First a little information on what exactly protein is and how our bodies use this vital nutrient. Protein is an essential macro-nutrient our bodies cannot live without. It contains nitrogen, which is responsible for the growth and repair of every cell in your body. Protein is made up of twenty different amino acids, 9 of which our bodies cannot produce. So we need to get these 9 essential amino acids from the food we eat.
Why is Protein so important?
It serves to build strong bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It makes up the compounds our bodies use to produce biochemical reactions, known as enzymes; which control our hormones. It is found in our blood as hemoglobin, which transports oxygen all over our bodies. Hemoglobin is a part of the immune system in the form of antibodies that help protect our bodies from bacteria, viruses, and toxic substances.
Since protein is needed to repair and replace each and every one of our cells, you need adequate amounts of protein to build muscle. If your workouts are not resulting in an increase in muscle mass, you may be lacking in protein. Other signs you may not be getting enough are thinning hair, weakness, sore muscles, frequently getting sick (protein plays a big role in the immune system), trouble sleeping, irritability, slow healing, and trouble concentrating.
I'd say those are pretty good reasons to make sure you are getting enough protein.
How much protein is good for me?
That depends; don’t you just hate that answer? But it’s true; everyone’s needs are different. How active you are, your body composition, how hard you workout, do you have a desk job or are you a construction worker? There are so many factors that go into determining you unique needs.
The problem is that most people believe if a little is good then more must be better. Not true! Our bodies can only utilize a certain amount of protein at one time. Too much protein in one serving and you will need to store the excess. Now, want to take a guess at how it’s stored? As body fat. Yes that’s right, the molecules are broken down and then re-built, so to speak, as fat molecules to be stored away.
If you have too little protein then your body will not have the nutrients it needs for repair and replacement of cells. Your cells, hair, skin, nails, bone, organs, etc are constantly regenerating. If we don’t feed our body the amino acids it needs to keep this process going, it will find a way to do it; our bodies want to survive. Since we don’t store protein, the fibers of our muscles (amino acids) are broken down and used for repair.
Now image this typical scenario; you don’t eat all day because you’re busy and have no time. When you get home at night after a long hard day (with maybe some quick carbs and coffee) you are famished! You eat a large serving of a lean protein and have some vegetables with it, thinking this is great! But, as you just learned, your body can’t handle all the protein at once and stores half of it away as fat.
Get a little bit of protein at each meal. It will help to keep you lean, keep your metabolism up, and help in maintaining a stable blood sugar level. You’ll also find you aren't quite as ravenous when you get home at the end of the day. You may even get home a bit earlier because you were able to think that much clearer, and finishing up a major project in record time.
Studies have shown, when you're trying to lose weight, about 34% of your calories should come from protein. This amount will aid your body in holding onto that hard earned muscle as you lose weight. For example, if you are consuming 1400 calories per day 476 or those calories should come from protein. Protein yields 4 calories per gram, so that translates into 119 grams of protein per day.
The best way to fit those 119 grams into your day is to have 20 - 25 grams of protein per meal (including snacks). This would mean that you are having about 5 - 6 meals per day. If you prefer to have 3 meals a day, I'd suggest 25 - 30 grams per meal and add a protein shake to round it off. Try not to go above 30 grams per meal if you are a woman or 40 grams per meal if you are a man. Remember too much protein at one time and it will get stored as fat instead of being utilized.
What are some good protein sources?
Most peoples go-to's for protein are animal protein, but I'd like to encourage you to keep these at a minimum. Studies have shown that we need to start eating a more plant based diet. Being vegan, my go to protein sources are tofu, tempeh, high protein cereals, plant based protein powder, edamame, seitan, hemp seeds, nuts and seeds (also a fat serving!), beans and legumes also have high protein content but remember they are also a starch serving. Personally I prefer chickpeas, lentils and black-eyed peas.
Start tracking what you eat each day and you’ll soon be able to figure out how much is the right amount for you. Remember track, assess, tweak, repeat.
Navigating your nutrition can be difficult to do on your own. If you feel you need some help with this, and any other health and fitness goals you are working on, book a free consultation to find out if one of my programs could be a good fit for you. CLICK HERE to schedule your session today.
Lisa Swanson is an ACE Certified Health Coach, Personal Trainer and Orthopedic Exercise Specialist as well as a certified AASDN and PN level 1 nutritionist. With over 35 years experience helping people turn their lives around, she is on a mission to provide relevant and useful knowledge to help women in midlife reach their goals.
Check out my interview with the Magnificent Midlife podcast on staying fit and healthy long-term.