the basics of protein
When you think of protein, you might think of powder mixed with water in a shaker bottle. Or maybe it’s a big piece of steak, fish, or chicken. All can have their place “on the table,” but they’re certainly not the only options.
Let’s take a few steps back and today cover the “basics of protein” and ultimately how much you should be eating, when you should be eating it, and of course hit a variety of choices.
The discussion is usually around how much protein is enough, but there’s more to protein than eating “enough” – it’s when you eat it, the quality and, then, ultimately how much you eat as well. There are specific protein requirements, called the RDA – but the other discussion around protein is not just meeting the minimum RDA requirements, but figuring out what’s optimal for building and maintaining muscle and overall health itself for guys.
How much do you need?
The scientific community recommends taking in 10 - 35% of total calories from protein. Yes, that’s a wide range. That range is to take into account different activity levels, ages, and diet preferences. More important than how much we eat though is when we eat that protein - read on for details.
Often guys feel the need to drink protein shakes and eat protein bars to ensure adequate protein intake for health or boost your PR. And while this certainly can boost total intake, it is important to note that more protein is not always better or necessary. Additional protein beyond the recommended amounts offers no additional benefits related to performance. In fact, it can be counterproductive if you take in too much protein as you may miss out on important carbs and fats. It’s all about balance.
One of the most challenging concepts to grasp for many is that protein ingestion alone does not build muscle or strength; only resistance training, paired with the right nutrition (including quality protein), can do that. Eating the right amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fats at the right time will help support muscle growth and repair from the hard work the athletes have been doing.
Typically hard-working guys will need more than the required amount since their bodies are constantly at work building or repairing muscle. The recommended amount of protein ranges from 0.6g to 1.0g per pound of bodyweight depending on whether you are trying to add muscle mass or just maintain.
The question I get nearly daily though and have heard since I first got interested in nutrition about 30 years ago was – “if some is good, MORE is better. Right?” Well, not so fast. More protein is not necessarily better and it is important to spread out protein recommendations throughout the day. Quality matters too.
In a recent study done on protein consumption and muscle protein synthesis in both rested and exercised muscle, various amounts of protein were ingested and then tested for postabsorptive rates. It was found that 20g of protein (whey specifically) was sufficient for the maximal stimulation of postabsorptive rates. When 40g was tested there was no additional stimulation in absorptive rate. In clear terms - 40 grams of protein was not more effective than 20 grams of protein.
It’s Quality, Quantity…and Frequency
As a reminder, the current guidelines suggest a range of 10-35% of protein for Americans. So while I share this information, this is not only impractical, it’s too wide of a range to really make sense of when you’re really just wondering “what do I need to eat to look and feel better in my Rhone clothing?” Well, maybe you weren’t thinking that exactly, but you get the point.
Arguably the most important message about protein, though, is not to eat more, but rather when you eat it. This part is particularly important so read on.
There is no storage depot for protein in the body like there is for carbohydrates (glycogen) and fat (fat). Therefore, the breakdown of protein into amino acids -- the beneficial components of the protein itself -- need to be adequate to continually fuel the needs of the body. But the way most people eat doesn’t meet this need for regular protein feedings. In fact, when you consider average protein intake, most people take in around 10-15% of their protein the morning, 15-25% in the afternoon, and the remainder of intake at dinner.
That’s out of balance.
Think about a typical day - maybe a muffin, bagel or just coffee for breakfast, grilled chicken sandwich from the drive-thru for lunch, and burger, fries and a side salad for dinner. That “protein scale” is tipped heavily in the dinner department, but is way too low in the AM.
Let’s look at a graph of what this protein spacing and timing could look like. This is adapted from protein researcher Dr. Doug Paddon-Jones, Professor at The University of Texas Medical Branch and one of the global authorities on protein.
Let’s imagine a person was eating 90 grams of protein per day. Using this reference -- 90 grams -- the “average” person would have an intake that looked like that graph on the right, whereas the optimal timing would be like the graph on the left. This example has grams of protein on the left side of the graph and meal breakdown across the bottom.
