Today we are talking about that magical macronutrient, protein! It is usually the first supplement any new gym-goer reaches for first, which makes sense (I’ll explain why soon). But what about you non-gym-goers? Do you think you are getting enough? You may want to chiggity check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Protein is one of those essential building blocks of life. Your body uses protein for structure, as well as to make important molecules like hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters, and more. Without sufficient intake of the protein building blocks, your body struggles to make these things and struggles to thrive. Have you ever ridden a bike with flat tires? How about one with a rusty chain or worn-out brakes? It isn’t a ton of fun. But when all of those things get regular maintenance and are replaced when they need to be, then the bike becomes extremely useful. Your body’s cells and tissues get worn out too, and protein contains the materials to keep your body running like that well-maintained bike.
People trying to get stronger definitely need ample amounts of protein to repair and build muscle, but those trying to lose weight also benefit from maintaining a healthy protein intake. To digest, absorb, transport, and store protein takes significantly more energy than it does for carbs or fats, so you can improve your ratio of calories in to calories out by eating more protein. Eating protein can also stimulate the release of glucagon, which is basically the opposite of insulin. Instead of storing fat, glucagon releases stored sugar and fat to be burned.
Will Any Protein Do?
Not all proteins are created equal. If you need a hammer and decide to buy a 100-piece toolkit that doesn’t have a hammer, you still can’t get the job done. Well, your body needs specific tools, and not all proteins offer those tools.
Enough with the analogies already. The tools are amino acids. Proteins are just long chains of amino acids. When you eat protein, it gets broken down into these amino acids. They are then added to the plasma pool of amino acids. This is like a delivery truck floating through your veins, dropping off building materials wherever they are needed. (Again with the analogies!) As tissues and cells get broken down or worn out, new materials get pulled from the amino acid pool to repair and replace the old stuff. This is why it’s a great idea to get quality protein before and after a workout that is going to break down tissue.
As you may have guessed, different proteins contain different amino acids. These amino acids come in two types. Nonessential amino acids can usually be made by your body, so, although you need them, you don’t need to ingest them. Essential amino acids cannot be made by your body, so you need to get them from food. There are also a few that are considered conditionally essential. Your body can usually make these, but it can’t make enough under certain circumstances, like illness or stress. (High-intensity training six days/week is a lot of stress. Think about it.)
So What Should I Eat?
I’m glad you asked! The easiest way to make sure you are getting all of the aminos you need is to eat things with faces. Animal proteins are complete proteins, meaning they have plenty of all nine essential amino acids. There are plants, like beans and nuts, that can supply essential amino acids. However, these plants are usually exceptionally low in one or more of them, leaving you deficient. This is why vegetarians need to be diligent about using varied sources of protein to ensure a healthy balance.
As far as amounts go, a good place to start is about ½ a gram of protein dense food per pound of body mass per day. If you are doing intense exercise, you can probably double it. The easiest way to think about it is in terms of your hand. Women, aim for a piece of protein-dense food the size of your palm every meal. Men, aim for two pieces.
Most people are getting enough protein to get by, but not enough to thrive. Try tracking how much protein you are getting. Are you surviving or thriving? Maybe it is time to add a protein-dense snack, like a hardboiled egg, to your routine or maybe even a protein shake. As always, assess your individual situation in order to decide what you need.