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This is part 1 of my 3-part series covering the three macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. In this post, I will cover how much protein to eat, the types of protein I recommend putting on your plate, and how to personalize your approach to protein.
Protein seems to be the forgotten macronutrient. Most people focus on being low carb or high fat or low fat, but what about protein?
Protein is the most abundant component of our bodies after water, making up about 20% of body composition. Hair, muscles, nails, ligaments, tendons, enzymes, blood, hormones, and immune cells are made of proteins. Proteins are used to build up and tear down tissues, move molecules around in our cells, and as components of muscle tissue, they make entire organisms move.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Spoiler alert: everyone is different! However, there are some simple guidelines you can start with.
The general guideline provides that a person needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of weight. For example, a 130-lb person weighs approximately 59 kilograms and therefore needs about 47.2 grams of protein per day. However, this does not account for exercise or other life circumstances, and can usually be considered the amount needed by sedentary people.
The other way to calculate how much protein you need is to determine what percentage of your calories you want to get from protein. A balanced diet would include about 10-30% of calories from protein (useful for all-around health), and a building diet would include about 15-35% of calories from protein (useful for athletes/heavy workout routines, pregnant women, and growing children). Assuming a 1900-calorie diet, this would be about 47 to 142.5 grams in a balanced diet, and 71.25 to 166.25 grams in a building diet.
I found the best way to figure out how much protein I needed was to start in the middle (around 55 grams) and adjust until I felt optimal (i.e. not depleted, finding it easy to put on muscle, and full after meals). Trust your body! If you find yourself craving more protein, try eating more until you find your optimal levels.
Note: I am not a calorie or macro counter. I only counted when starting to change my diet, or if I am feeling off and want to check in. After counting, I learned what portion sizes work best for me for each meal: 2 eggs, 1/2 chicken breast, 2 meatballs, etc. Now I just grab portions instead of counting!
Protein comes from both animal products and plant-based products.
Animal-based protein: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products. When picking animal-based protein, consider the following:
The fats, carbohydrates and other substances that come with the protein. Many of the toxins in our environment are fat-soluble, meaning higher concentrations in fattier cuts of meat. On the other hand, dairy and yogurt products can have high levels of sugar, especially the low-fat versions. When picking a protein, don’t just focus on the claims of how much protein the product has, but what else you’re getting with it.
Lean poultry has a higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio. Most people trying to stay healthy may avoid red meat and choose poultry instead. However, poultry can contribute to inflammation in the body with high levels of omega-6 fatty acids that are not properly balanced by omega-3 fatty acids. This is not to say don’t eat chicken, but it does mean to rethink eating 2-3 chicken breasts per day as your only protein source.
Conventional animal-based proteins can contain hormones, antibiotics, and other toxins. Not to mention that forcing animals to eat a diet they do not normally eat creates a less healthier product. Choose grass-fed/grass-finished, pastured and sustainable wild-caught products whenever possible!
What works with your body specifically. The majority of the population is lactose intolerant. Other have conditions, including leaky gut and autoimmune diseases, that make it hard for them to handle red meat and/or eggs. Take note how you feel after eating different products and experiment! You can also contact a healthcare provider or nutritionist to have testing done to see if you have food sensitivities.
Plant-based protein: soy products, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, vegetables, avocado, and microalgae (chlorella and spirulina). When picking plaint-based protein, consider the following:
Again, the fats and/or carbohydrates that come with the protein. Most plant-based proteins come with more carbohydrates than animal-based protein. For instance, 2 ounces of chicken has 16 grams of protein and 0 grams of carbohydrates. To get 16 grams of protein from quinoa, you would need to eat about 2 cups of cooked quinoa, which also comes with nearly 80 grams of carbohydrates (as reference, I usually stick to 30-50 grams of carbohydrates per meal). Nuts and seeds also contain proteins, but also have fats and it would be hard to get all of your protein from nuts and seeds without eating too much fat.
Plant-based proteins are often deficient in one or more of the essential amino acids, so they are not complete on their own. To remedy this, eat in combination such as grains + legumes in the same day.
Plant-based proteins can be sprayed with pesticides or be GMOs. Pick organic whenever possible!
Remember, there is protein in many of the vegetables you are eating! While they are not huge amounts, they do add up!
What works for your body specifically. Do you tolerate beans and legumes? What about gluten? Soy? Pick carefully if you struggle with any health condition, and take note of how you feel after eating certain foods or have testing done.
Overall, there are other things to consider:
What stage of life are you in? Growing teenagers, athletes, pregnant women sometimes do better with some animal protein in their diet, while older people sometimes thrive on a vegetarian or vegan diet.
If you are strictly vegetarian or vegan, make sure to get nutrients you may be missing such as iron, B vitamins (including B12), and the fat-soluble vitamins. There are plenty of resources to help you with this!
Protein powders and bars. These can be great as travel snacks and additions to smoothies. Look for clean ingredients, no or very low sugar (including sugar substitutes), and don’t use these as your only or primary sources of protein. Reach for real, whole foods first!
What Is My Personal Approach to Protein?
From all of my research, I have always come back to Michael Pollan’s quote: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
After doing a couple Whole30s and being paleo for awhile, I started adding in plant-based proteins. I feel best when I eat some animal-based protein daily and believe there are benefits of this for fertility and pregnancy (my current life stage).
I currently eat eggs, chicken, grassfed lamb, grassfed beef (only occasionally), turkey (only occasionally), bacon (only occasionally), sprouted quinoa, sprouted and regular chickpeas, wild rice, brown rice, seeds, sprouted lentils, fish (sardines and salmon), vegetables, and avocados as my protein sources. Because of food sensitivities and managing my IBS, I do not eat beans, oats, soy, milk, cheese, yogurt, and nuts. I also minimize gluten-containing grains.
So what does this all mean?
I believe in eating only the minimal animal-based protein necessary for me to feel optimal. Thus, I first add plant-based proteins to my meals. I stick to roughly 30-50 grams of carbohydrates per meal, so I will only add enough plant-based protein to get me to that level of carbohydrates. Usually this means about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of quinoa, lentils, or chickpeas per meal. I also aim to eat one avocado per day, add pumpkin seeds to my bowls or sauces, add 1-2 tablespoons of chia seeds to my smoothies, and of course, add loads of vegetables to my meals.
Then I add animal protein. I eat 2-3 eggs per day and about 2-4 ounces of chicken, meat, or fish per day. I also usually have Vital Proteins collagen powder once a day either in a decaf bulletproof coffee or smoothie. And that takes care of my protein for the day!