Remember, protein is not stored. When too much is taken in, the excess is excreted and can’t be stored for muscle or any other functions later on. That 24 oz ribeye for dinner isn’t too useful the next morning, even all that protein from the steak isn’t doing anything the next morning.
On the flip side, when too little is eaten, your body “pulls” protein from muscle - clearly not what anyone would want.
Let’s take this protein timing thing even one step further. Dr. Paddon Jones, wanted to confirm the theory of there being a “protein ceiling” that was supported by other research on whey protein.
The protein ceiling, so to speak, is the idea that once you go above a certain amount of protein, the excess isn’t exponentially more effective. Or, maybe better stated, isn’t more effective at all.
To confirm this, he fed subjects different quantities of protein.
He fed them 30 grams of ground beef or 90 grams of ground beef.
The results of this protein feeding study?
Both groups had the same 46% increase in protein synthesis. Does this mean they gained 46% more muscle? Of course not, but protein synthesis is the precursor to gaining muscle. And when they ate 30 grams of protein, they had the same exact results as when they ate 90 grams of protein.
More is not better. More quality, eaten regularly throughout the day and combined with quality training is how athletes will gain muscle and strength.
What about eating protein after a workout?
Is it worthwhile and do you need it? In short, yes. And yes. But no need to reinvent the wheel - here’s a quote from the International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition “Food or snacks that contain high-quality proteins should be consumed regularly throughout the day as part of the day’s total protein intake, and in particular soon after exercise, in quantities sufficient to maximize the synthesis of proteins, to aid in long-term maintenance or gain of muscle and bone and in the repair of damaged tissues. Ingestion of foods or drinks providing 15-25 g of such protein after each training session will maximize the synthesis of proteins that underpins these goals.” ~International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition
Here’s some ideas to put this all into “food terms.”
10 Protein-Rich Breakfasts
Protein Shake made with Fruit
1 Cup Cottage cheese + Fruit
Overnight Muesli (see recipe below)
Greek yogurt + fruit
English Muffin + smoked salmon + cream cheese with a piece of fruit
Veggie scramble - 2 whole scrambled eggs, mixed with leftover veggies
1 cup milk + 1 cup oats + handful of nuts + berries
Egg and Bean Burrito (see recipe below)
Almond Butter Toast with a Glass of Milk (spread 2 TBS almond butter on whole-grain toast, top with berries and enjoy with a glass of milk)
3 Whole Hard-Boiled eggs + Fruit
Overnight Protein Muesli
Makes 2 Servings
1 cup rolled oats
½ cup Vanilla Greek yogurt
½ cup low-fat milk
1 TBS hemp seeds
2 TBS raisins
2 TBS nuts
1 banana, chopped
Mix all ingredients together, place in fridge
and soak overnight
Egg and Bean Burrito
Makes 1 Serving
1 whole-grain (or sprouted grain) tortilla
2 whole eggs
½ cup black beans, drained and rinsed
1 handful spinach
Few Mushrooms, sliced and sauteed, if desired
Small handful shredded cheese
Salsa (if desired)
Scramble 2 eggs, add handful of spinach and cheese until the spinach cooks down and the cheese melts. Add black beans, salsa & mushrooms (if desired) and roll up in tortilla. NOTE: These can be made ahead of time, wrapped up individually and frozen for the future. Microwave for 1-2 minutes, until heated through and enjoy.
Putting it all together.
First, here's a list that may be of benefit when deciding protein choices.
Eat More of These
Eat Less of These
Skinless, boneless chicken breast
Skinless, boneless turkey
Lean Beef (93% Lean)
Lean Pork tenderloin
Fish (all types)
Dairy (milk, yogurt, cottage cheese)
Chicken with skin on
Turkey with skin on
NOTE: While not a comprehensive list, many examples are included
Next, make sure you’re spreading out this intake throughout the day and enjoy a variety of protein. Animal protein is great, if you eat it, and so are vegetarian options, like tofu, beans, nuts, and the many others. Mix it up, spread it throughout the day and of course pair it all with exercise to put that protein to good use.