Protein 101

Function

Protein is essential for the regulation and maintenance of our bodies. It is involved in the growth and repair of tissues and cells in our bodies, fluid balance, immune, cell and enzyme function, and it helps form the structure of our cells. Many important hormones, ion channels, enzymes, transporters, neurotransmitters, immune system chemicals (such as antibodies), muscle proteins, DNAs, and skeletal and connective tissues are made from protein. 

Incorporating enough protein in our diet has many benefits:

  • increases satiety in a single meal and over 24 hours
  • aids in the formation of muscle and the maintenance of muscle tissue by supporting muscle protein synthesis 
  • supports fat loss through various mechanisms
  • augments the adaptive response to training
  • increases muscle recovery and repairs muscle damage from training
  • forms aerobic enzymes that increases our mitochondrial capacity
  • prevents age-related sarcopenia 
  • supports healthy skin and hair
  • strengthens our immune system.

The building blocks that make up protein on a molecular level are called amino acids. There are 21 amino acids total, 9 of which are categorized as essential amino acids (EAAs). Essential amino acids cannot be made by our bodies and must be included in our diet.

Protein can be separated into complete and incomplete protein sources. Complete protein sources contain all EAAs whereas incomplete protein sources do not. All animal-based protein sources are complete protein sources. Usually, plant-based sources of protein are incomplete.

Animal sources

Animal sources include eggs, egg whites, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, whey protein, other dairy products, cricket protein, turkey, chicken, duck, beef, pork, lamb, bison, elk, fish, shrimp, and scallops. 

Some animal sources of protein as well as different cuts of meat will have more fat in them than others. For example, chicken thighs will contain more fat than chicken breasts. 80/20 ground beef contains more fat than 93/7 ground beef. Fatty meats taste delicious, but they also tend to pack more of a punch in terms of calories. A balance of lean and fatty meats is usually best.

Plant sources

Below are some plant-based protein combinations that create complete protein sources. Please note that many plant sources of protein are generally higher in carbohydrates and fats than animal sources of protein. 

  • Hemp Seed + pumpkin seeds
  • Rice + beans 
  • Grains + legumes
  • Nuts/seeds + legumes
  • Seitan + soy sauce
  • Chickpeas + pita bread
  • Vegetables + grains, nuts, seeds
  • Corn + legumes

Additional plant-based protein sources include tofu, tempeh, seitan, quinoa, sprouted grain products, edamame, lentils, split peas, and plant-based protein powder.

Some plant-based protein powders contain less leucine, an important amino acid responsible for muscle growth, than animal-based protein powders. You may need to consume plant-based protein blends (rather than a pure source) or consume more plant-based protein powder to account for its lower leucine content.

Vegetarians and vegans who are consuming a low protein diet may also benefit from consuming 5-10g of BCAAs and 10-15g of EAAs. However, most individuals who are consuming sufficient whole food protein sources (those who consume animal products) will likely not see any additional benefit from these supplements.

Recommended Dietary Intake

Current evidence suggests that a minimum intake of 1.2-1.6g/kg body weight (BW)/day of high quality protein will achieve optimal health for the general population. Those seeking improved body composition, fat loss, muscle gain, and improved sports performance will benefit from consuming 1.7-2.7g/kg BW/day. 

Menopausal women and the elderly (60+) will also benefit from a higher protein diet. There may be other instances and situations that warrant higher protein intake, such as extremely lean individuals in a calorie deficit.

The individuals that should consume low protein diets are those with current medical conditions such as kidney and liver diseases, metabolic diseases, and those who experience issues with gastric emptying. So long as you’re healthy, there is no reason to not consume a moderate to high protein diet. 

Protein Timing

Consuming protein turns on muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the anabolic response in muscle. To provide yourself with multiple opportunities during the day to spike MPS, evenly distribute your total daily protein intake in 4-6 meals or snacks throughout the day. A goal to aim for is ~0.3-0.4g/kg BW of protein in each meal. Aim to eat protein every 3-5 hours. Consuming more protein than 0.3-0.4g/kg BW in a single meal or consuming protein more frequently than every 3-5hrs will not increase MPS or sustain high levels of MPS.

If you want to improve your body composition, optimize muscle repair, and support athletic performance, make sure to consume protein in your post-workout meal or snack. Many people consume a protein shake post-work, which is a convenient option.

How to Eat More Protein

One of the most common questions that is asked is how someone can get more protein into their diet. 

Breakfast

Start your day with a breakfast that is high in protein. Common protein sources to include in this meal are eggs, egg whites, tofu, ground turkey, turkey or chicken sausage, turkey bacon, quinoa porridge, sprouted grain products, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese. Even a protein shake is an option. You could also try mixing protein powder in your oatmeal or cooking egg whites into your oatmeal for a protein boost.

High protein breakfast ideas:

  • Egg, egg white, chicken sausage, or tofu scrambles with vegetables
  • Breakfast burritos or tacos
  • Tempeh and potato hash
  • Egg white and turkey sausage sandwiches
  • Protein oatmeal with blueberries and diced nuts
  • Protein smoothie with protein powder, frozen berries, greens such as spinach, and a tablespoon of nut butter
  • Greek yogurt with fresh berries and granola or diced nuts

Timing

Evenly distribute your protein throughout the day and consume protein in your 3 main meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) as well as in 1-2 snacks.

Quantity

Another way to increase your protein intake is to simply add more protein to what you’re already eating. For example, if you eat 4oz of meat, fish, or poultry in your lunch and dinner, bump it up to 5oz. If you have 2 eggs and 2 servings of egg whites for breakfast, bump it up to 2 eggs and 3 servings of egg whites. 

Preparation

Prepare your protein in bulk so you always have protein on hand. Instead of preparing your protein at every meal, think about preparing enough protein to last you several meals. For example, cook a few pounds of ground turkey or beef once a week. Add it to salads, tacos, or toss it in marinara sauce. Or, make 2-3lbs of chicken in bulk. You can bake it, grill it, or pan sear it.

Snacks

Include at least one high protein snack each day:

  • Greek yogurt
  • a high quality turkey meat from the deli
  • tuna packets
  • protein bar (Barebells protein bar)
  • protein powder (Legion or Driven Nutrition for whey or Ghost Vegan Protein)
  • hard boiled eggs
  • grilled chicken breast strips
  • shrimp

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