How (and why) to Prioritize Protein
Protein is at the top of my list when it comes to creating any meal – from breakfast to smoothies to snacks, because it is one of the most important building blocks of the body – found in every cell and a part of thousands of chemical reactions that support life.
Protein is a major player when it comes to the way your body looks on the outside, AND how it functions on the inside.
It’s needed for everything from hormone regulation, enzyme production, and regulation of body fat.
Protein is needed for healthy and vibrant muscle, skin, hair, and nails – not to mention a healthy immune system and metabolism that can efficiently burn fat and keep you energized.
When it comes to losing body fat and your eating habits, something helpful to know is that protein is more satiating (satisfying) than fat or carbs. So you’ll feel more full and satisfied when you have a few more bites of your fish or home made burger than those sweet potato fries – which are harder to stop eating. This is partly because protein simultaneously reduces your hunger hormone levels (ghrelin) and boosts you levels of a hormone that makes you feel full (called peptide YY). Pretty sweet combo!
I’ve found that many of the people who write me aren’t really thinking about including protein at all when they make a meal, but once they start intentionally doing so, it’s much easier to feel that full and satisfied feeling a nourishing meal should leave you with.
What makes a protein?
Protein is made of 20 amino acids, 9 of which are called “essential” because your body can’t make them on its own.
Eating a variety of protein-rich foods helps you get all of these unique amino acids, which in turn supports your enzymes, your ability to metabolize fat, and supports structural tissue (aka muscle) production that sculpts a lean, fit physique. After a great workout, it’s important to jumpstart the recovery process by getting a good amount of protein (and carbs) in.
Not only that, your body burns more calories when it breaks protein down (boosting your metabolic rate) all the while giving shape, structure, and strength to your muscles.
Sometimes we slack on protein because of outdated misconceptions that it will “bulk” us up…
It actually takes months to years of disciplined training, controlled eating, and often hormone supplementation used to achieve a muscular, “bulky,” bodybuilder look. While both men and women can build muscle effectively, men have an easier time due to their higher levels of testosterone.
Adding muscle to your body is a desirable outcome of resistance training and healthy, balanced eating that includes protein. When you have enough of it the more common outcome is getting lean and being able to see the muscles you do have, rather than getting big and bulky, which is something that can happen when you’re overeating, or eating too many carb-rich foods.
Protein is how lean physiques are made.
If you’re not consuming enough of this essential nutrient, your body has no choice but to break down your muscles to get amino acids from their fibers. What this means is no matter how much time you spend exercising, your muscles will not cooperate unless you feed them properly.
That’s why I include some with every eating opportunity, and always with my first meal of the day – whether it’s a shake or a more traditional breakfast. When you sleep, your body uses most of the nutrients from the last meal you ate; replenishing protein right away ensures your muscles and tissues can continue to repair and grow.
Including protein foods throughout the day means your body will burn more calories simply by the work it takes to digest the protein you consume, encourage more fat loss via hormone production, which increases the integrity of your lean muscles, and even reduces cardiovascular risk.
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So first and foremost – here are a few troubleshooting tips to see if you’re experiencing any of the signs of protein deficiency….
5 Signs You May be Protein Deficient:
1: You often experience strong CRAVINGS for things like sweets, caffeine, chocolate, candy, chips, pastries, etc.
Strong cravings are often indicative of unstable blood sugar – your body needs energy and it’s looking for a quick fix. Protein not only helps your blood sugar stabilize, it is also very satiating.
2: You have DIFFICULTY SLEEPING through the night.
The same blood sugar swings that cause cravings can also mess with your hormone balance, which in turn messes with your sleep. A lack of protein can cause your cortisol (the stress hormone) to rise, while your serotonin (the happy hormone) diminishes, causing insomnia or fitful rest.
When you get a solid, restful night of sleep, you’re able to efficiently burn your body’s best long-lasting fuel: stored fat. But if you’re eating an imbalanced amount of carbs and sugars during the day, your body becomes unaccustomed to using your stored fat for energy, and will instead disrupt your sleep cycle thinking it’s time to eat, looking for the next hit of quick energy.
3: You have muscle and/or joint pain:
The body stores much of its protein reserves in the synovial fluid around the joints (which is then used to rebuild the muscles and joints after strenuous exercise). When protein is deficient, the reserve is tapped, resulting in stiffening joints and tightening muscles.
4: You ride a roller coaster of EMOTIONS, FATIGUE, and STRESS.
Protein helps stabilize your blood sugar, whereas sugar and carbs spike it. Without enough protein, you tend to go high and then low and then high and then low, which is taxing on your system – causing erratic mood swings, emotional highs and lows, tiredness and a depletion of your reserves.
5: You are CONSTANTLY HUNGRY with an uncontrollable appetite.
Protein takes more work to metabolize in the body than other nutrients. This means your body is working harder to break down and assimilate protein which improves metabolic function, leads to feelings of fullness, and stabilizes your energy and blood sugar levels.
How Much Protein do you Need?
This is not a “one size fits all” kind of thing.
