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In this blog, you will discover:
The proper flowchart for figuring out your protein needs
How to break your daily needs into grams per meal
What we really mean when we say protein
How to transition from quantity to quality and get more from every gram of protein.
As athletes, we all want to know that what we are putting in our body is contributing to success in the gym. Perhaps no single macronutrient gets as much love or discussion as protein. From million dollar supplement business to hundreds of blogs, everybody seems to have a solution. However, what we find is often missing is a clear actionable plan for getting your protein needs in check. So this blog is devoted to just that. We are going to start with how much protein you need. Then we will break that down into smaller attainable meals. Once we understand the quantity, we will focus on finding the best quality proteins backed by current science. Finally, we will discuss how to take everything you have learned and apply it to your own life.
Quantity of Protein in your Diet
Step 1: Figuring out your daily protein needs
We have covered this in detail in our blog “The Secret to Counting Macros and Finding Success.” So this is a bit of a review. The truth is nobody has the magic eight ball when it comes to finding a specific amount of grams per day of protein.
However, we have done a considerable amount of research and believe a good starting point is to consume the same amount of protein in grams/day as your lean body mass. If you are not familiar with this term, just think of lean body mass as the weight of your body if you subtracted all of the fat. To get this number, you must first know your body fat percentage. There are numerous ways to get that number, but for the sake of this article, I will use myself as an example.
I recently had a DEXA scan done and found that I have a body fat percentage of 20%. Since I weigh 170 pounds, we can quickly do the math and find my lean body mass.
170 x .20 = 34 lbs. This is the weight of all the fat in my body.
Now I subtract 34 from 170 and get my lean body mass of 136.
So my initial protein goal should be to consume 136 grams of protein daily.
Step 2: Determining Your Protein Needs Per Meal
OK, so here is where the current scientific data runs amok. 5-10 years ago it was commonly believed that the human body could not process more than roughly 30g of protein at any one time. There were tons of reports talking about how more protein consumed just turned into waste and taxed your kidneys in the process. To a certain extent, we agree that you should not attempt to overwork your body with any large amount of nutrients at one time. However, we also know there are perfectly healthy athletes like Herschel Walker who is now in his 50’s and has been eating only one meal a day for over 30 years. The guy looks like he could play professional football tomorrow. Then we have celebrities like The Rock who might consume 136 grams of protein per meal while preparing for roles like Hercules.
Are Herschel and The Rock on their way to certain death? Probably not. The reality is our bodies are extremely flexible and can adapt to a variety of circumstances. What is most important to remember, though, is you are not either of them and using somebody completely different than yourself as a goal is either going to get you hurt or extremely frustrated with the process.
If I am aiming for 136g of protein daily, then I need to determine how many meals I plan on eating and then do my best to divide the protein up evenly. Since I typically eat 3 regular meals and one smaller snack daily, I would eat roughly 40 grams of protein per big meal and 16g with my snack. I do this because I believe in eating balanced meals and because I know that beyond a certain point, it becomes laborious to consume large amounts of quality protein at one time. It isn’t so much about worrying if more than 40 grams will hurt me as worrying that I will be pretty miserable trying to eat that second chicken breast.
Let’s review: To find your daily protein needs, subtract your fat weight from your total weight. This is equal to your protein in grams per day.
To find your protein grams per meals, do your best to first evenly divide your grams into 3 main meals. If you find it is difficult to consume ⅓ of your grams at any one time, further divide them into smaller meals.
Protein Quality Trumps Quantity
Step 3: Choose Quality Proteins to Fill Up Your Macros
Now that we know how much protein to consume daily, we need to focus on making every gram go as far as possible towards our goal of improved health and muscle building. To do this we need to first stop thinking about protein as one singular nutrient that enters our body and start thinking about protein as a mixture of amino acids. These are the actual building blocks we care about when focusing on adding to our lean body mass; a.k.a. more muscle. While there are 20 main amino acids, 9 are considered essential because they cannot be synthesized by your body. You can only get them from food. Since all proteins have different mixes of amino acids, and some are considered to be more complete than others due to the aforementioned 9 essential ones, scientists have come up with multiple methods of ranking the quality of each protein.
Currently, the scientific community believes the new Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) is the best method. Based on that scoring system, animal proteins have a higher biological value than plant proteins. This isn’t to say you cannot live a healthy life as a vegetarian or vegan. It is just harder to get a complete profile of those amino acids.
Milk Proteins including Whey, Casein, Whole Milk. Isolates are ranked higher than concentrates
Step 4: Choosing High-Quality Proteins that Also Work For You
So far we have shown you how much protein to eat daily and per meal for optimal nutrition and we have shown how current research promotes animal protein over other forms in terms of amino acid absorption. However, none of that matters if you personally cannot tolerate or digest milk. Ultimately you are your own study of 1 and that means testing and retesting.
Our recommendation is to include a variety of protein sources as part of your nutrition lifestyle. Selecting animal proteins will give you the highest biological value, but you must also consider how those proteins make you feel, how easy they are to ingest, how readily available they are, the cost, and many other factors.
The absolute best thing you can do is to try and hit your daily protein goals as often as possible, spread that amount over a few meals to make it easier to consume, and always pick the highest quality animal proteins you can find. Do this for a few weeks and reflect on how you feel, how difficult or easy it was to follow, and whether you believe your efforts have resulted in lean muscle growth and not additional fat.