Are you eating enough protein?
Whether you want to lose fat or gain muscle, you need to eat protein. You may have heard about low-carb diets, low-fat diets or high-fat diets. One macronutrient that is non-negotiable, however, is protein.
If you want to gain muscle, you need protein. If you want to lose fat, you need protein!
Basically, the approach is this: Consume your daily target of protein and healthy fats. Then, whether you aim to gain weight or lose weight is a matter of carbohydrates.
I have seen weight loss clients who are eager to start training and food tracking become very strict with their eating. A “meal” may become having a piece of fruit. While fruit is great (any “real” food is better than processed food), I’d suggest adding food such as eggs, chicken, turkey, beef, fish, nuts, or beans. I often ask my client to eat more by adding protein-sources of food.
What is protein?
Protein contains amino acids which the body uses to build muscle and repair tissue. If you do not consume enough protein, the body may break down muscle in order to get the amino acids it needs to function. That means, if you are trying to lose weight and you cut out protein, you may be losing muscle, not fat. From a weight loss perspective, you want to preserve muscle, while the body breaks down stored fat for energy. This will only happen if you meet your protein requirements.
It is also good to know that the body can also use amino acids to make glucose for energy. Typically, the body uses carbohydrates as a readily-available source of energy. However, carbohydrates are not “essential”. While carbohydrates contain many important micronutrients such as fibre, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, there is no “essential carbohydrate” while there are “essential amino acids” (protein) and “essential fatty acids” (fat).
In other words, the body can use excess protein (and fat) for energy, but it cannot use excess carbohydrates for muscle building.
An additional benefit of consuming protein is that it has a thermic effect. That means the process of digesting protein requires energy. You burn more energy digesting protein than digesting carbohydrates.
How much protein do you need?
The minimum amount of protein required may be as low as 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight per day (or 0.36 grams of protein per lb of body weight). A person weighing 150 lb should eat a minimum of 54 grams of protein per day to prevent muscle breakdown.
Athletes and active individuals should aim for an amount closer to 1.8 grams per kg of body weight (or 0.8 grams per lb of body weight). A 150 lb athlete should eat 150 lb x 0.8 = 120 grams of protein per day.
A similar calculation estimates consuming approximately 1 gram of protein per pound of lean body mass. For individuals with approximately 20% body fat, (which is fairly typical in lean, athletic females), these two calculations are identical. That is, 0.8 g x body weight (lb), is equal to 1 g x lean body mass (lb).
However not every person is at 20% body fat. Therefore, the lean body mass calculation may be the most realistic way for most people to determine protein requirements. Think about what your target weight is, and use 0.8 – 1 g times your target weight to find your daily requirement.
When should you eat protein?
Generally, you should space your protein out across your meals in a way that works for you. The traditional recommendation is to have 25 gram serving of protein every 3 hours over 4, 5 or 6 meals a day. I have recently read that there may be as long as a five-hour window in which protein is digested and absorbed. Your timing may depend on when you workout, and whether you have a pre-workout meal or a post-workout meal. Some people like working out in a fasted state and eat after. Others need to eat an hour or two before a workout, and then wait an hour or two after to eat again. The exact timing is not as important, as just generally spacing it out and reaching your overall target daily.
A post-workout protein shake is not always necessary if you have had protein within the hour or two before the workout, or especially if you are going to be having a meal after the workout. You can save your protein shake for another time.
Here are some scenarios that work for me:
- Post-workout protein shake, lunch, dinner, and evening snack (Greek yogurt or whey).
- Breakfast, lunch, afternoon post-workout protein shake, supper.
On days when you do not work out, you still need to hit your protein targets. So, instead of having a post-workout shake, it may be a breakfast shake, or an afternoon shake for a snack.
If you are on a time-restricted eating schedule, you still need to hit your protein targets within your eating window.
I also believe in listening to my body’s hunger signals, and then making choices to include protein with every meal. If I am hungry, I ask, “Have I had enough protein today?”
What are good sources of protein?
- Nuts and seeds
- Milk products
Meat (beef, poultry) and seafood (fish) contain high amounts of complete protein. Eggs contain complete protein, but one egg has only about 6 grams of protein. You can eat 2 – 3 eggs per serving. Whey protein is a great source of the protein that comes from dairy. A protein shake does not have to be complicated. It can be a simple as mixing whey protein with water.
Legumes, nuts, and vegetables contain protein too as well as carbohydrates or fats. It is important to take that into consideration. If I have chicken and broccoli and green peas, it is not just the chicken breast that is giving me protein, but broccoli and peas have some protein too! If I have 2 or 3 eggs for breakfast and a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter on sprouted grain toast, it is not just my eggs that count, but all of that. Reaching your protein requirement is probably not as difficult as you may think if you have protein sources with every meal.
I recommend using a food tracking app for a week or so, to help you learn how many grams of protein are in a serving size of each type of food.
Planning for Weight Loss or Weight Gain
The main macronutrient that determines whether you will lose weight or gain weight, is carbohydrates. This is the macronutrient you can either have more or less of to gain or lose weight.
First, determine your protein requirements. One gram of protein is 4 calories. If I am aiming to hit 100 – 125 gram protein daily, that is equivalent to 400 – 500 calories.
Next, determine your fat consumption requirements. Use 0.45 g x body weight in pounds. For more reading on healthy fats see my blog Healthy Fats and Unhealthy Fats – What is the Difference?
Here is what the fat calculation would look like for me:
Fat: 120 lb x 0.45 = 54 g
One gram of fat is 9 calories.
Fat calories: 54 g x 9 cal / g = 486 calories
Now so far, proteins and fats account for 900-1000 calories. The rest of my caloric intake will be from carbohydrates. One gram carbohydrate is 4 calories. If I need 1800 calories a day, then 800 calories should come from carbohydrates. That means I should have 200 grams of carbs. If I need 1500 calories a day, then 500 calories should come from carbs, which is 125 g carbs.
There are various ways to calculate how many total daily calories you need to maintain your weight. However since every individual is unique, it might be best to simply track everything you eat for a few days, and calculate the number of calories you are actually consuming.
Then, whether you want to gain or lose weight, manipulate the amount of carbohydrates you consume to put you in a caloric surplus or deficit. Eat fewer carbohydrates if you are trying to lose fat, eat more carbohydrates if you are training hard and trying to gain mass.
Carbohydrates include vegetables, fruit and grains. Carbohydrates will give you fiber, vitamins, and minerals, so choose nutrient-dense foods with many different colours.
Note that plant-based sources of protein (beans, legumes) also count towards carbohydrate consumption. They are a source of protein, but they are also a source of carbs (and an excellent source of fiber). So, for example, although beans are a source of protein, eating beans and rice will not give you the same macros as eating chicken and rice.
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