First, a little science. Protein is one of the three macronutrients, along with fats and carbohydrates, that comprise the foods we eat. A gram of protein is about 4 net calories, and is most often associated with meats, dairy products like yogurt and cheese and, to a lesser extent, nuts, legumes and beans. Proteins are made of long chains of amino acids, molecules that our bodies do not manufacture easily or store in great abundance. In fact, there are 8 amino acids, the “essential amino acids,” that we must consume regularly in order to function. Foods that have all of these essential amino acids are said to have “complete proteins.” Examples of complete proteins are meats, fish, poultry, milk products, and soy beans. Plants, legumes, and wheat are incomplete proteins, but can be combined in the diet to cover all the essential amino acids.
But why is all this important? Because proteins are the Legos of the human body. 75% of the dry-weight of our bodies is protein, including everything from our hair to our muscles. And since our bodies cannot keep a lot of these Legos around, we have to keep a steady stream of complete protein foods coming in through our diets, especially if we are working hard in the gym. How much? Sedentary individuals can get by with .36 grams per pound of body weight, this is the number that the USDA recommends (and a lot of vegetarians shoot for), but athletic individuals are going to churn through a lot more protein than that with our intense strength and conditioning workouts. The number I recommend my clients shoot for is 1g of complete protein per pound of body weight. So for example, a 120lb woman training with me would eat 120g of protein. And that’s true whether she is trying to lose fat or gain muscle. Adequate protein in the diet is necessary for every athletic goal from basic health to looking good in that bikini.
Eating that much protein can seem like a daunting task but it is easy when you start the habit and plan ahead. Here are my quick tips:
- Consume lean, complete protein with every meal or snack. Eggs or egg whites for breakfast, chicken with lunch, yogurt for a snack, lean sirloin for dinner, and a little cottage cheese before bed? That sounds delicious!
- Aim for a handful. A handful of protein rich foods will contain roughly 20-30g for women and 40-60g for men (men have bigger hands).
- Enjoy variety. Our bodies like a variety of nutrient sources, so try lots of different protein rich foods. Meats like buffalo and ostrich are rich in iron and low in saturated fat and cook just like beef. Even soybeans make great snacks!
- Sneak it in. Add chicken or salmon to your salads and add yogurt to your fruit. Instead of reaching for chips or pretzels when you want something salty, try beef jerky.
- If you eat a plant based diet, pay special attention to varying your intake of grains and legumes in order to get a complete protein profile regularly. Staying plant-based makes nutrition harder, but there are vegan athletes, even vegan bodybuilders who manage to consume 1g/lb in protein every day.
- If you have trouble preparing food and eating as often as you’d like, do not be afraid of supplementing your diet with protein-based shakes. While whole, unprocessed foods are more rich in micronutrients and fiber, the occasional shake or protein bar after a hard workout will help you recover for the next one. However, be sure to read the labels carefully. Many protein bars have just as much sugar as a Snickers and barely any more protein! Look for shakes and bars that contain the highest ratio possible of protein-to-carbohydrates, or better yet, make your own!