Most people know that protein is a macronutrient that’s essential for maintaining good cellular health and building lean muscle. But protein also plays a role in hormone regulation, boosts brain function, and keeps your immune system healthy. So how can you get more protein in your diet without the unhealthy fats, sugars, and carbohydrates?
In this guide, we will show you why protein is important in a healthy diet, how much protein you need each day to maximize health benefits, and how to increase the amount of protein you consume each day–while avoiding unwanted fat, sugar, and carbs.
Why is protein important in a healthy diet?
Protein is an essential nutrient that our bodies need to function properly. Protein is found throughout the body—in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue. You need protein in your diet to help your body repair cells and make new ones.
But, it can be difficult to get enough protein in your diet without consuming unhealthy levels of fat, sugar, or carbs.
What is the optimal amount of protein to eat each day?
Protein researcher Don Layman, Ph.D., says that 1.2 – 1.8 g/kg is a better number to strive for when it comes to overall protein intake and that protein needs to comprise a larger percentage of your overall calories as you get older.
A study published in the journal Nutrientsrecommended a protein intake between 1.2 and 2.0 g/kg/day for elderly adults, which is close to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
How to increase the amount of protein in your daily diet (without excess sugar, fat, and carbs)
There are several strategies you can use to increase your daily protein intake.
First, you’ll want to start tracking the amount of protein you currently eat, so you have a baseline understanding of where you are vs. where you want to be. There are plenty of apps to help you do this. Just search for “calorie tracker” or “protein tracker” in any app store.
Planning ahead and cooking your own meals is one strategy you can use to ensure you’re getting the necessary amount of protein each day.
You should be eating roughly the same amount of protein in each meal (dinner is usually a little higher for most people).
So, for example, if you’re a 150-pound person looking to consume close to 1 gram per pound per day (so 150 grams of protein total), you’d want around 5 meals with 30 grams of protein each, or 4 meals with 35-40 grams of protein.
Taking small steps like adding extra protein to one or two meals a day is a great way to start making changes to your protein intake without getting overwhelmed.
Now, obviously many animal sources of protein (particularly beef and pork) can be higher in fat. Incorporating more plant-based proteins into your meal plan will help you to get more lean protein without excess fat. It can also reduce your risk of developing chronic illnesses.
Drinking protein shakes is an easy way to get more protein each day as well. Whether you choose animal or plant-based protein powders, make sure you’re looking at the nutrition label and picking one without added sugars, carbs, and fat. I recommend trying to look for products with shorter ingredients lists and no sugar.
No matter your dietary preferences, it’s important to make sure you are getting adequate protein in your diet.
Plant based proteins like legumes, nuts, seeds, and even plant protein powders offer plenty of advantages for overall health, especially if you can’t tolerate dairy products or don’t eat meat.
For some people, dairy products, eggs, and lean meats like fish, turkey, chicken, venison, and more can be easily incorporated for a healthy protein boost.
Taking the time to find the right combination of protein sources for you will help ensure that your body gets all the essential nutrients it needs to stay healthy.
If you’re following the current dietary recommendations, then chances are you’re not getting enough protein. That’s a big problem because we lose 3–8% of muscle mass per decade starting at age 30 and the rate of decline is even higher after the age of 60.
In this article, you’ll learn: i.) the bare minimum amount of protein you should be eating each day, ii.) how much protein your body can absorb each meal, iii.) the best time to drink your protein shakes, and iv.) the number of grams of protein per day you should be eating if your goal is to build muscle and lose fat.
Why do we need protein?
Protein is found in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part, tissue, and cell. It makes up the enzymes and hormones that power many chemical reactions, the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood, and the amino acids needed to build and repair muscle and bones.
At least 10,000 different proteins are responsible for making you what you are and keeping you that way.
Bottom line: proteins are an essential part of all living organisms and form the basis of living cells, muscle and tissues, so it’s vitally important to ensure your cells are getting enough to maximize muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
How much protein do you need each day?
Your daily protein requirements depend on several factors:
1. How much muscle you currently have. The more muscular you are, the more amino acids your body needs to maintain your current body composition levels.
