What You Need to Know About Protein
Written by Jenn Ryan

Whenever the topic of nutrition comes up, it seems you’re going to hear a lot about protein first. While it may seem like a lot of the ideas and comments about protein are more ‘bro-science’, there are also some legit claims and rationales for a moderate to higher protein diet amongst active individuals. Protein intake is not just something that bodybuilders and ‘athletes’ need to be cognizant of.

What is protein​?

Protein ​is one of the three macronutrients, and it is an ​essential nutrient​, meaning we cannot survive without the consumption of it on a daily basis for an extended period of time. Protein is made up of amino acids (literally known as the building blocks of protein). There are 21 amino acids, although only 9 of them are essential – which means ya gotta eat ’em, because the body and it’s cells can’t produce them.

What role does protein play in the processes and functions of the body? 

The real question should probably be, what process and function does it ​not ​play a role in?!  Here’s some of the big ones:

  • Function as antibodies that bind to viruses and bacteria, boosting the immune system.
  • Function as enzymes to carry out the reactions inside of cells.
  • Function as messengers – HORMONES! Insulin, growth hormone, IGF-1…protein!
  • Function in transport and storage, ion channels.
  • Helps build lean muscle mass – who doesn’t want that beautiful definition?!

How much protein do you need?

A big topic of discussion is always how much protein does one need? Well, this is going to depend on goals, lifestyle, training, etc. Here’s what we do know:

  • The RDI of 0.8-1.0 grams/kg body weight is more so to ​prevent ​catabolism (the breakdown of tissue) in a more sedentary individual.
  • For optimizing ​longevity​ in the general population, evidence indicates a range of 1.2-1.6 grams per kg of bodyweight.
  • For active individuals and those looking to optimize training adaptations (aka – building lean muscle, not looking like a ‘wet noodle’, seeing ‘tone and definition’, etc.), a minimum of 1.6-2.2 grams per kg of bodyweight has been shown in studies to provide optimal amounts.

What factors impact protein intake?

Keep in mind there is no ​set rule​ on how much protein you need. The requirements depend on the overall anabolic (building up) or catabolic (breaking down) state you’re in.

If you’re in a calorie deficit and performing more cardiovascular exercise for example, muscle protein breakdown will be high and muscle protein synthesis will be lower, so you’ll require MORE protein. What does that mean? Well, if you’re in a dieting phase, you might want to opt for a higher amount of protein so you can continue to preserve and even build lean muscle while losing body fat.

Factors that Increase Anabolism 

Anabolism is muscle breakdown. These factors contribute to that.

  • Calorie deficit
  • Low carbs
  • Little or low quality sleep
  • High stress. 

Remember – protein plays a vital role in a lot of the body’s processes that are affected by these scenarios. During these times, you may even benefit from a protein intake of 1.2 grams per ​pound of bodyweight (or lean body mass).

If muscle protein breakdown is low and muscle protein synthesis is high, you’ll require LESS protein. What does that mean? If you’re in a muscle gaining phase, eating more carbohydrates, and able to recover properly, then you are giving the body and muscles what they need to preserve and build lean muscle at a moderate protein amount.

Factors that Decrease Anabolism

These factors decrease muscle breakdown by the body and increase lean body mass.

  • Calorie surplus
  • Higher carbs
  • Low stress
  • Lots of sleep (at least 7-8 hours every night). 

If you fall into these categories of factors, you could aim for about 0.8-1.0 gram protein per ​pound ​of bodyweight (or lean body mass).

Is too much protein bad?

Recent studies by Dr. Jose Antonio and others have disproven many of the myths on this topic. Now, it’s worth noting that this is true in healthy people without a pre-existing kidney disease (as always in the world of nutrition, there is a ‘it depends’).

His studies have shown that daily intakes even 2.5 times above the RDA have shown no harmful effects on kidney or liver function, or bone density.

Now, there is also not a huge benefit to overdoing it on protein, so you don’t really get bonus points for taking in higher amounts unless you truly love protein. In fact, high quality protein sources may be the most expensive of the three macronutrients (fat, carbohydrates, and protein). So finding the right amount for your goals and needs is enough. But there’s no reason to fear protein intake.

Why Protein is Important

In order to build muscle tissue, we need to be consuming adequate protein. These are the building blocks of muscle, and if you’re someone that works out often and trains hard, you are probably aiming for some sort of body composition goals. So if you’re looking to change your physique or even improve performance, protein is basically a requirement.

Many of the people we encounter that ‘always struggle’ with weight loss, achieving body composition goals, eating enough to feel full, getting sick often…well, they “just don’t like to eat a lot of protein”. 

Most of the time people think a moderate protein intake is ‘a lot’, where that’s not typically the case. While there may not be a lot of science to back this up, there’s something to be said about experience and anecdotal evidence. It’s almost tried and true, and we kind of come to expect the information we find out when these people give us a food log. It’s nothing against anyone, but there are some basic trends we’ve witnessed. 

How Protein Aids in Fat Loss

Thermic Effect of Food

The thermic effect of food is the increase in metabolic rate after the ingestion of food. Yup – you are literally burning calories while digesting your food! Protein just so happens to have the highest thermic effect – a whopping 20-30%! Carbohydrates – meh, 5-10%. Fats? Only 0-3%! So we’re actually burning more of what we consume in protein than carbs and fat via digestion and absorption. For you, this means that by increasing protein intake, there’s a higher metabolic effect and by placing more protein as your calories, you could essentially still be creating a caloric deficit.

