Are you eating enough protein for your health goals?

Here’s an interesting topic to discuss with Jon McComb this week on his radio show.  Thankful for the opportunity to share my thoughts on protein in the hope that it will get you thinking about whether you are consuming enough to meet your goals. If you missed it you can listen here to our discussion.

The research on protein was one of the main takeaways I had from attending the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s National Conference this year in Indianapolis. When I speak on these topics I want to make sure I can tell you where I received the information.  There was a wealth of information presented this year and I believe it’s because the importance of protein intake is apparent to a broad range of people and their health outcomes.

Deciphering the research isn’t an easy task even for the reseachers! Reading through a study is just one thing. Not becoming one of the legion of armchair reseachers that pretend to know what the research means is important to me. I admit it’s confusing and even some of the presentations this year had conflicting advice. (Ex: Amount of protein recommended per day and amino acid supplements in particular) I suggest there are plenty of good reasons to look at your protein consumption. I met some of the researchers in person and had an opportunity to ask questions which now leads me to sharing this information with you.


“MUSCLES are TORN in the GYM, FED in the KITCHEN, and BUILT in BED.” – Brad Schoenfeld

What are proteins?

Proteins, along with carbohydrates and fats are one of the macronutrients that form the basis of our diet.

Proteins are organic molecules made up of amino acids. These amino acids are joined together by chemical bonds that create three-dimensional structures that are important to our body’s functioning. We generally think of amino acids as the building blocks of muscle, but they are responsible for many other functions in our body. We are constantly using proteins as our cells breakdown and rebuild and when we are lacking protein. Proteins are responsible for many things in our body such as: repairing damaged cells, creating red blood cells, and manufacturing antibodies and hormones.

There are two main categories of amino acids in the body that are classified as essential and non-essential. Essential are those that the body can’t manufacture, and thus we must consume in our diets, and non-essential are those that can be manufactured within our body.

You may have heard of the term complete and non-complete proteins. If a protein is complete it contains all of the essential amino acids required to build and repair protein tissues in the body. Meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and fish are complete sources of protein because they contain all 9 essential amino acids. Soy, often in the form of tofu or soy milk, is a popular plant-based source of protein since it, like animal-based protein, contains all 9 essential amino acids.

Combining foods that are considered “incomplete” together to obtain a complete amino acid profile is often done, especially with plant based or vegetarian eaters. Combining rice and beans together would be an example of this as the amino acids missing from the beans are found in the rice.

Why do we need Protein?

There are a number of factors to consider when looking at the reasons you need protein and whether you should increase the amounts you are currently eating to meet your goals. Your age, general health, body composition, bone density, medical history, goals, activity level, and level of satisfaction/satiety are all important considerations in determining your needs.

Age: All ages need protein for growth and maintenance of muscle. Age related muscle loss is called Sarcopenia. We will all ultimately lose lean muscle mass with aging that starts in your 40’s. Eating adequate protein and adding resistance training to your routine will stimulate muscle growth and attenuate muscle loss.

General Health: Our bodies need protein and amino acids to produce important molecules in our body like enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies. Without an adequate protein intake, our bodies can’t function at their best. Protein helps replace worn out cells, transports various substances throughout the body, and aids in growth and repair. We need protein for good immune function.

Body Composition: Having a good amount of lean muscle on your body is so important. A higher composition of muscle will help to decrease your body fat percentage.

Consuming protein can also increase levels of the hormone glucagon, and glucagon can help to control body fat. Glucagon is released when blood sugar levels drop causing the liver to break down stored glycogen for energy. Also, your body uses more energy to digest and assimilate the protein – which raises your resting metabolic rate.

Dr. Bill Campbell’s (University of South Florida) presentation at the NSCA Conference on The Science of Weight Loss highlighted a number of key principles regarding body composition:

Dr. Campbell points out the above principles may be things that you already know, but we now have scientific validation for them.  To much of our population weight loss is needed, and thinking of the loss coming from fat is important. Losing muscle as you lose weight is not a good thing so the numbers on the scale can fool you.

Bone Density: Osteopenia and Osteoporosis both mean a loss of bone density; of calcium and protein. “Dietary proteins represent key nutrients for bone health and thereby function in the prevention of osteoporosis.”  “Several studies point to a positive effect of high protein intake on bone mineral density, and there is concern that the current dietary protein recommended allowance (RDA), as set at 0.8 g/kg body weight/day, might be too low for the primary and secondary prevention of fragility fractures.” (-1) Having more muscle makes you stronger, which plays a role in preventing frailty and increasing bone density.

History: Taking a look at your history from a health and injury perspective might give you reasons to look at increasing your dietary protein. Do you have any chronic health conditions? Have you recovered well from your injuries? You need adequate nutrition to support your health and recovery.

Goals and activity levels: As individual as this is I can’t emphasize enough that in order to be the best version of ourselves we need to move well and move often. Your performance and aging goals will be better served when you address this aspect of your nutrition.

Satiety: Many folks report feeling more satisfied when on protein rich nutrition plans. Perhaps you have to try it to feel this for yourself, but anecdotally I can tell you there seems to be fewer highs and lows through the day of hunger, and of “blood sugar” lows.

How much protein do you need?

How much protein you need depends on a few factors including knowing how much you are currently eating and whether you are motivated to change that based on an analysis of your goals and needs.

Recommendations can be found that are based on your body weight in pounds or kilograms. Currently in the US the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) is .8mg per kg of body weight. There is currently legislation in place to double that, to 1.6 mg per kg of body weight. On the low end of these numbers you might find yourself within a range that prevents protein deficiency, but is not necessarily optimal.

