based protein should be included in your diet for two reasons. First, animal protein is a complete protein, a protein with a full amino acid profile. Amino acids are the building blocks for protein. Some amino acids can be manufactured in the body. Others cannot and must be obtained from dietary sources. This is why you must ingest a full amino acid profile either through an animal source or multiple plant-based sources. Finding the right combination of plant-based foods to obtain a complete amino acid profile can be tricky.
Second, certain types of important fats come with animal protein. Fats, such as Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) found in fish, can be synthesized via alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is plant-based, but the conversion rate is very poor. Animal protein sources should include fish, chicken (free range), beef (free range), turkey (free range), and any wild game. Why wild game and free range animals? They are relatively free from likely contamination, hormones, or other chemicals used in commercial processing, and their fat profiles are healthier. They also tend to be leaner protein, especially wild game. A good percentage of calories from protein should be 20% (although it may be higher based on your dietary beliefs). I recommend taking in a variety of protein sources that are both animal and plant-based.
Although there are different methods to calculate protein needs, the following is the most common. The standard minimum amount of daily protein needed is .37 grams per pound of body weight (or .8 grams per kilogram of body weight). This is the bare minimum. Research has shown between 1.2 and 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (approximately .5-.8 grams per pound) is important to maximize health and for athletes. (Use 2.2 lbs. divided by your body weight to calculate kilograms). Other methods recommend even more protein, but I’m not convinced it is necessary.
Please see the following examples for the average male and female. Then enter your own weight to determine the recommended amount of protein per day.
- Male, 180 lbs. 180 lbs. / 2.2 = approximately 82 kilograms. 82 kg. x 1.2 = 98 grams. 82 kg. x 1.8 = 148 grams. The range is from 98 to 148 grams of protein per day.
- Female, 130 lbs. 130 lbs. / 2.2 = approximately 59 kilograms. 59 kg. x 1.2 = 71 grams. 59 kg. x 1.8 = 106 grams. The range is from 71 grams to 106 grams of protein per day.
Another method to calculate protein needs is based on lean body mass rather than total weight. You will need to know exactly how much body fat you have. This calculation is not practical for most people, and it’s typically an inaccurate body fat percentage number. The method asserts that fat tissue needs less protein to support it.
If you’re interested in reading more about this method, please refer to Enter The Zone: A Dietary Road map by Barry Sears and Protein Power: The High-Protein/Low Carbohydrate Way to Lose Weight, Feel Fit, and Boost Your Health-in Just Weeks! by Michael R. and Mary Dan Eades.
Precautions regarding protein:
- Excessive protein intake may be hard on the liver and kidneys. If you have kidney or liver related issues or a predisposition, I recommend that speak with your physician prior to over consuming protein.
- Many protein powder supplements contain artificial sweeteners, preservatives, and other chemicals. Choose the healthier options, and read the labels on the products.
- Many protein powder supplements contain whey protein. Whey, a complete protein, has an excellent price point. However, many people may be intolerant to whey. While supplementing, keep track of how you feel to insure that you aren’t experiencing a negative reaction to the protein source.
My Top Protein Supplement Recommendations:
I prefer to supplement with a plant-based protein source because I regularly consume animal-based protein. I also supplement with a goat-based protein source. Goat protein is a smaller particle size and may be more easily digested and utilized by the body.
- Mt. Capra Double Bonded Goat Milk Protein is an organic goat-based protein. Mt. Capra offers multiple flavor options. I prefer the chocolate, which is only flavored with organic cocoa powder. It doesn’t have any preservatives, chemicals, or sweeteners. If you are used to mass produced supplements, your taste buds will have to adjust.
- Lifetime Life’s Basics Plant Protein is an organic vegan option that contains a blend of proteins which makes a complete amino acid profile. I prefer the vanilla, but it’s available in chocolate as well. It doesn’t have any other preservatives, chemicals, or sweeteners. Again, if you are used to mass produced supplements, your taste buds will have to adjust.
- If you’re interested in a whey supplement, Thorne Research Whey Protein Isolate doesn’t contain artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners, carrageenan or gluten. It is sourced from cows not treated with hormones.
I am often asked how I prefer to consume protein supplements. I typically mix the protein supplement with black coffee and a teaspoon of organic coconut oil, which is full of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). The coconut oil has no added flavor. It helps to stabilize my blood sugar and keeps me satiated for hours. I typically purchase Kirkland Organic Coconut Oil at Costco. Nature’s Way Coconut Oil is another option.
Obtaining the proper amount of protein from a quality source (via both food and supplements) as well as diversifying protein sources are important components to healthy eating and maximizing performance. To maximize your benefit and performance, you will likely spend time self-experimenting to determine how much protein you need to consume and from which sources.
Runners and endurance athletes should pay particular attention to protein intake as maintaining muscle mass is critical for performance and injury prevention. Consuming amino acids before and during endurance events is an excellent way to keep your blood sugar stable and to maintain a high level of performance. I recommend Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem Endurance Fuel, which includes a carbohydrate source, protein, and fat source, and Hammer Nutrition Hammer Gel, which contains some amino acids.
As we age, it’s important to continue to eat adequate amounts of protein. Sarcopenia is a condition in which muscle mass decreases with age. Strength training and consuming an adequate amount of protein is critical in avoiding sarcopenia and aging successfully. Red meat is a complete protein source. Consuming an adequate amount of red meat is an easy method to increase your iron consumption. Iron can help to reduce anemia, a common condition in women and the elderly population. Proper protein consumption is also critical to effectively manage diabetes.
For a conservative opinion on the subject of protein supplementation, watch the following video, How Much Protein Do You Really Need? by Yuri Elkaim. Elkaim is a nutritionist with an interesting history and has a wide range of experience working with athletes (particularly soccer players).
For a more aggressive opinion and information on the general physiology of protein use in the body, please refer to 7 Rules to Optimize Protein Intake by Barbell Medicine.
How much protein do you typically consume? What is your favorite protein supplement? Please leave your comments below.
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