While fats and carbohydrates often take center stage in media articles, the third dietary macronutrient, protein, has become somewhat of the forgotten child, often taking a backseat to their more “media-genic” siblings. While there has been increasing attention on protein in headlines and on food labels, there are still plenty of myths swirling about protein, especially in the foodie and fitness communities. So let’s take some time to go through the folklore and bring some focus to the facts.
1. Protein intake for most people is actually on the low end.
You may not have heard too much about protein deficiency, because for most of us it’s not an issue. So how ‘bout a quick rhyme? Just because you aren’t deficient in protein doesn’t mean your intake is sufficient (for optimal health). Backing up this statement, the current RDA (or Recommended Dietary Allowance) for protein, according to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), for protein is 0.8 g/kg/day for people over 18 years of age. This intake was defined by the IOM as the level to meet sufficient protein requirements for the majority of healthy individuals. However, this is a recommendation to prevent deficiencies rather than support optimal health. Additionally, the IOM has established an Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for protein. The AMDR for protein falls between 10-35% of calories from protein. On average, Americans consume only about 16% of their calories from protein, indicating we have quite some room to pump up the protein intake.
So what does this look like in real life? I’m so glad you asked. A 30-year-old, 150 lb., moderately active female with a 2,000-calorie diet should strive to eat about 100-120 grams of protein per day, or 20% of total calories. FYI: One gram of protein translates to 4 calories, for those of you who don’t want to whip out your handy dandy calculators. This would mean three meals with 25-30 grams of protein and two snacks of 10-15 grams each. Following this approach will not only ensure enough protein is being eaten, but will also guarantee that protein intake is spread throughout the day.
2. Don’t worry about combining certain proteins at each meal; focus on a variety of proteins throughout the day.
Protein can best be thought of as a kid’s toy blocks. These blocks, amino acids, are placed on top of one another to form a structure, such as muscle. There are nine essential amino acids (i.e., we need to eat these from food) and 11 non-essential amino acids (i.e., our bodies can make them, so we do not need to get them from food). There are two main categories of proteins: complete and incomplete.
Complete proteins have all nine essential amino acids in the right amounts. Incomplete proteins are lacking one or more essential amino acids. Any food that comes from an animal source is considered a complete protein (meat, fish, eggs, and dairy). One key exception to this rule is soy, which is unique in that it too is a complete protein. Most foods that come from plant sources are considered incomplete proteins (beans, peas, lentils, etc.) Incomplete proteins can be combined throughout the day to provide us with all the amino acids that we need. You don’t need to worry about having the right combination of foods at each meal; just focus on getting a variety throughout the day.
3. Protein does not need to be fancy or pricey.
Sure, some fancy restaurants may be touting the latest and greatest gastronomical dishes, featuring artisan cuts or specialty protein foods. But don’t forget that there are some tried-and-true, protein-packed options to fit any budget or preference. For those of us who don’t own all the kitchen gadgets or are not Iron Chefs in training, protein foods don’t have to be time-consuming or tedious to prepare. Think about options like canned tuna, yogurt, soy milk, and beans. All of these can be eaten on their own or combined with other foods to make a great dish. When it comes to meat like chicken, turkey, or beef, you can always freeze it if you don’t end up using all of it or make a large batch of your favorite recipe that will be your go-to meal for the week. When you look at many of the protein foods by cost per serving, there are plenty of affordable choices that can be prepared without too much time or fuss.
4. Specific amino acids can enhance fitness results.
Lean muscle is the Holy Grail for many of us because it helps our body burn calories continuously, which can be a great asset for weight management and weight loss. Turns out, protein can help you achieve this goal. In order to synthesize muscle, protein synthesis must be greater than protein breakdown. Adequate protein intake alone can increase muscle protein synthesis (MPS), a fancy phrase that means building muscle. However, the combination of protein ingestion plus resistance training is the best way to improve muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
If you are striving to stimulate MPS, quantity and amino acid type matters. Research indicates that branched chain amino acids, specifically leucine, are the key amino acid that stimulates MPS. Aim to eat 8-10 grams from branched chain amino acid sources (valine, isoleucine, and leucine) to stimulate MPS. A meal example that would deliver 30 grams protein with a minimum of 2.5 grams leucine is a tuna sandwich with 3 oz. of tuna, lettuce, tomato on two slices whole grain bread, plus an 8-ounce glass of skim milk. Some additional sources of protein that are rich in leucine include lean meat, low-fat dairy, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and soybeans.
5. Watch the clock: protein timing is important.
As for timing, most of us consume the majority of protein at dinner, according to NHANES data. But if we are trying to boost MPS and build lean muscle, then we need to spread out our protein intake throughout the day. Need more convincing? A 2014 study reported that MPS was 25% higher when protein was evenly distributed throughout the day when compared to the traditional high-protein evening meal.
To encourage MPS and ensure the body has enough protein to fuel itself during the day, aim to evenly distribute protein throughout the day. If your activity level warrants consuming 120 grams of protein per day, try to consume 30 grams of protein at each meal and divide the remainder into a few snacks. Also, if you are working out, try to sneak in a protein snack right after you work out to help your body repair and activate MPS.
From foodies to fitness junkies and everyone in between, protein is stepping out of the shadows and emerging as your next meal’s main attraction. Let’s retire the old myths and misperceptions regarding this nutrient and make a permanent spot on our plate for protein.