Protein seems to be the Boy Wonder of good nutrition & weight loss these days, but how much do we actually need in a day? Do we need to be loading up our plates with it, drinking protein shakes, and buying eggs by the crateload?
For the general population, it’s recommended that men eat 0.84 g of protein per kilogram of body weight, and that women eat 0.75 g of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. If you’re trying to gain or maintain muscle mass, that number should be bumped up to 1.6 g/kg per day.
If you’re doing sums in your head and feel like that amount seems relatively low – that’s because it is.
Protein is important for a LOT of functions in the body, and it’s been popularised in weight loss, fitness and bodybuilding circles of late, but unless you’re in training to become an Avenger, it’s not likely that you need to consume MASSIVE amounts of it (nor is it safe to do so, at least not long term).
As a 66 kg woman who is trying to gain/maintain muscle mass and lose weight, I need about 105 g of lean protein each day. When you consider that half a chicken breast has 23 g of protein, you can see how easy that goal is to reach.
It’s quite easily to achieve your daily protein targets without having to go crazy on egg whites and calorie dense protein shakes.
Here’s what you need to know.
What the heck is protein, anyway?
Protein is a very important part of a healthy balanced diet. It’s an essential nutrient that our body needs for just all sorts of things like cell repair, muscle growth, hormone production and enzyme production.
Without going all science geek on you, protein is made up of by amino acids – these are like the building blocks of protein. There are 20 different kinds of amino acids. Some (non-essential amino acids) are produced by the body and others (essential amino acids) need to be provided by our diet.
Protein can come from both plant based and animal sources – think legumes, nuts, chicken, fish, beef, eggs, and dairy.
When we eat a food containing protein, that protein is broken down and used all over the body for important, often vital functions, including muscle mass and metabolism.
What are the best sources of protein?
As with all things, the best advice is to consume protein from a wide variety of sources! Protein can be found from animal products (think lean beef, turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy) and plant based sources (legumes, tofu, nuts, seeds, quinoa).
These are some of my favourite protein sources:
- Lean chicken breast: ½ a breast (which is one serve) contains 23 g of protein (about ¼ of my daily needs).
- Protein yoghurt: YoPro makes a no-sugar added protein yoghurt which is to die. One tub contains 15.4 g.
- Eggs: Eggs are a nutrition powerhouse and their protein content is one of the reasons for this. One large egg contains 13 g of protein.
- Salmon: Salmon is my favourite fish. It contains beautiful healthy fats to keep your heart strong and your skin youthful, and it also comes packed with 19 g of protein for an 85 g serve.
- Tofu: Enjoying a meat free Monday? I love me some teriyaki tofu with a side of steamed greens and baked sweet potato. Tofu has about 11 g protein for a 100 g serve.
- Oats: Don’t overlook the humble bowl of oatmeal as a protein source! Most of us don’t think of wholegrains as being a source of protein, but they totally are! ½ a cup of oats has 13 g protein – as much as an egg!
- Legumes: Legumes are such a mighty food! They can be a protein, a carb, and a veggie serving all in one. Half a cup of cooked beans has about 7 g of protein.
Do I really need to drink protein shakes & eat protein bars if I want to lose weight?
If you’re consuming a nutritiously dense diet, it’s very unlikely that you need to supplement with expensive protein shakes and protein powders.
Most people in the Western world eat WAY more protein than they should be, for starters.
Secondly, protein shakes and protein bars are $$$$$$$$$$$$$.
And thirdly, protein shakes and protein bars are often very high in calories (some are high in sugar).
I mean, if I had a dollar for all the girls who came to me crying because they were drinking protein shakes but they were gaining weight … what gives? It’s heartbreaking to have to tell them that the calories in those “weight loss” protein bars … are still calories and too many calories, even if it’s high in protein, will still cause weight gain.
Yup. Regina George moment.
Listen, if you’re REALLY having trouble meeting your protein targets, you’re short on time, and a protein shake/bar feels convenient, have at it (just don’t forget to factor it into the amount of calories you’re eating).
Protein powder can also be a great base for making healthy recipes.
But for the vast majority of the population, they’re an unnecessary expense.
And let’s be real … if the amount of calories, fat, carbs and sugar in a protein bar is the same amount as in a Snickers bar … like, wouldn’t you just rather eat the Snickers?
Can I be protein deficient?
Yes. In our Western world, a protein deficiency is very, very uncommon (most of us eat WAAAAAAAAAAY more than we need to, or should), but deficiencies can happen.
Especially if you eat a vegetarian or vegan diet, you need to be extra careful to make sure you’re getting enough protein.
Whilst one food may provide a large amount of plant based protein, it’s often not a complete protein on its own, so you have to regularly eat a wide variety of plant based protein sources to make sure you’re getting the full spectrum of amino acids.
If you’re worried about protein deficiency, here are some signs to look for and chat to your doctor about:
- Muscle wasting
- Swelling and fluid retention, especially in the feet and ankles
What happens if I eat too much protein?
The body can’t store protein. Any protein that’s surplus to requirement will just be stored as fat or excreted out. (Hehehe … excrete.)
However, with all that said, if you eat too much protein for an extended period of time, there are significant risks to your health.
You can totally have too much of a good thing!
Long term risks of eating too much protein include:-
- Weight gain
- Stanky breath
- Constipation/diarrhoea (just … a bad poo situation all round)
- Kidney damage
- Increased cancer risk
- Heart disease
- Calcium loss
Yowzer. Just forget about Atkins and stick to a healthy, balanced diet.
You’re way better off.
Protein is indeed a vital nutrient and plays an important role in our daily diet. BUT you don’t need to eat that much.
For the general population, men should eat 0.84 g of protein per kilogram of body weight, and women should eat 0.75 g of protein per kilogram of body weight each day. If you’re trying to gain or maintain muscle mass, that number should be bumped up to 1.6 g/kg per day.
Put down the protein bar and the protein shake (unless you genuinely ….. like? the taste?) and focus on eating a wide variety of whole foods (from both plant and animal sources), and it’s very easy to make sure you’re getting enough protein to meet your health and fitness goals.