Protein is a key macronutrient that helps your body maintain muscle mass and lose fat. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Depending on how many amino acids a specific type of protein contains, it is considered either complete or incomplete. All animal proteins are complete, so they contain all nine of the essential amino acids. Plant-based proteins are incomplete; therefore, it is necessary to include a variety of plant-based proteins in your diet to get all the amino acids your body needs (the only exception to this rule is soy, which is plant-based but still a complete protein).
It is important to get enough protein in our diet, but eating way too much protein is not the right answer either. Your body hits a wall with the amount of protein it can use at one time. If you are eating more than 2 g/kg/day then it will not build muscle… instead it will become a carb or fat storage! Read on in order to learn when and how much protein you should be consuming to be healthy and maximize your workouts.
The Body Builder (for athletes or those looking to build muscle mass)
Muscle is made of protein, so it seems logical to eat protein if you are trying to build muscle. The bad news is that protein supplements are not always safe and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval is not required in order to label a product as a protein supplement. Research finds that supplement products are not always safe. In fact, the FDA only gets involved in product review if people report serious problems after using the supplement! One highly publicized example of this was in 2004 when ephedra–a supplement popular at the time for weight loss and increased athletic performance–was banned by the FDA after finding that ephedra use posed “risk of injury or illness,” such as heart attacks and stroke (WebMD, ephedra).
The good news is that you can get all of the protein you need from food. Ditch the supplements, and you will get more nutrients and save money! If you eat a combination of complex carbs and protein one to two hours post workout you can enhance your muscle building, and eating it throughout the day will help increase muscle growth as well.
If you MUST use supplements you should know… (Keep in mind that you can get plenty of protein from food!)
• Whey and Casein are your best bet. They both come from milk and have the right carbohydrate for you after your workout.
• β-HMB or Leucine may help build lean body mass in non-athletes, but an athlete’s body naturally produces the same effect as these supplements.
• Arginine is used to increase the blood flow to muscles, which is only helpful if you consume other amino acids before your workout.
• Branched Chain Amino Acids and Glutamine do not work. Research does not support the claims made by these supplements.
The Cardio Fanatic (for people who perform moderate, regular workouts and those trying to lose weight)
Protein builds enzymes that help your body with endurance exercises. If your goal is weight loss, protein can play a vital role in your success. You need protein to keep your muscle, which will burn fat. Also, people who eat a protein rich breakfast tend to eat about 200 calories less per day, and spreading out your protein throughout the day will help keep you feeling full. If you are taking protein supplements to increase your performance, please see the Body Builder section to get more information on supplements. Mix carbs and protein after your workout so that your body can replenish with carbs instead of your protein stores. You can also try splitting up your protein 30 minutes before your workout and 30 minutes after.
The Vegetarian (and vegans too)
Veggie protein can be found in nuts, legumes and seeds. Vegetable proteins are incomplete, meaning they do not have all nine essential amino acids. Therefore, vegetarians should eat a variety of vegetable proteins in order to get a complete set of amino acids. It used to be a common belief that you needed to combine proteins in the same meal, but experts now say you can combine them throughout a month period and still be getting the nutrients you need. Some experts say you need to eat 20 to 25 percent more plant-based protein to equal the benefits of animal protein. Soy is the only complete plant protein, but may pose risks to your health if eaten in mass quantities and is best if added to your diet in moderation.
Examples of combinations that create complete proteins:
• Rice and beans
• Rice cake and peanut butter or hummus
• Wheat cereal
• Corn and beans
The Average Joe (applies to everybody!)
The average person eats more protein than their body really needs. The recommended daily amount is two to three, 4 oz servings. Excess protein will not harm you unless you have preexisting kidney or liver problems, but it will be stored as fat so it is best to not overdo it. If you are planning to get some of your protein from incomplete plant sources, keep in mind that adults need to mix and match to make complete proteins on a monthly basis.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Daily Requirement Chart:
If you are… You need this much protein each day…
-An Average Person 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight
-An Endurance Athlete 1.2-1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight
-A Strength Athlete 1.4-1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight
*Convert your weight in pounds to kilograms with this easy step: divide your weight in pounds by 2.20 to get your weight in kilograms!
Examples of Complete Proteins!
• Lean Meats (Fish, Poultry)
Good Protein Options!
These are low in fat, and packed with protein!
• 2 – 3 oz of lean meat, poultry without the skin, or fish (about the size of a deck of cards)
• ½ cup of cooked dried beans (size of a billiard ball)
• 1 egg or 2 egg whites
• 2 tablespoons of peanut butter (size of ping pong ball) or ¼ cup peanuts (size of a large egg)
• 1 oz of cheese (size of two dice)
• ¼ cup quinoa (whole grain)
• 1 string cheese (low-fat)
• 1 cup milk (nonfat)
• ½ cup edamame (size of a billiard ball)
• 4 oz tofu
By Stephanie Waits
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