Whether your goal is losing belly fat, putting on muscle, or just leaning up and feeling more comfortable in your body, optimizing your protein intake will make everything easier. Nailing protein intake is not as simple as loading up on meat or choosing packaged foods that advertise protein. Rather, there are strategic actions you should take to get the right amount of protein at the right time:
Eat 25 Grams At Every Meal
The first step is to ensure that you are eating about 25 grams of protein at each meal. This is the amount that has been shown to maximally stimulate protein synthesis, which is the mechanism by which the body builds muscle. An example of 25 grams of protein is 3 oz. of turkey, chicken breast, or ground beef. About 4 ounces of salmon, 1 cup of Greek yogurt or cottage cheese, 4 eggs, a large scoop of whey protein, or 2 cups of regular low-fat yogurt are all roughly 25 grams of protein.
Establish A Daily Protein Goal
Second, you want to ensure that you are achieving a threshold goal of protein every day. Individual protein needs vary depending on several factors:
Age: Older individuals are actively losing muscle and bone, and they require more protein to achieve the same degree of protein synthesis as youngsters.
Exercise: Athletes and people who exercise regularly require more protein than people who are sedentary.
Body Composition: People trying to lose body fat can benefit from more protein because it is satiating and helps maintain muscle during fat loss.
Disease/Wellness State: People suffering chronic diseases often have reduced calorie intake and lower activity levels, which leads to muscle loss. A higher protein intake can offset this.
Depending on your situation, nutritionists recommend between 1.2-2.2 g/kg of protein a day.
- Healthy adults should shoot for a baseline of 1.2 g/kg a day.
- Anyone trying to lose body fat will likely benefit from a minimum of 1.6 g/kg daily.
- Athletes require 1.2 to 2.2 g/kg with those who are trying to maximize muscle gains on the upper end of this number.
- Older adults with chronic illnesses generally need between 1.2 and 1.5 g/kg with even higher levels in the case of severe illness or injury.
Spread Protein Over The Course Of The Day
Many people eat cereal and fruit for breakfast, loading up on carbs and then getting some protein at lunch, while saving the majority for dinner in a big meal. Instead, you want to spread your total protein intake out over the day so that you get that 25-gram dose at every meal to sustain protein synthesis all day long.
Your body is constantly in a fluctuating state of muscle loss and gain. Any time you replenish the pool of amino acid building blocks that body uses to build muscle, it’s a good thing, promoting muscle development. If your goal is fat loss, it’s particularly important to load up on protein at breakfast because it has a satiating effect and sets your blood sugar up for the day, allowing for better appetite regulation and less desire to munch.
Add Some Iron To Your Protein—Lift Weights
The fourth step is to put your protein to work. We know there are two ways to trigger protein synthesis in the body: lifting weights and eating protein. Putting the two together makes everything better. Studies show that people who combine a strength training program with a high protein intake average a 38 percent greater increase in muscle mass and strength than those who consume closer to the U.S. RDA.
Eat The Highest Quality Proteins
Plant-based protein has gotten a lot of attention lately and it’s true that beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds are great components of a healthy diet, however, they just don’t measure up to animal products when it comes to giving you the biggest bang for your protein buck. You’d have to eat 3 cups of quinoa, 1.25 cups of tofu, 1.66 cups of black beans, or 4 ounces of cashews to be even close to the 25-gram protein dose. Those are fairly large quantities that supply a hefty calorie load: All except for the tofu supply around 700 calories, which is more than most people should eat from a single food.
Another drawback to relying on plant-based proteins is that they don’t provide sufficient quantities of leucine, which is the most powerful amino acid for protein synthesis. Seeds, soy, and some vegetables like watercress do contain leucine, but the concentration is miniscule compared to whey protein or eggs.
Therefore it’s recommended that you design your protein intake around animal products, especially if your goal is fat loss: Eggs, fish, poultry, meat, dairy, and whey protein are packed with leucine, have a complete array of essential amino acids (those are the ones that the body can’t manufacture and you must get from diet), and one serving provides the 25 gram threshold dose of protein at a reasonable calorie count. For strict vegetarians, you will likely need an even higher total protein intake over the numbers mentioned above to achieve the same physiological effect as if you were eating animal proteins.
Choose Whole Proteins Over Processed Foods With Protein Added
We’ve touched on this in the previous tip, but it’s worth mentioning for people who are still relying on packaged foods for the bulk of their meals. Packaged foods with added protein, like cereal, protein bars, or bread are often spiked with amino acids, which won’t convey the same benefits as whole protein foods and they often are high in refined carbs and other things that are better avoided. Chicken, eggs, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, steak, salmon, and even vegetable-derived proteins like lentil stew, pinto beans, and chia seeds are better protein choices than packaged foods with protein added.
Always Eat Vegetables With Protein
One drawback to animal proteins is that they can trigger inflammation in the GI tract. This is one reason that you might notice digestive issues arise when you bump up your protein intake or eat the same proteins over and over. Always including fibrous vegetables (leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, peppers, cucumbers, celery, etc.) with your protein can offset this by providing adequate fiber to improve digestion and antioxidant nutrients that will help the body to counter inflammation and keep your gut working like clockwork.
Devise A Daily Protein Menu
With these tips you can devise your daily protein menu. The first step is to calculate your total protein needs:
Let’s say your goal is to lose about 5 pounds of fat and you are fairly active and training at least 4 days a week. You want a minimum of 1.6 g/kg of protein a day.
If you weigh 165 pounds, that is 120 g daily (1 kg = 2.2 pounds, so divide 165 by 2.2 to get 75 kg and then multiply that by 1.6 to get 120 g).
This is roughly the equivalent of 2 eggs for breakfast (12 g), chicken or beef for lunch (30 g per 4 oz. serving), salmon for dinner (25 g per 4 oz. serving), Greek yogurt as a snack (25 g per 8 oz.), and whey protein post-workout (25 g), with the protein from nuts, seeds, and vegetables rounding out your intake.
This array of foods provides a nice mixture of rapidly digested protein sources such as whey protein and yogurt, as well as more slowly digested sources from whole animal products. Meat, fish, and eggs are useful for satiety, whereas “fast” protein is good for stimulating protein synthesis after workouts or when you haven’t eaten recently.
Final Words: By optimizing your protein intake you can expect to see an immediate improvement in how you look and feel. Not only will you be more satisfied with meals and less distracted by food, but brain function and focus should increase as protein foods increase stimulating neurotransmitters that keep you engaged and on point all day long.