Maybe you’ve heard it before – but protein is SUPER important when it comes to BOTH our health AND our body composition goals.
Protein is one of the three major macronutrient groups (the other two being carbohydrates and fats).
Protein is made up of compounds called amino acids which are literally the building blocks of our body. Amino acids & proteins are used to produce hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters and enzymes – it kind of goes without saying that getting adequate protein is essential for optimal health!
Additionally, refueling our bodies with protein after a workout helps muscles rebuild & repair. If you were to have a diet completely void of protein – it’s safe to say it wouldn’t be a very good diet for optimal health – let alone reaching your fitness goals.
Bottom line: if you care about your health & your body composition goals – it’s probably a good idea to learn a thing or two about protein.
When you think of protein – you might think of things like protein bars or protein power – or maybe you’ve heard that peanuts or almonds are good sources of protein. Truth is – understanding good sources of protein can be a little tricky because there is so much confusing information out there.
Before we dive in to the best protein sources – I want to start off by talking to you about the idea of essential vs. non-essential nutrients. Now – this isn’t a term that I made up – LOL. Essential nutrients are quite literally nutrients that cannot be produced by the human body – and because of this – we MUST get them from our diet.
You see – our bodies are SOOOO smart – our bodies can take raw materials (i.e. nutrients from food) and make a LOT of different nutrients from them. But there are just some things that the body MUST obtain from the diet — thus they are ESSENTIAL. Non essential nutrients are nutrients that our body CAN make from raw materials!
There are a total of 20 amino acids (or 21-22 depending on who you ask), and of those amino acids – 9 of them are *essential*.
*Some amino acids are “conditional” meaning that they ARE essential under certain circumstances (i.e. if someone is ill).
It’s also worth saying that when it comes to fat – there are TWO essential fatty acids : linoleic and alpha-linolenic. And interestingly there are no *essential* nutrients that come from carbohydrates (note – I am not saying carbs are “bad” – I am just saying that they contain no essential nutrients – but that topic is for a whole other post!).
Perhaps you have heard the term complete vs non-complete protein sources (or maybe you haven’t but now that you’re reading you are curious).
Keeping in mind what we just discussed in terms of essential vs. non-essential amino acids – complete protein source are sources that contain all 9 ESSENTIAL amino acids.
Here is a (non comprehensive) list of complete vs. non complete protein sources
*It’s important to note that quinoa is a complete source of protein – but it contains MORE carbohydrates than it does protein.
Perhaps you’ve heard that you can “create” complete protein sources from plant based products by using the combination method as outlined here. Keep in mind that – like quinoa – these vegetarian protein sources often contain higher amounts of carbohydrates than they do protein. Chances are if you are a vegetarian and eating a wide variety of food – you are likely meeting your protein needs for optimal health – however if you have specific body composition goals – you may need to get more specific with your strategy.
Soy based proteins like tofu/tempeh are often considered less than ideal protein sources because of the controversies surrounding soy and the fact that it contains estrogenic compounds. Consumption of soy is not something I advocate, however it is of course up to you and your physician so please be sure to check with them.
My personal view on animal products is that we are meant to consume them. As a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner in training – I place a high value on ancestral nutrition and I find Dr. Weston Price’s work very fascinating. Dr. Weston Price was a dentist who traveled around the world in the 1900s studying the health and longevity of various indigenous cultures. He found that the healthiest and most robust people relied heavily on animal products. Even those that were vegetarian – still placed a high emphasize on things like milk, butter, ghee etc. He could not find one culture that was in good health and who also followed a vegan diet.
While I certainly respect every person’s right to choose how and what they eat – I am an advocate for use of animal products and believe that it is both healthful and helpful when changing one’s body composition.
So now that we’ve talked all about protein, you’re probably wondering “how much should I eat?”
Depending on your goals/age/body etc – your protein needs will vary. I love this infographic by the folks at Precision Nutrition which shows an easy way to ensure you are getting adequate protein at your meals! As a rule of thumb – women should consume roughly a palm sized amount of protein at each meal.
If you have more specific body composition goals – you will likely need to get a little more specific with your intake. I recommend consuming 0.8-1g per lb of body weight while working towards your goal.
So if you weigh 160 lb this can mean anywhere from 128g-160g per day. (Always check with your doctor before starting a nutrition program.)
Keep in mind – just because you are eating adequate protein & hitting the gym, doesn’t mean that you are set up for success with your goals – we have to consider other nutrition elements too (carbs/fats/micronutrients etc).
If you have specific body composition goals – it is in your best interest to get adequate amounts of protein from complete protein sources like lean beef, chicken, turkey, fish, high quality whey protein (if tolerated), eggs, egg whites, and some dairy (if tolerated). Organic, 100% grass fed is always best.
The simple answer is – YES – you can consume too much of ANYTHING – heck – you could even die from drinking too much water!
BUT – in all seriousness there have been several studies (linked below) that show that even a high protein diet is safe for normal, healthy individuals (note – everyone is VERY individual so please always check with your doctor).
HOWEVER – it is worth saying that when it comes to body recomposition there is such a thing as too much protein in the sense that it is taking away from other macronutrients (carbs and fats). So at some point – there does become a point of diminishing returns in terms of protein intake & reaching your goals.
Peanuts are actually a legume, and while they contain some protein – they contain more fat grams than they do protein grams – and remember – they are not a complete source of protein!!
You are absolutely able to reach your goals no matter WHAT your lifestyle preference is – BUT being a vegetarian/vegan may mean that you need to be a little more diligent. Check out this progress from one of my clients who is a vegetarian. She reached her goal within 2 months – and we worked diligently to make sure she was hitting her protein targets & honoring her vegetarian lifestyle!
Note: I am very open and upfront about the types of clients that I work with. While I work with clients who are vegetarian – I do refer vegan clients out to other trainers that specialize in vegan body recomposition.
Now that we’ve talked about different types of protein, and how much you should aim for depending on your goals – you have a couple of options for how to plan to get it into your day.
If you are just starting out on your wellness journey and/or your main priority is general health – the Precision Nutrition infographic that I posted above is a great resource to use to give you an idea of how much protein to consume at your meals! I will post it again here for ease:
If your goals are more specific and you are feeling overwhelmed about how to fit in protein to reach your daily target – check out the quick video I posted below that I made for my clients. In this video, I walk you through the process I personally use to make sure I’m hitting my protein target.
I have a few:
SFH (whey) I’ve tried all the flavors except strawberry and love it!
Muscle Feast (whey) I’ve tried the vanilla & love it! Make sure to get the one without sugar!
Equip (beef isolate) I’ve tried the chocolate and love it!
MRM Veggie elite (plant based) I rarely use plant based protein powders anymore but there was a time when my digestion was less than ideal and I wasn’t tolerating protein powder well..MRM was my fav plant based powder during this time!
Do you have specific body composition goals you are working towards? How do you ensure you are getting adequate protein? Share with me in the comments below.