By Dr. Joseph Musolino Chiropractic Physician and Nutrition Therapist 1,167 words (5-minute read)
When it comes to macronutrient (aka macros) consumption most people have a skewed sense of how much protein they are taking in compared to how much they need. This is especially true for active individuals, particularly anyone doing strength training the recommended minimum of two times a week. Of the three macros, protein is the only one that is essential for survival. Ever watch one of those reality shows where the contestants are out in the wild? What’s the first thing they always are on the hunt to find? Protein sources. Jungle bugs included. Fats are important too, but we can get by without them, at least for a short while. Carbs we can do without (hence the popularity of ketogenic diets where carbs are severely restricted), although anyone who is moderately active shouldn’t consider this option due to the energy needs that carbs help us meet.
So, if protein is so dang important, why do we tend to under consume it? The answer to this can take us down a rabbit hole that leads to a black hole to the ends of the universe but let’s just say that the Western diet just isn’t very protein friendly. Our preference for quick and easy foods that are highly processed to have the shelf life of a Twinkie (which is only 26 days so not a great choice for your survival kit) forces protein to take a back seat to the almighty carb. It’s just too difficult (and cost prohibitive to keep the shareholders happy) for corporate America to come up with high-quality sources of protein that can be packaged and consumed. I mean can you imagine chicken sausage? Wait, there’s such a thing already? Okay then how about turkey bacon? That too! You get the drift though.
Now back to the question of how much protein we need for optimal health. Well, being that the body cannot synthesize enough of it on its own to maintain health and survival, the answer is A WHOLE HELLUVA LOT! The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA), which is set by the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Academies of Sciences Engineering, and Medicine (say that three times in a row) is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. Being that there are 2.2 pounds in a kilogram, that means that a 200 lb. person should be getting at minimum 73 grams of protein a day. Being that the average US adult averages approx. 88 grams per day that would seem to be enough to hang the white ‘W’ banner like Cubs fans did once upon a time (circa 2016). Here’s the kicker though. Intake of levels of 1.1 grams per kilogram of body weight (100 grams for a 200 lb. person) is not considered excessive by any scientifically sound standard. In fact, study after study has shown that intakes as high as 1.6 grams/kilogram for non-active individuals and 2.2 grams/kilogram for active individuals (especially those looking to gain skeletal muscle and lose fat) is not unreasonable and has a myriad of significant benefits. In fact, an analysis involving data from 49 studies involving 1,863 subjects (what’s called a meta-analysis…the gold standard in evidence-based science) concluded that maximizing muscle growth can be achieved in this range. In the words of legendary 80’s hair metal band Winger, you “Can’t Get Enough” of protein. Although I believe the context of that song had nothing to do with nutrients.
By now you’re probably saying to yourself, “How in the world am I supposed to get that much protein?” Good question but one that can be answered relatively easily. If you adhere to the following three-step hierarchy, you will find that it’s not all that difficult. First and foremost, get your total daily protein amount in any way possible. Shoot for three meals and start each by filling your plate with hand-sized portions of an animal protein. This should account for anywhere from 75 to 90 grams depending on your appetite and energy needs (and hand size of course). Fill in the rest of your plate with fibrous vegetables next and lastly starchy veggies. There’s protein in just about anything organic (meaning “non-processed”) so additional calories will add up little by little. Next in the hierarchy is to distribute protein throughout the day. Easiest way to accomplish this is to aim for two protein-based “snacks” midmorning and midafternoon on top of your meals. This should give you another 20-30 grams or so. Protein powders and bars come in handy here but are processed so be careful what additives are included. Here’s a link with 30 natural food options to choose from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/healthy-high-protein-snacks#_noHeaderPrefixedContent.
Finally, and least important, is to time protein intake relative to your workouts. It used to be thought that it was vital to have protein before and after you exercise, especially strength training, but that has since been disproven. Just make sure you’re getting your adequate intake and you should be good to go (although it wouldn’t hurt to ingest a little prior to working out to maximize performance and muscle growth if you haven’t eaten in hours).
Lastly, let’s spend some time explaining why adequate protein intakes is essential for both muscle gain AND fat loss. In hypocaloric conditions (aka “dieting”), untrained individuals with high body fat lose a greater proportion of their bodyweight from fat mass. The leaner you get, the greater the risk of losing lean body mass, something we’d like to avoid, but that’s a discussion for another day. Throw in the fact that protein has an affect on weight regulating hormones, burns roughly 20-30% of the calories we eat through what’s termed the thermic effect of food, boosts metabolism to the tune of approx. 100 calories a day, reduces appetite, cuts cravings, and reduces late-night snacking, it’s foolproof. Then there’s the granddaddy of them all: protein causes you to lose weight even without consciously trying to restrict your calorie intake. It achieves this by reducing the calories that go in while doing the opposite to the calories going out. Yes, you read that right. So, you can affectively add more protein to your diet and without trying to intentionally cut calories will still lose weight! Who wouldn’t want to take advantage of this?
To sum things up here, if you think that you are good to go on the amount of protein that you are currently getting, you’re more than likely not even in the ballpark. Making a concerted effort to add more protein to your diet is a no-brainer hack that yields amazing results. And as we age, maintaining lean muscle tissue becomes even more important, so therefore a combination of resistance exercise and increased protein is a must. So do yourself a favor and hop on the protein train before it leaves the station. You wouldn’t want to miss the next stop to “Leanville” on the way to your final destination of “Healthytown”!