Protein Intake – How much should you be eating?
You probably already know that protein is one of the three macronutrients that we find in the foods we eat. Carbohydrates and fat are the other two. Protein is typically thought of as the ‘muscle builder’, and of the three macronutrients, protein requires the most amount of energy to digest. So, if we’re looking to get stronger and burn more calories, more protein must be better, right? Well, maybe up to a certain point. But too much of any macronutrient can certainly throw our bodies out of whack and cause us to hold on to excess body fat. So what exactly is the optimal protein intake for our bodies when we want to look and feel our best?
Why do we need Protein?
Proteins are biomolecules made up of multiple molecules called amino acids that have all been linked together. Proteins help make up the majority of certain tissues, like organs and muscle and even your hormones. They help our cells do the work they need to do to grow and survive through their important roles as enzymes. Proteins have other important cellular functions too, like helping to transport important molecules and sending signals between cells and tissues in the body.
Here’s a quick summary of some cool facts about protein:
- Protein has the highest thermic effect of food, which is a fancy way of saying that it uses the most energy to digest.
- Protein intake supports lean muscle retention when your goal is to lose body fat and promotes muscle growth when you’re trying to get stronger. (Yes, you can have both at the same time!)
- Protein is made up of amino acids, which are essential for the building of muscle in the gym and the repairing of muscle on recovery days. The creation of protein from these amino acid building blocks is referred to as protein synthesis.
- Protein intake keeps your body healthy, strong and in a constant state of repair and renewal so you can bounce back from any tough physical challenge thrown your way.
Where do we get Protein from?
Eating protein provides essential amino acids to our nutrition; essential building blocks that our bodies are not able to produce on their own. Essential amino acids can be found in animal or plant protein sources but it can be more challenging for people who are on plant-based or vegan diets to get a sufficient quantity of these amino acids (for those following a plant-based diet check out our comprehensive guide to Vegan protein sources).
Almost all foods contain some protein. For instance, a tablespoon of peanut butter contains about 3g of protein, 1 cup of spinach contains about 2g of protein and the average sweet potato has about 4g of protein. Typically, when we’re thinking of foods that are high in protein or protein dominant, we usually think of meat, fish & seafood, dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese), eggs and protein powder. Animal based protein sources are often considered to be “better” or “healthier” because they are complete proteins, meaning that in each serving they provide all of the essential amino acids.
Recommended Protein Intake
On the low end, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per 2 pounds of body weight, or generally, 46g daily for women and 56g daily for men. However, this recommendation is merely the minimum recommended amount you need to consume to prevent harmful nutrient deficiency, not the appropriate amount you should be eating to promote lean muscle mass and increased metabolism.
So, how do we know the right amount of protein to eat to reach our goals, and is there such a thing as ‘too much’?
Tried and tested Protein Needs
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While this may sound like a lot of protein to begin with, you’ll start to realize that there are quick and easy ways to ensure you meet your protein needs for the day.
Here’s some handy tips to get you started:
- Eat some protein with every meal;
- Plan your day in advance;
- Pre-cook your protein for the week – check out our BBQ Pulled Chicken Crockpot recipe!;
- Have go-to protein snacks on hand;
- Invest in a good quality protein supplement like Paleoethics Clean Protein;
- Switch regular yogurt for Greek yogurt;
- Switch cereal for oatmeal
Is too much Protein bad for you?
While an appropriate amount of protein can help you achieve your weight and body composition goals, eating excessive amounts of protein can actually be harmful to your health. Side effects such as weight gain/bloating, constipation, and kidney damage are just a few of the more common risks of eating too much protein.
While training competitively for CrossFit, I had been tracking my macros for a few months and was seeing great progress in my body composition and strength numbers. I slowly began to reverse diet trying to build muscle, and while I increased my fat and carb numbers, I also began to increase my protein intake as well, eventually working up to a whopping total of 190g of protein per day at about 145 lb body weight (about 1.31g per pound compared to our recommended 0.8g/lb).
While I didn’t exhibit some of the classic signs of excessive protein intake such as kidney damage (I had bloodwork done to confirm) or bloating, my workouts definitely suffered from low energy – both lifting and conditioning sessions were difficult to get through. I felt sluggish and heavy, bodyweight movements suddenly became very challenging. I also started noticing a strong ammonia smell to my sweat which (without getting into all the science) is an indication that my body was starting to use protein for fuel rather than carbs (or fat if in ketosis). Not to mention, I was choking down chicken breasts at 10pm just to get all my protein in for the day!!
After a double check with Jason on my current macros, we slowly moved my protein back down in line with my body weight by switching gram for gram with carbs so as not to reduce my total caloric intake, but giving me more carbs to burn for energy. My energy levels rebounded, my workouts felt much better, and the ammonia smell to my sweat completely disappeared!
How much Protein do YOU need?
What’s the magic number, you ask? Well, every body is different, so your optimal protein intake may be more or less than your buddy’s, but this is one of those times where there can definitely be “too much of a good thing”! If you’re not sure whether your macros are appropriately balanced then I definitely recommend having your numbers checked or working directly with a coach.