The optimal recommendation falls within this range: 1.4 – 2.0 g per kg (or around 0.64-0.9 g per lb.) of body mass. Therefore a 150 lb. (68 kg) person would need about 95-135 grams of protein per day.

Dr Campbell’s thoughts from the above principles and lecture – if fat loss is the goal: “During energy restriction protein intake should not go lower than 1.5 grams per kg of body mass (0.7 g per lb. of body mass).”

Athletes, bodybuilders, and those wishing to gain muscle: 1 gram of protein per pound of mass, so 150 grams per day for a 150 lb. individual.

When do we need protein?

The timing of protein is another factor that has been highly researched. Is there a metabolic window that will get you more gains?  The “window of opportunity” is not as narrow as often believed. The level of importance with protein timing depends once again on your goals. A general fitness person with weight loss goals that trains non-fasted will likely not need to be concerned with timing. But if you have aggressive body composition goals and your training is more intense, then possibly you should be taking a closer look when you eat and supplement around your training schedule. Intense exercisers whose training sessions last more than 2 hours at a time definitely should consider timing as a very important aspect of their nutrition profile. (Adapted form Brad Schoenfeld’s presentation slide.)

Consuming your protein throughout the day is my advice on optimizing your response. So consider how much protein you are consuming with each meal once you determine your requirements. With each meal: 20-40 grams for females, 30-60 grams for males. It seems prudent to consume a high quality protein both pre and post exercise within about a 4-6 hour window of each depending on the meal size.(-2)

Great words from Precision Nutrition coach Ryan Andrews: “We need a small amount of protein to survive, but we need a lot more to thrive.”

How much protein is in the food you are eating?

Once you gain the knowledge around why you should be aware of your protein intake, it’s time to start looking at food sources to meet your requirements. Add up the grams of protein you are currently eating to see if you are consuming anything close to the recommended amount for your goals.

It’s good to remember that protein can be found in a variety of foods. Look at food labels for the grams per serving and start to keep a tally of your daily intake.

Both plant and animal protein sources have the potential to stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Most animal based protein sources, including dairy, meat, and eggs are more digestible than plant proteins such as soy, wheat, rice, and potato.

Although I’m a big advocate of eating non-processed food I’ll make an exception when my daily requirements can’t be met, and use protein powders. There are many types of powders available these days including whey, hemp, soy, and pea. Finding one that agrees with your taste buds, budget, and digestion is the challenge. Making a small shake or simply mixing a scoop into food (like steel cut oats), or water is a quick method to boost your intake.

General rule of palm for serving size:  One palm for women, and  two palms for men.

Real food examples: Subject to serving size and brand. I suggest looking at labels to see what you are really eating!

Lean Ground Beef Hamburger: 19 g (100g serving)

One Hard-Boiled Egg, Large: 6 g

Cottage Cheese 2%: 12 g (100 g)

Chinook Salmon: 27 g (100 g serving)

Roasted Chicken Breast: 31 g (100 g serving)

Halibut: 28 g (100 g serving)

Ribeye Steak 24 g (100 g serving)

Ezekiel Bread: 8 grams protein per 2 slice serving

Rice And Beans: 7 grams per 1 cup serving

Hummus And Pita: 7 grams per 1 whole-wheat pita and 2 tablespoons of hummus

Peanut butter sandwich: 15 grams per 2-slice sandwich with 2 tablespoons of peanut butter

one cup cooked pinto beans = 15.4 grams protein
1/2 cup cooked spinach = 3 grams protein
one medium baked potato = 5 grams protein
one cup green peas = 8.5 grams protein
one cup cooked edamame = 18 grams protein
1/4 cup almonds = 6 grams protein

From the article, “12 Complete Vegetarian Proteins You Need To Know About” the contributing authors remind us that:

Every time legumes like beans, lentils, and peanuts are combined with grains like wheat, rice, and corn, a complete protein is born. Peanut butter on whole wheat is an easy snack that, while high in calories, provides a heaping dose of all the essential amino acids and plenty of healthy fats to boot.

Summary and recommendations:

  • For basic protein synthesis, you don’t need to consume more than 1.4 to 2.0 g per kg of body weight (around 0.64-0.9 g per lb of body weight) of protein per day. Consider a higher amount based on your goals. Try this amount out and monitor your response to the increase. Are you less hungry for example?
  • Consuming higher levels of protein (upwards of 1g per pound of your ideal body weight) may help you feel satisfied after eating as well as maintain a healthy body composition and good immune function.
  • Track your protein consumption as a starting point to considering a change.
  • You should consume some protein before and after training to ensure adequate recovery. Might as well maximize the muscular adaptations and facilitate repair. Provided you are eating a protein rich meal about 3-4 hours prior to a workout, no need to stress about slamming a protein shake immediately post-training.

Written by: Sheila Hamilton. Copyright September 2018. Contributing content and ideas: Andrea Brennan.

References: Nutrient timeing revisited: Is there a post exercise anabolic window?

  • Alan Albert Aragon
  • Brad Jon Schoenfeld
Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition201310:5… Protein Intake and bone health (-1)

The Science of Weight Loss – Dr. Bill Campbell : NSCA 2018 Conference notes and slides

David Ewart: PN -Precision Nutrition certified coach at it’s time! Fitness Results. Conversations and emails for content .  Infographic

Photo credit: yupiramos/123rfCopyright: <a href=””>yupiramos / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Copyright: <a href=””>margouillat / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis

Brad Jon Schoenfeld,corresponding author1 Alan Albert Aragon,2 and James W Krieger3

NSCA National Conference Notes: Sheila Hamilton

Brad Schoenfeld Presentation and slides: Protein Needs, Nutrient Timing, and Recovery Considerations. (-2)