With all of the protein bars, powders, and shakes crowding the store shelves these days, not to mention cereals, granola bars, breads, and even water with added protein, I think there is a lot of misinformation about the role of protein in our daily diets and how much is necessary.
Here are 4 things I think are important to know about protein:
1. Not all protein is created equal
You’ve probably heard about complete and incomplete proteins at some point in your life. Basically, complete proteins contain all of the essential amino acids, which are building blocks of protein that your body can’t make on its own. Complete proteins include animal products like meat, fish, soy, and dairy products.
Incomplete proteins are missing one or more of the essential amino acids and, if your body doesn’t have all of the amino acids required to build a certain protein, it doesn’t get built. That’s a pretty big deal when you consider all of the parts of your body that are made up of protein – muscles, parts of cells, enzymes, etc. Many non-animal foods like grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables provide incomplete proteins. It used to be thought that you needed to eat complimentary proteins (2 incomplete protein sources that, together, contain all of the essential amino acids – for example: rice and beans) together at the same meal to get a complete protein. However, now we know that, as long as you eat a variety of foods that contain all of the different amino acids throughout the day, you’re good to go.
Now, that’s just real food sources of protein. Protein supplements are a whole different story, but are also not created equal. Whey protein isolate is your best choice, with some new research suggesting a blend of dairy and soy protein is most effective, but that’s a topic for a whole other blog post and brings me to my next point……
2. You don’t need a supplement
That’s right. I know you see all those huge guys at the gym carrying around giant tubs of protein powders but it’s honestly not necessary. Your body can’t really store excess protein, so anything that it doesn’t use right away for rebuilding proteins in the body is just excreted in the urine. What’s more is that several research studies in recent years have show that your body only utilizes about 20-30g of protein at a time to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. Now, it is thought that this amount could vary slightly based on body size so more research is needed, but the main point is that downing a protein shake with 60g of protein is likely just resulting in some expensive urine.
This point doesn’t just apply to athletes who load up on supplements. A typical American diet is very light on protein early in the day and heavy on protein in the evening. By spreading protein intake evenly throughout the day, you can stay fuller longer (because protein helps with satiety) and get the maximum benefit from the protein you consume.
For example, a healthy 140 pound woman needs about 50-65g of protein per day to meet her basic protein requirements. Getting 20g of protein at each meal would easily meet these needs, and that doesn’t even include snacks! It may look something like the sample day below, which actually includes just over 80g of protein – more than enough to meet our example woman’s needs!
3. More protein does not equal bigger muscles
Going back to that image of protein shakes in the gym – simply consuming more protein will not result in bigger muscles. First, you must be doing some kind of resistance training to increase muscle mass. Second, you must be consuming not only enough calories to allow for muscle building, but you also need adequate carbohydrates so that you have enough fuel to perform the exercise and the protein you consume can be used for muscle building instead of being converted into fuel. Weight loss and muscle building can’t happen at the same time because weight loss requires a calorie deficit and muscle building requires a calorie surplus, not to mention that weight loss involves loss of both muscle and fat mass. Working with a dietitian is the best way to set up a plan that helps you achieve your goals if you are looking to alter your body composition because each person requires an individualized plan that considers a variety of factors in order to be successful.
4. Yes, even vegetarians can easily get enough protein from foods
All of this brings me to my last point and a question that I’m certain every vegetarian or vegan has heard numerous times – “But where do you get your protein??” As I demonstrated above, it is relatively easy to get an adequate amount of protein through a regular, balanced diet and the same is true for vegetarians. Vegan diets require a little more planning in general, but can also include an adequate amount of protein without expensive supplements. Whole, unprocessed soy (edamame, tofu, etc.), beans, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and eggs/dairy (for vegetarians who include these items) can all help vegetarians and vegans meet their protein needs for the day.