Protein is a hot topic. Carbs have been demonized, fats (until recently) had a bad rap... It's the only macronutrient that rarely, if ever, goes under fire. Brands drive sales of their food products by throwing the word "protein" on the label, exemplifying protein's health halo. It's often connected to everything from weight loss to muscle gains. And maybe this if for good reason! Protein is crucial for the structure, function and regulation of the body's tissues and organs. While protein is essential in the diet, there seems to be a "more is better" mentality which isn't quite right.
So, how much protein do you really need?
According to the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA), adults need .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you would need to ingest 54 grams of protein per day (150 x .36).
This would look something like:
- Breakfast: 2 eggs (12 grams of protein)
- Lunch: 4 ounces of salmon (28 grams of protein)
- Dinner: 1/4 cup of nuts (6 grams of protein), 1 ounce of goat cheese (6 grams of protein) and 2 tablespoons of hummus (2 grams of protein)
Many believe these recommendations are outdated and need revision. Protein expert, Steward Phillips, PhD, FACSM, FACN, suggests this level can be misleading: "That level of protein is the minimal level of protein to offset negative nitrogen balance in 98% of individuals. The RDA is really, in my opinion, the MDI - minimal dietary intake. Thus, nothing about that level should be recommended, and you are allowed to eat much more."
So, for younger adults, .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight may be sufficient. But older people tend to lose muscle mass with age and therefore need more protein - more like .54 grams of protein per pound of body weight - to maintain healthy body mass. Athletes also benefit from consuming protein levels above the RDA.
Thought of another way, many nutrition experts recommend that protein accounts for 25% - 35% of all the calories we eat daily.
What are the downsides of eating too little protein? How about the negatives associated with eating too much protein?
Eating a low-protein diet may increase the risk of blood sugar issues and protein deficiency symptoms such as worry/anxiety, always feeling cold, craving sweets/carbs/caffeine, joint aches, muscle stiffness, difficulty sleeping and headaches. To learn more about protein deficiency, check out this post about my two-week red meat experiment. In contrast, eating too much protein, especially animal and dairy-based protein, can be acidic and have an aging effect on the body. So don't go overboard either!
Protein Intake Timing
Now that we've got quantity straight, we can move on to optimal timing. Researchers find that we're eating too much protein at the wrong times and not enough at the right times. It seems that Western diets skew protein consumption toward the evening meal whereby breakfast is usually carb-rich and protein-poor, while dinner is typically much higher in protein and calories in general. This unbalanced intake doesn't give the muscles what they need to perform, nor does it do the job of helping curb cravings throughout the day. Your body has limited capacity to store excess dietary protein/amino acids from a meal and use them to stimulate muscle growth at a later time. So eating a big steak for dinner isn't going to help you with your post-workout muscle growth/repair tomorrow. It is best to distribute protein intake evenly throughout the day, starting with breakfast. You've just been "fasting" for the past 12 hours overnight so your muscles are catabolic (breaking down) so protein at breakfast gives your muscles a chance to start rebuilding after you've slept. Eating protein in the morning will not only help with muscle growth/repair but also stabilizes blood sugar and promotes satiety (feeling full). This reduction in cravings and hunger throughout the day can improve weight management.
Not every source of protein is equal. Protein is made up of amino acids. Of the 20 amino acids, nine are essential, meaning we need to get them from food because our body doesn't make them. Meat, fish, eggs and dairy foods are typically the most coveted protein sources because they contain all nine essential amino acids in the ratios that humans require. That said, you can certainly get protein from plant-based vegan sources, such as raw nuts and seeds, chlorella and spirulina, legumes and beans, broccoli, avocado, etc. Include a variety of protein sources (animal and vegan) throughout the day to provide adequate amounts of all the essential amino acids your body needs.
In conclusion, remember that protein intake is not just about the quantity; it's also about the frequency and quality of the protein we eat. A good rule of thumb is to incorporate some quality protein at every meal - about a palm-sized portion will provide about 20-30 grams of protein. Increase protein intake in the morning to curb cravings and repair/rebuild muscle after rest, eat a good sized portion at lunch to keep you full and energized through the afternoon, and decrease your portion of protein in the evening, which the least likely time of day you body can benefit from it.