2. Your activity level. The more you exercise, the more protein your body needs.
3. Your age. The older you get, the more protein your body needs to maintain muscle.
4. Your hormones. If your body has high levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), it will use protein more efficiently than someone with low levels. These hormones decrease as you age, which is one of the reasons why older adults need more protein.
That’s around 50 grams per day for the average adult.
However, this probably isn’t enough for most of you reading this. According to a 2019 paper published in the scientific journal Nutrients called Dietary Protein and Muscle Mass: Translating Science to Application and Health Benefit:
The current protein RDA, however, is often incorrectly applied when used as the definition of recommended intake, rather than its true designation as the required minimum intake.
How Much Protein Should You Eat Each Day?
Protein researcher Don Layman, Ph.D., says that 1.2 – 1.8 g/kg is a better number to strive for when it comes to overall protein intake and that protein needs to be a higher percentage of your overall calories as you age (jump to the section at 43:03 “Is the Protein RDA Sufficient” in the video below).
Protein Requirements for Older Adults and Elderly to Optimize Muscle Protein Synthesis
According to a 2015 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition called “Defining meal requirements for protein to optimize metabolic roles of amino acids”:
Research suggests daily needs for older adults of ≥1.0 g/kg and identifies anabolic and metabolic benefits to consuming at least 20-30 g protein at a given meal.
A 2016 paper published in the journal Nutrientsrecommended a protein intake between 1.2 and 2.0 g/kg/day for elderly adults, which is close to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
How much protein can you eat and absorb at one time?
A 2018 study from Brad Schoenfeld and Alan Aragon published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that 0.55 g/kg/meal would be around the upper limit most people can absorb, which translates to 35-45 gramsof protein for the average person per meal.
Here’s a good overview from protein scientist Don Layman on Peter Attia, M.D.’s podcast (jump to the section at 1:20:02 “Muscle protein synthesis: ideal timing, small meals vs. big meals, and more”):
When should I drink a protein shake for best results: pre- or post-workout?
You may have heard that you need to ingest protein immediately before or after a workout.
However, in a 2013 study called “Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?”, the research team had this to say:
Despite claims that immediate post-exercise nutritional intake is essential to maximize hypertrophic gains, evidence-based support for such an “anabolic window of opportunity” is far from definitive.
Meeting the total daily intake of protein, preferably with evenly spaced protein feedings (approximately every 3 hours during the day), should be viewed as a primary area of emphasis for exercising individuals.
Ingesting a 20-40 gram protein dose (0.25-0.40 g/kg body mass/dose) of a high-quality source every three to 4 hours appears to most favorably affect muscle protein synthesis (MPS) rates when compared to other dietary patterns and is associated with improved body composition and performance outcomes.
Post-exercise ingestion (immediately to 2-hours post) of high-quality protein sources stimulates robust increases in MPS.
Pre- and post-workout protein consumption had similar effects on all measures studied. These findings refute the contention of a narrow post-exercise anabolic window to maximize the muscular response and instead lends support to the theory that the interval for protein intake may be as wide as several hours or perhaps more after a training bout depending on when the pre-workout meal was consumed.
How much protein is needed in grams per day to build muscle?
A 2018 study called “Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training” found that to grow or build new muscle, daily protein intakes should be:
1.6 g/kg/day – 2.2 g/kg/day.
In other words,
~1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day is optimal for gaining muscle.
To improve or maintain your current body composition, aim for at least 1.2 – 1.8 g/kg of body weight (or 1 gram per pound if you’re an older adult, avid exerciser, and/or want to lose weight) with 30-40 grams of protein each meal spread out every 3-4 hours.
Proteins are organic molecules made up of amino acids (the building blocks of life). Protein helps build, maintain, and replace the tissues in your body. Your muscles, organs, and immune system are made up mostly of protein.
Protein powder is a powdered form of protein made from plant-based or animal sources.
What Happens When You Eat Protein
When you eat protein, your stomach uses its acid and enzymes to break it down into those “building blocks” we talked about (amino acids).
The most important of the amino acids for building lean muscle and losing fat are called BCAAs, or Branched Chain Amino Acids.
