The topic of protein can be a confusing one. One day you might read an article about the latest high-protein diet fad and wonder if you should join in, the next you might watch a documentary about plant-based diets and question if you are actually eating too much protein. If this resonates with you or if you are simply an active individual wondering what you need to know about protein, read on!
Purpose & Function of Protein
Dietary proteins are essential for human health and responsible for things like immune function, enzymatic reactions, cell growth & development, transport and "communication" (as in the case of hormones). This table provides a good overview of each of those "jobs" if you're curious for some specific examples of each.
You have most-likely heard at some point throughout schooling that protein acts as the "building blocks" of our bodies. It's especially important post-workout for repairing/rebuilding muscle tissue.
Another more subjective reason for including protein is the satisfaction factor. It adds staying power to meals and snacks so you aren't thinking about food again an hour later. I often find that when people skimp on protein at breakfast, it has a cascade effect and can lead to increased cravings throughout the day along with a feeling of never being *truly* satisfied.
Complete vs. incomplete
You may have heard the words "complete" and "incomplete" in regards to protein. These terms indicate whether or not a particular food contains all of the essential amino acids (complete) or only some of them (incomplete).
Why is this important?
There are 20 different amino acids and 9 of those are considered "essential" meaning that our body doesn't synthesize them and we need to consume these through our food. If you eat a plant-based diet (and subsequently incomplete protein sources), it's important to consume a variety of proteins to make sure you are getting each of those amino acids throughout the day.
Am I Getting Enough?
It's very rare to see protein deficiency in any developed country (except in the clinical setting when patients are either unable or refusing to eat for extended periods of time, at which point nutrition support is initiated). Basically, if you are meeting your energy needs, you are likely meeting your protein needs too.
That said, many of my coaching clients tend to go a little low on dietary protein intake, especially if they follow a vegetarian eating pattern, without even realizing it. It's not hard to meet your needs with a plant-based or mostly plant-based diet, it just takes a little bit more planning. It's also important to know the difference between meeting protein needs for general health, and meeting protein needs if your goal is to build lean body mass and optimize a workout.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance or "RDA" for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight (source).
So to calculate this, take your weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2 (to get your body weight in kilograms) then multiply that number by 0.8. This is the minimum amount of protein you should shoot for each day, but it's not necessarily the optimal amount.
A registered dietitian can help you determine a protein range that will best meet your needs (based on things like activity level and fitness goals), but this can be a starting point. In addition to amount, there are two other important factors to consider: timing & variety.
Timing. Spread out your protein intake throughout the day (as opposed to moderate amounts at breakfast/lunch followed by a huge steak at dinner). This seems to promote muscle protein synthesis better than the alternative. (source)
Variety. As mentioned above, make sure you get a variety of sources especially if you eat plant-based so you can diversify your amino acid intake. All food provides different benefits so this is a good rule of thumb no matter what the macronutrient - there is no "best" choice.
Dietary Sources of Protein
By now you might be wondering about protein-rich food sources. Most people are well-aware that meat has protein, but some other options may surprise you. Here is a short list of where you can find it and about how many grams one serving contains:
Chicken, 3 oz (20 grams)
Siggi's 2% Yogurt, 5 oz (15 grams)
Tuna, 2 oz (14 grams)
Cottage Cheese, 1/2 cup (14 grams)
Red lentils, 50 gm serving (13 grams)
Hemp hearts, 3 Tbsp (10 grams)
Peanut butter, 2 Tbsp (8 grams)
Black beans, 1/2 cup (7 grams)
Whole wheat pasta, 2 oz (7 grams)
Egg, 1 whole (6 grams)
Old-fashioned rolled oats, 1/2 cup (5 grams)
What about protein supplements?
Supplements can be a great option for active individuals who have higher protein needs and find it challenging to meet them through food. From a volume perspective it's a lot easier to take in 20 grams of protein through a smoothie with some whey powder added in, than it is to consume a full plated meal.
I still advocate for using "food first" whenever possible. Supplements can be expensive and they don't contain any magical components compared to food. The nutrients in whole food often work in synergy in the body so by isolating single components, we might be missing out on some of the benefits of the original source. Here's an example:
1 cup vanilla almond milk
1 serving whey protein
Nutrition // 290 cals, 18 g protein
1 cup 1% milk
1/2 frozen banana
1 Tbsp peanut butter
1.5 Tbsp hemp hearts
Nutrition // 318 cals, 18 g protein
Both provide the same amount of energy and protein but smoothie #2 gives you all of the nutritional benefits of milk, plus added heart-healthy fats, fiber, iron and omega 3s from a combination of the peanut butter and hemp hearts. Remember that this isn't to say one is "better", but one might be more appropriate based on your situation.