Protein Keeps You Fuller for Longer​

Seriously, try eating 4 chicken breasts or 4 donuts of the same portion sizes. Let me know which is: a.) more challenging to finish, and b.) keeps you fuller longer. So this is great for those looking to lose body fat and eat fewer calories.

How Excess Protein is Stored

It’s not often that protein is going to be stored as body fat​. Now, it can happen if it’s putting you in a calorie surplus, but as we know, protein is utilized in so many functions and processes in the body. Fats and carbs are going to be more readily stored as body fat.

Does protein timing matter?

First and foremost, we want to get in the total amount of protein needed in our day. However, studies have shown that eating enough to give the body a bolus of amino acids can increase muscle protein synthesis.

What is muscle protein synthesis? 

This is the process your body uses to repair, grow, and strengthen muscle fibers. You should be looking for 25-40 grams of protein in a meal or snack to stimulate this process. Spreading your total daily protein intake across about 4 meals a day to achieve these amounts can be hugely beneficial in maintaining and building lean muscle.

How to Implement Protein Intake

If you have a meal with 25-40 grams of protein 1-2 hours before your workout, you don’t need to stress about having a protein shake or meal right after training. An hour or two later will suffice. But if your last protein meal was greater than 2-3 hours before your workout, you may benefit from having a protein source shortly after your workout to prevent muscle protein breakdown.

Start the week with grabbing at least 3 protein sources to have at the house. Grab some extra meat to throw in the freezer or have some lentil pasta in the cupboard so you always have a backup plan!

Lean Protein Sources

  • Chicken breast
  • 99% or 96% Lean Ground Turkey 
  • Ground Beef 90% lean or greater 
  • Egg whites
  • Pork tenderloin
  • Sirloin Steak
  • Bison or Venison
  • VITAL PROTEINS SUPPLEMENT

Fattier Protein Sources

  • Chicken thigh Ground beef 85% 
  • Tri tip, Ribeye
  • Whole eggs

Dairy Protein Sources

  • Milk
  • Cheese (cottage cheese included) Greek yogurt
  • Whey/Casein protein powder

Seafood Protein Sources

  • Shrimp 
  • Tuna 
  • Salmon 
  • Scallops

Plant-Based Protein Sources

  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Edamame
  • Lentil pasta (fav brands right now are Tolerant, Banza)

Sample Days of Protein Intake

Sample 1: 120G protein, lower fat (total here is 118G protein, 13.5G fat)

  • Breakfast: 1 whole egg + 2 egg whites + 2 slices turkey bacon 
  • Lunch: 6 oz chicken breast (raw weight)
  • Dinner: 5 oz 96% lean ground beef (raw weight)
  • Snack: Non-Fat Greek yogurt ~ 5 ounces

Sample 2: 150G protein, moderate fat (total here is 150G protein, 43G fat)

  • Breakfast: 2 whole eggs + 2 egg whites + 2 slices thick bacon 
  • Lunch: 6 oz 90% lean ground beef (raw weight)
  • Snack: 1 cup Cottage cheese 1%
  • Dinner: 6.5 oz chicken thighs (raw weight)
  • Post Workout: Protein shake, 1 scoop

Sample 3: 200G protein, moderate fat (total here is 207G protein, 55G fat)

  • Breakfast: 3 whole eggs + 1 egg white + 2 chicken sausages Post Workout: Protein shake, 1 scoop
  • Lunch: 8 oz 90% lean ground beef)
  • Dinner: 10 oz chicken breast (raw weight)
  • Snack: Non-Fat Greek Yogurt ~5 ounces

Sample 4: 200G protein, lower fat (total here is 200G protein, 21G fat)

  • Breakfast: 2 whole eggs + 2 egg whites + 2 slices turkey bacon 
  • Snack: Non-Fat Greek yogurt ~ 5 ounces
  • Lunch: 8 oz 99% ground turkey (raw weight)
  • Dinner: 10 oz chicken breast (raw weight)
  • Post Workout: Protein shake, 1 scoop

Sample 5: 175G protein, moderate fat (total here is 171G protein, 66G fat)

  • Breakfast: 2 whole eggs + 2 egg whites + 1 slice thick bacon
  • Snacks: Oatmega Bar(any flavor), Rx Bar (any flavor), cottage cheese Lunch: 7 oz Salmon (raw weight)
  • Dinner: 8 oz 90% lean ground beef (raw weight)
  • Post Workout: Protein shake, 1 scoop

Vital Proteins Collagen Supplement

If you can’t get enough collagen into your diet on a regular basis, supplementation is also a great option. A 2008 study at Penn State showed that 24 weeks of collagen supplementation in their student-athletes resulted in a significant reduction in joint pain. That’s to say that incorporating collagen supplements into your diet might help you recover faster from that squat cycle.

Our favorite collagen supplement options come from Vital Proteins because their collagen protein is clean, simple, and easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Their unflavored collagen peptides mean you can add them to your daily protein shake or your morning coffee without any taste changes. Looking for something a little more adventurous? Their collagen creamers add a kick to your daily cup while helping to keep your joints healthy. Read more on why we love Vital Proteins Collagen here.

The Bottom Line on Protein

As we can see, protein is pretty important in the grand scheme of things. In fact, sometimes we can make initial progress by just tracking total calories and protein, while being more flexible with fats and carbs. If you struggle with getting your protein in, try starting all your meals out by having 1-2 palm sized-portions. This helps ensure you’re working towards your goals.

Quarantine Nutrition Support

Need a little extra support? We have an amazing coach and community in our online Invictus Nutrition Program to help you through this! Registration is open now!

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