Let’s Talk Protein

You would be surprised how many conversations I have overheard on a subway car, at the gym, or heck waiting in line at Starbucks on the amount of protein a person needs.  It seems that people feel that protein is this magical nutrient that can trim weight and turn you into a supermodel, cause you to bulk up like the hulk, or gosh I don’t know sprout wings!  In my experience with athletes, recreational exercisers, as well as the regular individual, everyone has extremely strong beliefs on how much protein they need.   Along with this belief it is often overlapped with the idea that you can only get protein from meat products and whey supplements.  Well reader, if you haven’t already guessed, I’m going to be discussing protein: role of protein, how much you need, and foods it is found in.

Let’s begin with some basic information on protein.  Protein is made up of amino acids: phenylalanine, tyrosine, lysine, etc.  We require amino acids to build tissue, have functioning organs, and in some cases we will use them for energy.  It has roles as enzymes, hormones and helps to maintain fluid and electrolytes balance.  Protein is NOT stored like fat or carbohydrate (glycogen), it is broken down and used or it is converted into energy, i.e. we use it or lose it.  So we want to make sure we are always getting an adequate supply every day, since we don’t have this extra back-up like the other macronutrients.  Thus protein is an essential part of a diet and should never be omitted.  Everyone seems to be able to agree with this point.  We must eat protein.  Confusion seems to generate not on the necessity or functionality, but on the amount of protein.

The RDA, Recommended Dietary Allowance (put out by the USDA), is the daily amount needed to meet the average need for an individual.  This magic number is 0.8grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.4grams per pound.  This includes recreational exercises, so if you work out 1 hour 4 times a week; you need the same amount of protein.  So if we take an average 150lb person, they would need 60grams of protein a day.  This could look like*:

1 cup milk (8grams), 1 egg (7 grams), 2oz cheese (14grams), 2oz turkey (14 grams), 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (7grams) 3/4cup of black beans (11grams)

Total: 61 grams

Now for some of you that may seem like a lot of protein for others it may seem like very little.  Generally Americans eat 3-4x the amount of protein they need every single day.  A quarter-pounder with cheese would provide a minimum of 35grams of protein.  So the majority of us exceed our protein needs.  So what does this mean… it means that we are putting in more amino acids then our body can use, leaving the remaining protein to be used for calories.

So if you are not an athlete, a daily exerciser, or have some other medical condition that increases your needs, 0.4grams per pound is all you need.  At the bottom of this post I have added list of different foods and the amount of protein in them.

This brings us to the sticky wicket- athletes, muscle growth and protein.  I have scoured the research and books on protein needs for various sports and the literature shows no evidence that athletes gain advantage from consuming more than 1.8g per kilogram body weight of protein.    To break it down a step further:

Endurance athletes such as long distance runners, soccer players, swimmers, etc. protein needs are met around 1.2-1.3grams per kilograms.

Strength athletes such as weight lifters, shot putters, and linebackers average more around 1.6-1.8grams of protein.  Showing that the sport you play, exercise level, and workout regiment does affect protein needs. I will give you an example*….

A 200lb professional weight lifter, would require: 145- 164grams of protein a day.

Breakfast: 2 cups milk (16 grams), 1 bowl cereal (6 grams), 2 slices of bread (6 grams), 4 tablespoons peanut butter (14 grams)

Lunch: 2 pieces of bread (6 grams), 4oz turkey (21 grams) , 2 oz cheese( 14 grams), 1 cup yogurt (8 grams)

Snack: ¼ cup hummus (3 grams)

Dinner:  5oz fish (35 grams), ½ cup lentils (7 grams), 1 cup milk (8 grams), 1 whole grain roll (4 grams)

Provides: 148grams

*(This is not a balanced meal, this is merely showing protein distributed throughout the day)

The idea is that if I eat more protein I will build more muscle, if this were true I could eat 10 steaks and wake up the next morning with biceps twice as large.  This is clearly not the case.  Research shows that eating between 20-30grams of protein dose appear to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis (muscle growth), however intake above this does not increase synthesis (no matter the exercise).   Protein is needed in muscle tissue repair and growth, but increasing the amount does not increase the rate or amount of growth.  Muscle mass and growth depends on your workout, physiology, and genetics.  The huge amounts of protein many body builders, weight lifters, etc. eat is not being used for muscle repair and growth, but is being used for energy.  They are most likely underrating carbohydrates and fat and the body is using everything it can to for its energy needs.

Protein shakes:  I’m not going to go into detail on protein shakes in this blog, but I would hope from reading this blog you find that you can meet your protein needs from real food rather than supplements!  (Always a good goal)

  • Each protein equivalent = 7 grams protein
    • 1 oz. meat/poultry/fish
    • ¼ cup tuna
    • 1 oz. cheese
    • ¼ cup cottage cheese
    • 1 egg or 2 whites
    • 2 Tablespoons peanut butter
    • 4 oz. Tofu
  • Dairy sources of protein = 8 grams protein
    • 1 cup milk
    • 1 cup yogurt
    • 1 ½ oz. hard cheese
    • 1 ½ cup frozen yogurt
    • ½  scoop whey protein powder
  • Miscellaneous
    • 1 piece of bread = 3 grams
    • ½ cup beans = 8 grams
    • 1 bowl cereal = 6 grams

Comments and questions are always welcome!


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