Perfecting Your PROTEIN Game
How much do you really need? Is that post-workout shake a must? What if I'm vegan or lactose intolerant? Loads of questions buzz around the topic of #protein. Read on to get the scoop....and find out if you really need that scoop after all!
When people come to me for nutrition and macro advice, one of the most common areas for improvement I typically see is with protein intake...primarily increasing it! Protein plays a vital role in muscle building, recovery, and repair. It also helps us feel fuller longer- especially when if we are trying to loose weight and are in a calorie deficit. But, just how much protein does a person actually need, and is there any benefit (or harm) from using protein supplements on a regular basis?
Just like most nutrition questions, the resounding answer is: IT DEPENDS. Individual protein needs can vary significantly based on a person’s:
Biological age- As adults age, we loose lean muscle mass each year. Doing weight bearing exercise on a regular basis can help prevent this, but so can increasing your protein intake as you age!
Goals- Protein needs may be higher for a person with specific aesthetic or weight loss goals, while a person whose main priority is performance may require more carbs and fat in their diets for energy, and as a result, protein needs will be lower.
Body weight/composition- General guidelines suggest anywhere from .8-1.2 grams of protein/lb of bodyweight for healthy, active adults. However, if you are overweight or obese, you could calculate that number off of your lean body mass, or your “ideal” body weight.
Training style or sport- Exercisers will need more protein than non-exercisers, and intense activity will require more protein than less intense activity. Typically, mixed modal athletes (like CrossFit) do well with 1 gram of protein/lb of bodyweight.
Current intake- One you know your ideal target, you must consider where you are starting from. Making drastic increases or decreases at once can cause GI upset. Ease into your new plan!
It is also important to consider both overall and digestive health when finding your protein sweet spot. There is no exact “one size fits all” recommendation when it comes to protein. It can be a little confusing at times, which is one reason why working with a nutrition coach can be helpful. Coach’s can consider all of the aspects outlined above and create a personalized protein target that will help you feel great and meet your goals.
Once you’ve got your target set- it’s time to get to work- in the kitchen! Primary protein sources include things like: red meats like beef or steak, poultry, seafood, eggs, high quality deli meats, and dairy products. You’ll notice these are all animal products. Animal protein sources are excellent because they contain compete protein profiles...meaning they contain all of the amino acids we need, and they are easily absorbed and used by our bodies. Nuts, seeds, beans, and almost all veggies contain some protein, but the quantity and quality varies. Vegetarian protein sources are incomplete proteins, meaning they do not contain all of the essential amino acids, so a vegetarian or vegan must be cognizant of eating a wide variety of foods to be sure they are getting all of the essentials in!
So what do you do if you’re eating all the plant & animal foods you can handle but are still having trouble hitting your protein target?
Well, while whole food sources are best, and preferred by your body, protein supplements can help fill the void. One scoop of whey protein powder (derived from milk) usually contains about 24 grams of protein, similar to a 3-4 ounce serving of meat or fish. Whey protein isolate is an excellent choice, as it is a complete protein source, and is also pretty easily absorbed and utilized in the body. If you have a dairy intolerance/allergy and can’t tolerate whey, egg white powders are another complete protein source. When choosing an animal based protein source, it’s important to look for grass-fed, organic, and/or non-gmo/hormone free options to be sure you’re getting a quality supplement.
There are plenty of vegan options when it comes to protein powders too...seems like something new comes out everyday! Things like hemp, pea, rice and potato can all be used as the base of a vegan protein powder. It’s especially important to do some research and choose high quality vegan supplements as many of these can contain trace amounts of pesticides and heavy metals. They can also contain saccharides/starches that could cause some digestive upset.
Other protein options include Collagen Peptides & BCAA's. Collagen peptides are the building blocks for tendons and ligaments, and are great for hair, skin, and nails...but don't necessarily do much for muscular development or recovery. These could be a nice addition to the diet though as we get older, start to notice a few more aches and pains, or dulling skin or hair. Again, look for grass-fed, orgainic sources without additives!
BCAA's are the three essential branch-chain amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They have been found to aid in muscle retention and can potentially reduce an athlete's perceived exertion level/time to exhaustion. These are a good option for athletes who may train early in the morning on an empty stomach to help spare muscle tissue. On the flip side, if you typically eat a diet high in animal products, then you are probably getting all the BCAA's you need, and an extra supplement wouldn't be necessary.
When choosing any protein supplement, it’s important to read your labels & ingredients too. Supplements are not regulated and can contain lots of fillers, additives, preservatives, and artificial sweeteners. Things like carrageenan, gums, and lecithins are some usual suspects on supplement labels, and are all thickeners that can cause GI upset for some people.
A great resource for researching some popular protein supplement brands is The Clean Label Project. They completed a large 3rd party test on many popular brands earlier this year, and all of the results are posted here: https://www.cleanlabelproject.org/product_category/protein-powder/
Do you NEED to supplement with a protein shake?
Again...IT DEPENDS! If you’re easily able to hit your target protein amount through whole foods from your regular meals and snacks each day, and are not participating in excessively intense physical training, then NO, you don’t really need to supplement.
Also, if your schedule allows you to regularly eat a full, balanced meal both before and after exercise (within 60 minutes or so), then you don’t necessarily HAVE to have a post workout shake- your food will do the job! If you’re training fasted, or will have to wait for a few hours after your workout before you can get a full meal in, then a post workout shake could be beneficial, and help support your body’s recovery process.
As mentioned previously, if you struggle to hit your protein numbers each day, or if you’re a vegetarian, vegan, or have other dietary restrictions that limit your protein intake each day, then YES, a supplement can help support a healthy protein intake.
And, if you’re an athlete participating in intense training sessions, or doing multiple training sessions per day, then a post workout protein shake (usually combined with a fast digesting carbohydrate source) can serve as a vital recovery tool.
It is super important to note that regardless of your situation, a protein supplement should be used as just that: a SUPPLEMENT to your regular, balanced, whole food diet. Supplements are never meant to replace whole foods, and if you are using a protein supplement aim for only one or two (at the most) servings per day.
If you have specific questions about a particular supplement or are trying to figure out your daily protein requirement send me a message and let's talk about it!