Together, the three BCAAs (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) account for as much as 33% of muscle tissue. Here’s a brief overview of each:
Isoleucine is a BCAA that can help your body regulate blood sugar levels and ensure your muscle cells are metabolizing sugar (instead of fat cells).
Valine is the least important BCAA for body composition (it’s also the least-studied).
Protein powders can come from plant or animal sources, each having a different make-up of amino acids.
Different Types of Protein Powders (and Their Benefits and Risks)
There’s some intriguing science about the most common types of protein powder sources that we’ll explore a bit further …
Benefits and Risks of Whey Protein Powder
As mentioned, whey protein has been studied more than any other protein powder. A quick search of “whey protein powder” on PubMed brings up close to 600 studies to date.
While you can certainly find studies like this one that showed no link between whey protein and body composition, the overall body of evidence seems to suggest that whey works for building muscle.
A meta analysis (a review of a group of studies) published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition looked at 14 clinical studies including a total of 626 adults and concluded that whey protein powder has favorable effects on body composition (and is even more effective when combined with resistance training).
However, there are some side effects associated with whey protein, particularly on kidney and liver function and for those with sensitivities and allergies to dairy.
Benefits and Risks of Casein Protein
Casein is a slower digesting form of milk-based protein. T
When it comes to the effectiveness of casein vs whey protein, one study showed that casein did not have any noticeable differences on body composition, strength, and power and agility compared to whey.
Casein has a few flaws as a protein source too. One study found that it promotes the growth of prostate cancer cells. And since it’s milk-based, it’s not a good choice if you’re sensitive to dairy.
Benefits and Risks of Brown Rice Protein Powder
Rice protein is a plant-based protein powder used by vegans, vegetarians, and people who can’t tolerate dairy products like whey and casein. In one study published in the journal Nutrition, researchers found that rice protein had similar effects on body composition as whey.
In other words, there was no difference between the group of subjects that took rice protein and the one that took whey protein; both experienced positive body composition changes.
One of the main complaints you’ll hear about rice protein is it’s high in potentially toxic heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
While it’s true consuming high amounts of some of these metals can lead to negative health effects, heavy metals are in all plants that grow in soil. Here’s a quote from Jon Barron’s research article on the topic:
In summary, don’t have a knee jerk reaction to the label “heavy metals.” (Both calcium and iron are technically heavy metals.) Yes, obviously, when it comes to “toxic” heavy metals, less is better than more. But the issue is far more nuanced than a simple label–or even numbers on a chart for that matter. You have to factor in whether or not the element actually has any “proven” toxicity (tungsten has no demonstrated toxicity), whether it’s organic or inorganic (organic arsenic is virtually ignored by the body), and whether it’s bound or unbound (bound cadmium has only 2-6% absorbability).
That’s why it’s up to you as the consumer to ask the manufacturer of your protein powder what their heavy metal contents are, especially if they use rice protein (if they won’t share those numbers, it’s a big red flag).
And choose a rice protein from organic brown rice sourced outside of China to avoid ingesting potential chemical pesticides and herbicides.
Benefits and Risks of Pea Protein
Pea protein is another popular plant-based source of protein. It’s becoming increasingly prevalent in vegetarian / vegan / dairy free powders for several reasons:
Pea protein powder is among the most hypoallergenic of all protein powders, as it contains no gluten or dairy.
It’s easy on the gut and doesn’t cause bloating, a common side effect of many other protein powders from animal sources.
It has been shown in small studies to have similar effects to whey protein on body composition.
Pea protein has a PDCAA (digestible indispensable amino acid score) of .89 (whey is 1). When combined with rice, hemp, and/or soy in certain combinations, you can get this number to 1.0–the same as whey!
While pea protein hasn’t been studied as much as whey or soy, it is a promising protein source for those looking for alternatives to dairy proteins. Again, organic pea protein is always a safer choice because you’re ingesting less pesticides.
Benefits and Risks of Soy Protein Powder
Soy protein is another popular plant-based protein powder. Most men should avoid it because it contains isoflavones and phytoestrogens that share similarities with estrogen.