While the USDA recommends 46g/day/women and 56g/day/men, these numbers are for non-active individuals.
You’ll find a wide variety of recommendations and ways to calculate this on various websites and apps, but the “right” amount of protein for any one person depends on many factors… including activity level, age, muscle mass, physique goals, and current state of health.
If you’re an active woman, I suggest really being aware of your dietary protein intake to help your body recover and repair from exercise. With regular resistance training (like any of my workouts, both bodyweight and with weights), the recommendation would be between 0.7 and 1.0 grams per pound of body weight. I generally aim for 1 gram per pound (or 2.2 grams per kg) of my bodyweight.
This may seem like a lot, but if you have your targets set a bit higher, you’re more likely to get sufficient amounts. Plus, as we know by now, more is likely better when it comes to protein.
How to Calculate Your Range:
To give yourself a personal range to work with, multiply your body-weight by 0.8 and 1 to find out how many grams of protein you should aim for each day.
For example, an active 150 lb woman would multiply 150 x 0.8 to get 120, and then multiply 150 x 1 to get 150, which would make the range of her protein range to aim for between 120g – 150g per day.
- If she’s not active, then a lower end range (60-90g) can be appropriate.
- If she’s fairly active, then mid-range is best (100-125g).
- If she’s extremely active, then she’ll want to aim for the higher end of her range (130-150g).
No matter what your goals are, including enough protein (along with your other nutrients) is an important part of supporting your body, sculpting your physique, and creating optimal health.
You can overeat protein, like any nutrient, but your body has a good internal regulation system to help you adjust if you do. Chronically overeating protein can cause health problems, just like chronically overeating fat, carbs or any nutrient can. That’s why it’s a good idea to calculate your protein intake based on your energy output and goals, and adjust accordingly.
When is the Best Time to Eat Protein?
You can and should have some protein at every meal.
Providing an ample supply of amino acids 1-3 hours before or following exercise may help further protein synthesis. Enhanced protein synthesis helps the body recover faster from exercise and potentially build more muscle.
Like we talked about above, protein gets broken down into the amino acids our bodies need to function properly.
Unlike the way our muscle tissue stores carbohydrates as glycogen for energy use later on, and the way our fat cells store fat for energy use later on, our body doesn’t have a “storage tank” for protein.
Since proteins and amino acids are not stored in the body, there is a constant turnover of protein. Some protein is constantly being made while other protein is being broken down.
Because protein is needed for so many body functions all day long, it’s important that we continue to replenish it throughout the day by including it in our meals.
What are Good Sources of Protein?
Like any of the nutrients, eating a range of food sources is a good way to ensure you’re getting adequate minerals, vitamins, phytonutrients and everything you need to maintain your lean muscle and decrease fat storage.
As with all foods, choose as unprocessed as possible, and think about the source of the food – like grass-fed meats, wild-caught fish, and organic seeds, nuts, and legumes.
Partial List of Animal Sources of Protein:
Meat: beef, bison, pork, wild game
Poultry: chicken, turkey
Seafood: fish (cod, haddock, tuna, flounder, perch, halibut) and shellfish (shrimp, crab, lobster, scallops, oysters)
Dairy: Greek yogurt, milk, cheeses, fermented dairy products like kefir
Partial List of Plant Sources of Protein:
(keep in mind that plant sources of protein also contain other primary macronutrients like fat or carbohydrates in addition to protein, so will not be as concentrated a source and must also be considered as a source of their additional elements.)
Seeds: chia, sunflower, pumpkin, flax, sesame
Nuts: almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, brazil nuts, peanuts
Legumes: Lupin, Lentils, Green Peas, Soybeans (tempeh/tofu), Red beans, Black beans, Yellow beans, Fava beans, Chickpeas
Whole grains: quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, wheat, rice, corn, oats (ensure your grains are soaked, sprouted, or fermented to consume, and that you’re looking for non-GMO plants)
Some Vegetables: i.e. avocado, broccoli, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes (these all contain some protein, but are not adequate protein sources on their own.)
Protein Supplements to add to your whole food diet:
Getting your nutrients from whole foods that you make is always the optimal choice, AND it’s really useful to have some additional, fast options to help keep your intake in the right range for you.
I rotate between a few different high-quality protein powders that I add to all kinds of things, from smoothies and oatmeal to baking.
- Bulletproof Collagen Protein: This top quality collagen is easily absorbed by your body, super versatile and will boost collagen production in your body.
- Warrior Blend Plant-based Protein: Warrior Blend fuses and multiplies the power of several rich protein sources into one smooth, great-tasting formula.
- Powerootz Pea Protein Isolate: this is a high quality organic pea protein isolate that is a great source of plant protein.
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- Pendick, Daniel. “How much protein do you need everyday?” Harvard Health Publications. June 19, 2015. Web. http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096
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- Veldhorst, M.A., et al. “Presence or absence of carbohydrates and the proportion of fat in a high-protein diet affect appetite suppression but not energy expenditure in normal-weight human subjects fed in energy balance.” U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health. November 2010. Web.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20565999