There is so much conflicting information out there on how much protein people really need, whether or not it helps for weight loss, and the best sources to get it from. This post will hopefully clear some of that up! Obviously there are people with different opinions, and these are just mine that I have shaped through research and personal experience, and in particular apply to people who exercise or have body composition goals. If this topic interests you, you must definitely read some of the articles I have linked to and listed under ‘further reading’.
What is protein and why do we need it?
Protein is an essential macronutrient that is the building block of the bodies tissues. Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids, some of which are produced by the body and others that can only be obtained through diet (known as essential amino acids). If you need more convincing as to why humans need protein, click here.
In addition to actually being a component of bodily tissues, protein is also essential when it comes to building and repairing tissues. This is obviously key for anyone doing any sort of training as they need to ensure adequate protein intake to repair their muscles, and to increase their muscle mass as well.
What is the link between protein intake and weight management?
Having an adequate protein intake can help you lose weight, and is also helpful for weight maintenance. There are several reasons for this:
- Protein has a high satiating effect, meaning that it keeps you fuller for longer and can thus lead to an overall decrease in calorie intake over the course of a day.
- Your body burns twice the calories converting protein into glucose for energy as it does carbohydrates or fat.
Therefore, through increasing fat burning in the body, and causing spontaneous calorie reduction through increased satiety, higher protein diets are strongly linked to weightloss. Also, when dieting (creating a calorie deficit in order to decrease body fat), maintaining a high protein intake can prevent the body from catabolizing muscle and using it for energy, and thus maintain the maximum amount of muscle mass possible. It is essential to try to maintain as much muscle mass as possible during a diet because this is important in maintaining metabolic rate (and preventing weight regain) and minimising some of the metabolic adaptations that occur when the body is in a calorie deficit. I have even (skim) read a study where people in a calorie deficit of 40% managed to put on muscle mass through combining a high protein diet with a proper strength training program. For some really interesting stuff regarding LBM and caloric deficits, read this.
So how much protein should you really be eating per day?
Daily protein intake varies from person to person depending on a number of factors, including lean body mass, body composition goals, training volume and overall caloric intake. There is quite solid research pointing towards generally active people needing between 1.4– 2.7g protein/kg of body weight. This is obviously quite a wide range so a nice place to start is 2g/kg. If you have a high strength training volume or you’re dieting in a large calorie deficit, then you should probably aim towards the higher end of the scale, so a bit more than 2. But for the average joe, 2 has shown to work really well.
If you haven’t been aware of your protein intake before, you might struggle to get this amount in. Obviously you wont start to waste away if you don’t reach it, but if you want to retain as much muscle mass as possible during a caloric deficit or improve your body composition, then it is a good amount to aim for.
Bear in mind that if the only change you make to your diet is increasing protein, without addressing your fat or carb intake, then you are just upping your daily calories and this can cause you to gain weight. So it is more about making sure that each of your meals are balanced so that overall at the end of each day, you hit your protein goal without overdoing the overall calories. This is where having some basic knowledge on tracking your macros is super useful, so I think I will do a little post on that in the near future!
I just want to take moment here to point out that I am not saying these are ultimate perfect numbers that will work for and apply to everyone, they merely provide a rough guideline to start off from, and should be tweaked as you feel necessary.
How much protein are you getting in at the moment?
I might be stating the obvious here, but 120g of chicken breast does not equate to 120g of protein (it’s 32g by the way)! So if you have absolutely no idea of the ballpark range that your protein intake falls into, it might be helpful to download a food tracking app like My Fitness Pal, and just use it for a few days to get a gauge on it. I am not suggesting you track your food long term, but a few days will help you see how much protein is in certain foods, and how much of it you are eating. If that all sounds a little too technical for you, here is a good alternative:
Aim for about 30g of protein in each of your three main meals. This is a relatively lean protein serving the size of your palm. And then make sure that your other one or two snacks have protein in them. See the end of the post for some vegetarian protein sources.
Something to bear in mind while making these dietary changes is to ensure that you have an adequate fiber intake to prevent constipation or intestinal inflammation. Also make sure that you stick to mostly lean proteins, just to ensure that you don’t overdo your fat consumption while you attempt to up your protein.
Okay so with all that being said, here are some easy ways to incorporate more protein into your diet:
- Make sure that your snacks are high in protein. Instead of reaching for a high carb snack like a cracker, rather have a boiled egg, some biltong, or some low fat yogurt (just to keep it a low calorie snack while maintaining the amount of protein).
- Egg whites! They will become your new best friend. A whole egg has about 6g of protein. This means that even if you have eggs for breakfast, you might not reach your protein goal without overdoing the calories. This is where it is very nice to use a combination of whole eggs and egg whites to bump up that protein intake without going overboard on the calories. I also add them to baked goods and to my oats.
- Plan and prepare! Spend some time on a Sunday evening and make sure that you have nice lean proteins in your fridge that can be easily added to salads, sandwhiches or grabbed as a snack. This includes boiling some eggs, grilling some chicken breasts, or making a pot of yummy chilli mince!
- While I would always advocate wholefoods over supplements, some people just don’t manage to get all their protein in from whole food sources. This is where it might be helpful to get a healthy protein powder to have as a shake, or add to other meals like breakfast.
- Read the labels on your food! If you are buying a snack from the shops, turn it around and see what exactly is in there. Obviously make sure the sugar is low, and then go and check out exactly how much protein there is in relation to carbs and fats.
As this has been a topic that has really been on my mind lately due to my own personal fitness journey, a lot of the recipes I have been developing have tended to be high in protein. I have created a new ‘macro friendly’ category in the recipe section of my blog, so I will upload some of these recipes there!