However, according to several studies, soy protein may have body composition benefits for older women.
One study showed that a daily supplement of soy protein prevented increases in subcutaneous and total abdominal fat in older women. Another showed soy protein had a mild effect on body composition in elderly women.
One caveat: whey has been shown to be more effective than soy for improving lean body mass when combined with resistance training. So if lean body mass is your goal, you may want to consider other protein sources than soy if you’re using a protein powder.
How Is Protein Powder Made?
Protein powder processing methods depend on the type of protein and the company making it.
Whey Protein Processing
Most commercial whey protein powders are made using a high-heat, acid-flushed, “ion exchange” process to separate the whey from the cow’s milk. This can strip away vital nutrients.
So why do companies use it?
Because processing protein with acids is cheaper, of course.
If you decide a whey protein supplement is best for you, I recommend choosing one that’s from grass-fed cows, cold processed, and has zero sugar and as few ingredients as possible.
What if you can’t tolerate milk-based products or prefer plant-based protein powders though?
Plant Based Protein Processing
Many of the supposedly-healthy plant proteins used in supplements and packaged foods today are processed using hexane, a petroleum-basedneurotoxin. Using hexane is an efficient and highly profitable way for food manufacturers to remove oil from plants and separate the protein.
If you decide a plant protein powder is a better option for you, look for plant-based protein powders that are organic and “enzymatically sprouted,” which means all-natural enzymes are used rather than chemicals to separate the protein from the plant.
Also, sprouting grains used in plant-based powders (e.g., rice, pea, amaranth) increases many of the plants’ key nutrients, including B vitamins, vitamin C, folate, ﬁber, and essential amino acids often lacking in grains, such as lysine. Sprouted grains may also be less allergenic to those with grain sensitivities.
Who Should Take Protein Powder?
Protein powders are not just for gym rats. In fact, most people could stand to get more protein in their diets. Here’s why:
Adding protein powders to your daily regimen is an easy way to get more protein in your diet.
So How Much Protein Do You Need to Achieve Maximum Benefits?
It depends on several factors:
How much muscle you currently have. The more muscular you are, the more amino acids your body needs to maintain your current body composition. If you don’t know your body composition and want to make real, measurable improvements to your health, go see a personal trainer who offers body composition analysis so you can get a “baseline” of where you’re currently at.
Your hormones. If your body has high levels of growth hormone and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), it will use protein more efficiently than someone with low levels. These hormones decrease as you age, which is one of the reasons why older adults need more protein.
So back to the original question: how much protein do you need?
The current recommendation for protein intake is 0.8 grams per kilogram (or around 0.36 grams per pound) of body mass in generally healthy adults.
However, this protein intake recommendation is only to prevent protein deficiency and maintain nitrogen balance in the body (a negative nitrogen balance indicates that muscle is being broken down and used for energy).
It’s not necessarily optimal.
Studies show that athletes, active people, and older individuals may require even more protein (1.4 – 2.0 g/kg of body weight).
When Should I Take Protein Powder for the Most Benefit–Before or After a Workout?
If your goal is to lose body fat and increase lean body mass (muscle), then the answer is both.
In a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, researchers concluded the following:
High-quality protein dosed at 0.4–0.5 g/kg of LBM at both pre- and post-exercise is a simple, relatively fail-safe general guideline that reflects the current evidence showing a maximal acute anabolic effect of 20–40 g
That’s 27-34 grams of protein both before and after a workout for a 150-pound adult.
Couple other interesting things the study authors noted:
Despite claims that you need to take protein immediately (within 1 hour) after a workout to maximize gains, evidence-based support for such an “anabolic window of opportunity” is far from definitive.
Even minimal-to-moderate pre-exercise high-quality protein taken immediately before resistance training is capable of sustaining amino acid delivery into the post-exercise period. In other words, eating protein before your workout may have more impact.
Long story short, eat a little protein before and after a workout if building muscle and/or losing body fat is your goal.
What Is the Best Protein Powder?
“Best” is an ambiguous term. The best protein supplement for you depends on your age, your health goals, and a number of other factors.
Here are a few common things to consider:
What protein powders get absorbed by your body best?
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