Protein is a vital macronutrient. Often, macronutrients (carbs, proteins, and fats) are thought of as simple sources of energy, but each has unique work to do in addition to providing energy/calories. And while protein can provide energy, the body prefers to allocate protein for the things it specializes in, leaving most of the energy responsibility to carbs and fat. This is because carbs and fats can’t be converted to do what protein can (plus carbs and fats are optimized for energy). When we are active, protein may contribute a mere 2-6% of the energy needed but can increase this contribution up to 10% if there aren’t enough other fuel sources available. That 10% often comes from the body’s own muscles or from protein that would have otherwise gone to repairing that muscle. The other important functions of protein include supporting the immune system, enabling cellular reactions, and the repair and building of tissue. Now that we understand why we need protein, it’s time to consider where to get it from as not all sources are created equally. Some types of protein are associated with chronic, low-grade inflammation and poor health (predominantly processed animal-based options have shown this) while some sources are naturally rich in protective phytonutrients (plant-based options are the only sources that also have phytonutrients). When it comes to health, choosing the right sources matters. Here’s a primer on how to optimize protein with the highest long-term health benefits.
Protein Sources for Health
Imagine eating protein and being flooded with a bunch of super health protective nutrients like anti-inflammatories, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fiber-rich components. That’s what you get with plant-sourced proteins and is what’s lacking in the much of the animal protein world. While animal proteins do a good job of muscle and tissue support and providing a few vitamins and minerals, they aren’t flush with same kinds or quantities of beneficial nutrients as plant proteins. Opting for more plant proteins means supporting a body’s need for protein but also reducing overall inflammation, promoting faster recovery, reduction in bad cholesterol, better blood flow, reduction of risk of disease, etc. It’s really a win-win.
In an NIH diet and health study, over 617 thousand people, ages 50 to 71, were followed for about a year. Those in the study who ate more plant proteins had a significantly reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Even replacing just 3% of protein with plant options can reduce risk from any of the big mortality causes by 10%. Imagine what your health might look like eating plant proteins 50%, 75% or 98% of the time.
Plant Proteins Can Build Muscle
You may wonder if eating plant proteins means sacrificing the ability to build lean muscle mass. I assure you that protein from plants can do all the things animal proteins can. The amino acids from plants are what build our strongest, biggest animals anyway! Elephants, rhinos, oxen, cows, etc. are all herbivores. If you doubt this translates to humans, just check out the cast of The Gamechangers Movie – these elite athletes are destroying world records, pushing boundaries and proving that plant-based diets perform on par, or exceed, omnivore diets. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has adopted a plant-based diet to take control of his health and support a healthy lifestyle.
A review of 9 resistance training studies following 266 people was conducted in 2018; it revealed that, despite differences in dietary controls (whey vs. soy, soy vs, beef/milk/dairy), across a wide range of ages (18 to 67, among all studies) and the duration of training (2 to 5x per week for 6 to 36 weeks), there were no differences between the improvements on bench press strength, lean body mass, squat or leg press strength between those consuming plant-based (soy) protein and animal-based proteins.
Another study showed similar results comparing 48 grams per day of pea protein to 48 grams of whey protein (animal based) revealing no difference in body composition, muscle thickness, workout performance or strength.
If you can protect your health AND get strong, why wouldn’t you?
How Much Protein per Day
Generally, eating 0.36 to 0.45 grams of protein per pound of body weight is enough. If you are using kilograms, the rate is 0.8 to 1.0 gram per kilogram of body weight (kilos is the preferred method for healthcare so we will use this form again later; to convert pounds into kilograms, divide weight in pounds by 2.2).
For a 175 lb. man this works out to 63 to 80 grams of protein per day
For 135 lb. woman this works out to 49 to 63 grams per day.
Another way is to calculate 20% of the recommended caloric intake (this involves more numbers/factors but here’s the idea):
This 175 lb. man sits for his day job (lightly active) and works out for about an hour a day (moderate activity) 3x per week, so we estimate that his overall calorie needs are about 2,700. 20% of this would be 135 grams.
The difference between the results from 20% method and the range using grams per weight is not a big deal; food is flexible in that way. Assessing if someone is eating enough protein will include other factors like overall energy, enjoyment of the meal, strength, performance in the gym, weight changes, fatigue/headaches, etc.
Protein is a little fickle in that eating very large amounts of it doesn’t amplify the benefits. Using protein efficiently really depends on how much demand is being created for the protein (for example, how much exercise is being done, what are the other needs for macronutrients, etc.). I like to think of building muscle like building a house: if I send the workers there without materials (equal to doing exercise but not eating enough) then nothing happens. If I send the materials there but no workers (equal to eating plenty of protein but not exercising), then again, nothing happens.
If your goal is to eat enough protein and feel satisfied at meals, 15-25 grams per meal and ~10 per snacks is enough (you can also calculate how much you need and divide it amongst meals/snacks).
If your goal is to build or maintain lean muscle mass, try eating between 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and divide it amongst meals. Some people may push the envelope up to 2.2 grams per kilo, but I don’t recommend this amount unless you are very active, have high demands, or are pursuing body building. Very high protein diets often result in missing other useful nutrients.
If your goal is to lose weight, try the base recommendation first (with ample veggies and moderate carbs/fat) and then adjust based on how you are feeling and the progress you are seeing (although give your body time to respond to lifestyle changes). Weight management is complex, so it takes multiple approaches.
If you’ll notice a theme, no matter the goals, a key factor is dividing the protein intake amongst meals and snacks evenly so that you are eating protein in regular intervals throughout the day. This is ideal for muscle response and tends to help us feel full longer and manage our energy better.