We’ve all heard it…”eat more protein if you’re working out”…
But what does that really mean? For the average individual who starts walking for an hour after work–do they really need to bulk up the protein?
For the person who wants to lose weight the “easy” way and not exercise, does higher protein diet benefit their goal?
So many questions, so many opinions…today I am going to share some research with you and my own opinion based on evidenced-based literature.
**Disclaimer: I am going into detail of what protein is and how much our bodies need for various different activity levels…HOWEVER I do not typically promote macro/calorie counting for the average individual BECAUSE I believe in mindful eating, balance, and not obsessing over food…if you listen to your body and eat a well rounded, balanced diet, you should be eating adequate amounts of protein, carbs, and fat.**
First off, what is protein?
Well, in short, protein is made up of amino acids that build muscle, support metabolism, carry out cellular communication, heal wounds and repair cellular damage–just to name a few. Amino acids help our nails, hair, and skin look and feel healthy. So–it sounds like protein is a very important macronutrient–and it IS! We need protein.
There are 20 amino acids–9 of which are essential, meaning our bodies do not make them. This means we have to get those 9 essential amino acids from the food we eat. Foods like lean poultry, fish, beef, eggs, dairy and plant based proteins like legumes and grains. Animal and soy protein contain all 9 essential amino acids while other plant based proteins like beans, rice and corn are missing a couple amino acids. However, legumes and grains compliment one another making them a “complete” protein…so eating plant based protein is just as beneficial as animal proteins–maybe even a smidge better because they contain fiber. (you know me and fiber…build that healthy colon!)
Alright, now we know what protein is and what it does for us…so how much do we need?
That question is such a debatable one…considering fitness industries promote all kinds of supplements…”Eat protein and have big muscles”…
And sadly, some people believe that…”If I eat over 100 grams of protein a day, then I will build muscle”…
Negative. The only way to build muscle is to work out. It is that simple. You cannot expect to eat more than the recommended amounts of protein and gain muscle mass. Your body does not work that way. You HAVE to put effort in the gym (or home workouts) to build lean muscle. Protein does, however play an important role in rebuilding the muscle fibers being “torn” during your workout. You cannot have one without the other.
As far as recommendations of protein, the average adult needs 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram. Through my research, it amazes me how many fitness industry websites recommend 0.8 grams per pound of body weight…can you imagine?
Note: 1 kilogram is equivalent to 2.2 pounds.
I’m roughly 155 lbs…155 lbs. x 0.8 grams=124 grams protein, meaning I need to consume 124 grams of protein as a sedentary individual…(if I followed the 0.8 grams per pound of body weight recommendation).
Following the 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram recommendation, I would need 56 grams of protein (155 lbs. / 2.2 lbs. = 70.4 kg; 70.4 kg x 0.8 grams = ~56 grams protein). Do you see the difference? That is nearly half of what you’d be getting following the “per pound” calculation…It is so important to calculate our needs using our weight in kilograms versus pounds.
However, I am not sedentary. I workout 6 days of the week doing various cardio and resistance training exercises…the recommendation for active individuals is 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram…again, some parts of the fitness industry promote 1.2-1.8 grams per pound…
So, if I were to eat 1.2-1.8 grams per pound I would be consuming 186-279 grams of protein DAILY. What does that look like? Typically, 1 ounce of meat, dairy, eggs and plant based protein contain about 7 grams of protein (the figure below will give a more accurate representation of the grams of protein in high protein foods). You would ultimately have to consume 26-40 servings of protein each day. Holy cow! That is 1116 calories in protein alone…keep in mind that all food contains a combination of the macros (protein, fat, and carbs) all of which contain different calorie components.
What happens when you consume too much protein?
A dissertation research article by Jake Fenwich in the UK showed that the average non-athlete male who works out regularly consumes 2.48 grams of protein per kilogram per day…that is still above recommendations for active individuals(1.2-1.8 g/kg).  We live in a very protein-heavy nation, but if we do not utilize that extra protein by building lean muscle, then that extra protein can do a couple of things…
Store extra protein as fat
Excrete excess amino acids in urine (wasteful)
Long term= weight gain (especially if your overall calorie intake increases because you are increasing protein)
So in short, yes you need extra protein if you are vigorously working out and “tearing” your muscles (1.2-1.8 g/kg)…but for the average sedentary individual, stick to the 0.8 grams of protein/kilogram.
What about weight loss? Can’t eating more protein help you lose weight?
The idea behind this thought is that protein promotes satiety–feeling full after a meal…so you would not need to eat as much altogether because you would be “full” from the high protein diet.
Which is more satisfying:
- Having 2 scrambled eggs with 1/2 cup of cooked grits for breakfast
2. Having 1/2 cup of cooked grits with a slice of toast and jelly for breakfast
I think we can all agree that we would be more satisfied for a longer period of time when eating the eggs with the grits versus toast with grits. This is because eggs are rich in protein, which will keep us full for a longer period of time. Also, the protein in the eggs will cause our blood sugars to increase gradually instead of abruptly by just consuming carbs alone.
A meta-analysis study by Ernaehrungs Umschau International titled “Protein Paradox” suggested that high protein diets do show minor beneficial results in overweight individuals short term. This would not be something you’d want to do long term–goes back to my point of excess protein leading to fat storage, amino acid waste in urine, and overall weight gain.
Really think about what category you fit into…
Are you a mostly sedentary individual who does not get a lot of movement? You still need protein…but not as much as those who are gaining muscle mass. Stick with the 0.8 grams protein/kilogram recommendation.
Are you a lightly active individual who enjoys going on walks in the evenings or participates in light aerobic activity a couple times a week? I would still stick with the 0.8 grams protein/kilogram recommendation because our bodies are meant to be slightly active and that amount of protein would be sufficient.
Are you an avid exerciser partaking in weight lifting, sports training, regular running, frequent intense biking, or any other vigorous sport/exercise/work most days of the week? You would want to follow the 1.2-1.8 grams/kilogram recommendation because your body is wearing and tearing your muscles and they need to be rebuilt…sufficient extra protein will help rebuild those muscles and make them stronger…just be sure to not exceed your needs regularly as it could lead to unwanted weight gain.
Hopefully you have a better understanding on what protein is and what is does for our body, and ultimately what happens when we exceed our daily limits. Challenge for the week (and hopefully adapted into your lifestyle): calculate your protein needs and see if your consuming the recommended allowance for your particular activity level.
Until Next Time,
Katrina Detter, RD, LDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist
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Ernaehrungs-umschau.de. (2018). [online] Available at: https://www.ernaehrungs-umschau.de/fileadmin/Ernaehrungs-Umschau/pdfs/pdf_2018/02_18/EU02_2018_Special_englisch.pdf [Accessed 29 Oct. 2018].
Fenwick, J. (2018). An investigation into the dietary practices, beliefs and knowledge of protein in resistance training male gym goers between 18-45 years of age.. [online] Repository.cardiffmet.ac.uk. Available at: https://repository.cardiffmet.ac.uk/handle/10369/9945 [Accessed 29 Oct. 2018].