Protein is considered an essential macronutrient for building muscle and proper function of the human body. In the fitness community, it is known as one of the most important macros.
Each gram of protein contains 4 calories. It is generally found in animal products, however, it can also be found in other food sources, like legumes, nuts and specific protein-rich fruits and vegetables.
- What Are Proteins Made Of?
- Why Do We Need Protein?
- Best Sources of Protein
- How Much Protein Do We Need a Day?
- How to Eat More Protein
What Are Proteins Made Of?
Proteins consist of many amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, whereas proteins are the building blocks of muscle.
There are 20 amino acids in the body, those are classified as either essential or non-essential. There are 9 essential amino acids, those cannot be produced by our body, thus we must include them in our diet.
Whilst other non-essential amino acids can be produced by our body naturally, therefore don’t need to come from the diet.
Why Do We Need Protein?
If you are into fitness, you know, that protein is essential for maximum muscle growth and increase in strength. However, there are many more reasons why we need protein, aside from muscle building.
Proteins are crucial for the proper function of the human body, as every cell and tissue contains protein. Protein also makes up components of enzymes and hormones.
Proteins help our body continuously repair and make new cells. Therefore, it’s crucial to intake the appropriate amount of protein daily to support those processes. Knowing that protein is necessary for growth, macronutrient is particularly important for the development of the body in children, teens, older adults, and pregnant women.
When it comes to specific fitness goals higher protein intake is crucial for maximizing muscle and strength gains from resistance training. It also helps with muscle mass retention when following a cutting diet.
Moreover, research shows that protein:
- Increases satiety levels
- Elevates thermogenesis – increases calorie expenditure
- Helps you stay lean, in general
Best Sources of Protein
The best sources are whole minimally processed foods, mostly animal but also plant-based foods. Even though protein powder might come to mind first as the best protein source, it’s best to use it as the last option.
Specifically, at times when you don’t have time to eat a proper meal or ability to prepare it. Protein powder can also be very useful for someone who struggles to consume an appropriate amount of protein throughout the day.
The best high-protein foods are:
- Meat – beef, lamb, pork, veal
- Poultry – chicken, turkey, duck, goose
- Fish & seafood – fish, shrimp, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, scallops
- Eggs – whole eggs, egg whites
- Dairy – milk, greek yoghurt, cheese
- Nuts & seeds – almonds, macadamias, walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, flax seeds
- Legumes & beans – various beans, lentils, chickpeas
- Meat substitutes – Quorn, tempeh, tofu
- Protein powder
To see a more extensive list of high-protein foods, check out this macro cheat sheet. It lists single-source, as well as multiple macro source foods. This cheat sheet can help you build a plan with a lot of variety which should help you stay within daily macro targets.
Animal Protein vs Plant Protein
As mentioned above, amino are classified as either essential or non-essential. Non-essential amino acids can be produced by our body, while essential amino acids have to be obtained through food.
The reason why animal sources of protein are the best sources of protein is that they contain all of the essential amino acids. Thus, they are considered as complete sources of protein.
On the other hand, plant-based sources of protein are considered incomplete sources, since they don’t contain one or more of the essential amino acids. One way of getting all the essential amino acids from plant-based sources is by consuming a variety of them with different amino acid profiles.
Therefore, it’s best to eat a variety of both animal and plant-based protein sources so that your body gets all the amino acids it needs, plus, the added benefits from plants.
How Much Protein Do We Need a Day?
The US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein for both adult men and women is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. However, studies show that the requirements are underestimated and should be about 1.2 gram per kilogram instead. Notice that both of these recommendations are not targeted towards athletes.
Appropriate protein intake for fitness enthusiasts depends primarily on lean body mass, training goal and is generally higher than the suggestions above.
How Much Protein to Lose Weight
The lower range of 2.3 grams of protein per kilogram or 1 gram per pound of lean body mass is sufficient for most people. Higher-end of the spectrum may provide an additional increase in satiety and could increase the chance of preserving more muscle mass.
How Much Protein to Build Muscle
On a lean bulk diet, protein does not play as big of a role as in a dieting phase, thus the recommended intake is lower. Specifically, the suggested range of 1.6 – 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day or 0.7 – 1 gram per pound of body weight per day is appropriate for most people.
How Much Protein to Maintain
Generally speaking, to maintain current body weight you want to consume about 2.3 grams per kilogram of body weight or 1 gram per pound of body weight per day.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s best to distribute protein feeding evenly throughout the day consuming 3 – 6 meals. This also includes a meal within 1 – 2 hours pre- and post-workout.
How to Eat More Protein
If you are someone who struggles to consume an appropriate amount of protein for your body and your fitness goals, here are some tips. I am pretty confident that by implementing them, you will be able to reach your daily protein intake target.
1. Make Protein Your Priority
Whenever you put food into your plate or make a meal plan, think about including a good portion of protein first. Same goes when you eat, ensure that you eat your protein source before indulging into carbs.
2. Include High-Protein Food in Every Meal
Make sure to have a fist-sized portion of quality protein source in every meal that you eat.
3. Eat Animal Sources of Protein
Ensure that you eat a variety of animal sources of protein for the most part.
4. Include High-Protein Foods in Salads
Make your salads packed with protein by throwing in some quality protein source in it. For example, chicken, salmon, shrimp, etc.
5. Add Protein-Rich Veggies
Make sure to add high protein vegetables like legumes and beans, as an addition to your main protein source to boost that total protein content.
6. Eat More Eggs & Dairy Products
Include more eggs and dairy products into your diet as both are very high in protein. Egg omelette, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, milk or Greek yoghurt can also be implemented as a protein-rich snack.
7. Choose Leaner Meats
Eat lean cuts of meat like chicken breast, beef sirloin steak, pork tenderloin, etc. Especially, if you struggle to hit your protein target and stay within a certain total calorie intake for the day.
8. Make Smart Swaps
Dig a bit deeper into some of the nutrition labels and swap some of your staples to more protein-rich foods. For instance, rice for quinoa, sour cream for Greek yoghurt, potato chips for nuts, crackers for bean snacks, breakfast cereal for eggs, soda/juice for milk, etc.
9. Include Protein Powder
Lastly, drink protein shakes, add protein powder to your smoothies or baked goods. You can even supercharge your breakfast cereal by making a protein shake with milk before pouring it over your cereal.
Protein is considered one of the most essential macronutrients for overall health & longevity, and of course for increasing your muscle mass and strength in the gym.
Optimal protein intake for most people is around 2.3 grams per kilogram of body weight per day or around 1 gram per pound of body weight per day.
The best way of consuming protein is through the variety of whole, unprocessed foods like meat, fish, eggs, dairy, legumes, nuts and other animal and plant-based protein sources.