But it wasn’t always that way. In the early 1900’s so-called diet guru John Harvey Kellogg purported that the intake of dietary protein had “negative effects on digestion and health.”, but then, John Kellogg was trying to sell corn flakes (aka a box of carbs).
It turned out Kellogg was wrong, and in actual fact, protein is important – really important.
Protein is essential to the structure of red blood cells, for the regulation of enzymes and hormones, growth, immune function and the repair of body tissue. It is made up of amino-acids that are the building blocks of muscle. Our bodies can’t make all of these amino acids on its own, and therefore they need to be supplied through the food we eat.
Put simply, protein is absolutely crucial to your health, and even more so if you exercise.
Sources of Protein
There are two different types of protein; complete and incomplete proteins.
A protein is deemed incomplete where at least one of the essential amino acids are found in too low a quantity to support basic living functions. By contrast, a complete protein is one that contains adequate portions of those nine amino acids.
Typically, vegan and vegetarian sources of protein are incomplete, but the truth is that if you’re eating more protein than the basic RDA (more on this later), and a few different types of protein, you don’t need to worry.
When your overall dietary protein intake is well above the RDA this issue really doesn’t matter at all.
Moving on, here are some sources of both complete and incomplete protein:
- Red Meat: My personal favourite. In my post on fats I explained why saturated fat isn’t killing you, and why it should be part of your diet. Lean or not lean, meat is a great source of protein and healthy fats packed with important vitamins and minerals.
- Eggs: Eggs are perhaps the cheapest source of protein out there, and contrary to popular belief you don’t need to worry about cholesterol and heart disease. Again, eggs are packed with vitamins and minerals, but only if you consume the whole egg. I haven’t got any science to back it up, but every time you throw away a yolk a fairy dies.
- Fish: Personally, I’m not a huge fan of seafood, but fortunately I don’t mind some of the best types of fish out there; salmon, haddock and tuna. These are rich in healthy fats including omega-3.
- Poultry: Everybody loves poultry because it’s naturally lean and easy to work into your diet. Chicken and turkey are both great options, but I strongly suggest staying away from the really cheap stuff in your supermarket as it’s pumped full of all sorts of crap.
- Nuts, seeds, beans and legumes: This is the incomplete proteins category. All of these foods contain a good deal of protein, but are generally lacking one or more of the amino acids necessary for your body to rebuild new muscle. Yes, if you only eat one type of nut for the entire day you will be short of one of the amino acids, but if you eat a variety of proteins and above the RDA you will be fine.
- Milk, cheese and yoghurt: There used to be a mentality in the bodybuilding community, that is still somewhat existent today, that all you needed to build size was squats and milk. Don’t get me wrong, you will build muscle with this approach, but it’s not necessarily the healthiest way to do it and there’s a good chance you will gain excess body fat in the process. As long as you don’t go crazy, dairy is still a great source of protein and contains vitamins and minerals that aren’t easily obtained from other foods (namely calcium and vitamin D).
- Protein powders: By no means are protein powders compulsory, but they are convenient and relatively cheap. My recommendation is to use ‘whey isolate’. Whey is a complete dairy protein that is a by-product of the cheese making process. In its raw state it contains considerable amounts of fat and lactose (milk sugar). The fat and lactose is removed from the whey to leave you with ‘concentrate’ or ‘isolate’. Isolate is simply purer, containing less lactose (to which lots of people are intolerant) and fat.
You’re probably thinking that all of those foods (with the exception of eggs) are pretty expensive, and you’d be right. That’s why it’s important to have an idea of how much protein you really need so you don’t waste your hard-earned cash.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
For obvious reasons, protein has long been a favourite amongst bodybuilders, athletes and just about any fitness enthusiast. However, lots of people fall into the trap of thinking more is better.
As Brad Pilon explains in his fantastic book on the subject, How Much Protein, if you eat too much you’ll gain weight. But if you eat too little you won’t make any progress. You need to get it just right.
Over the past decade or so, there has been an abundance of research into the ideal amount of protein that should be consumed each day. You wouldn’t be blamed for thinking people are plucking numbers out of thin air, with numbers ranging from 0.4g/lb to 2g/lb.
Traditionally, bodybuilders have suggested 2g of protein per pound of bodyweight. It now looks like that number might be a bit excessive, but nevertheless bodybuilders recognised the benefits of a high protein diet before the rest of the population caught up.
Research now indicates that, if you are healthy and trying build some muscle, 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight (0.7g/lb) is a good target. This is much higher than the minimum RDA of protein (0.5kg/kg of bodyweight).
Here’s a table to show how that works out depending on your bodyweight:
Recommended Protein Intake for Muscle Growth
|Bodyweight in LBs||Bodyweight in KG||Target Protein Intake in Grams|
If, on the other hand, fat loss is your goal (and you are therefore in a calorific deficit), protein becomes even more important. It is a good idea to consume even more protein for the following reasons:
- Protein is satiating (fancy word for filling): Due to the fact that you are consuming fewer calories, hunger becomes a factor and anything to reduce hunger is valuable.
- To preserve your hard earned muscle mass: Your body breaks down protein for energy at a higher rate when in a calorific deficit. Unless you want to lose the muscle you worked so hard to build up, you need to increase your protein intake.
- Protein has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF): TEF is the amount of calories your body needs to burn to digest food. 1g of protein is 4 calories, but when you factor in TEF it’s closer to 3.2 calories.
Protein intake should therefore be increased to 2.2g per kg of bodyweight (1g/1lb) when trying to lose fat, but don’t fret; I’ve got another super-helpful table for you.
Recommended Protein Intake for Fat Loss
|Bodyweight in LBs||Bodyweight in KG||Target Protein Intake in Grams|
I like to keep things as stress-free as possible. Shoot for these numbers depending on your goals, but if you go over it’s no big deal. Relax.
Before or After a Workout?
This is where the topic of protein gets a bit more controversial.
There’s an abundance of misinformation out there relating to the timing of protein consumption.
The typical recommendation is to consume protein as soon as possible after exercise, which sends some people running for their protein shakes (literally). The logic behind this is that your muscles need protein as soon as possible to start repairing themselves after strenuous exercise, thus giving them more time to grow.
However, the subject has been researched thoroughly (see here and here) and it has been found that the total amount of protein is the determining factor in muscle growth, not the timing of consumption.
As long as you get enough protein as per the tables above and are training after having eaten in the day, protein timing is not important.
It is important to note that this only applies ‘after having eaten in the day’. If you exercise in a fasted state (i.e. not having eaten anything before), consuming protein or a supplement known as BCAAs before strenuous exercise may help with the retention of muscle mass and the reduction of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
It is also likely that consuming protein within 1-3 hours after a fasted workout is beneficial.
Can I Digest More Than 30g of Protein?
This a myth that Brad Pilon does a great job of debunking in How Much Protein (which I highly recommend by the way).
Somewhere down the line somebody came up with the idea that the body can only use 30g of protein at a time – anything beyond 30g of protein is supposedly a waste and is converted to fat.
The Bottom Line
Protein is incredibly beneficial to your health, and plays an important roll in improving your physique.
But I think it’s something people overcomplicate.
You don’t need to eat crazy amounts of protein, or chug down a protein shake straight after exercise (unless you train fasted).
Simply eat a variety of sources including meat, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts and legumes, and shoot for the guidelines amounts in the tables above. I suggest you use MyFitnessPal to begin with to ensure you’re in the right ball park, but after that just aim to eat some sort of protein with every meal and you’ll be on track.
Have you been getting enough protein (or too much)? Let me know in the comments!