I don’t like meat.
There, I said it.
Let me rephrase. I’m an omnivore (a diet consisting of both meat and plant-based foods), so I do like meat in small quantities. Like “one meal a day has meat” kinda quantities.
For the longest time, when I saw or heard the word “protein”, I immediately pictured a rotisserie chicken or a giant steak. Meat. This was really challenging for me when I started tracking macronutrients a few years ago. If I don’t love meat, how am I supposed to get my protein in?
Maybe you’re thinking, “why the HECK does protein matter so much?!”
Well, you’re in the right place. I was in that place several years ago, so now I’m here to help you learn some basics about macronutrients and why, in my opinion, protein is the most important of them.
Let’s start with some background on macronutrients!
Macronutrients, which I’ll refer to as “macros” from here on out, are nutrients that are essential to energy production in the body and support the function of all its systems and structures so they are needed in larger quantities than micronutrients like vitamins and minerals.
Macros consist of fat, carbohydrates, and (my personal favorite) PROTEIN. Regardless of what the latest fad diet may have you believe, your body absolutely needs all three macros to function properly. None of them are “evil”, all of them are essential. The sources of your macros will differ in quality and the “bang for your buck”, so I always recommend to our clients that they focus on high-quality food sources that they enjoy. Look for more on that in an upcoming post!
The Importance of Protein
Since we’re focusing on protein here, why IS it so important? Here are a few of the many benefits protein offers that makes it my favorite macro:
- supports our metabolism and hormone systems, including in hormone regulation
- creates antibodies, which you need to fight sickness and infection
- supports our tissue structure which is critical to healthy muscle repair and growth – especially as we age (which is something we all do!)
- increases satiety, the feeling of fullness and satisfaction after a meal
You can find protein all throughout your body, not just in your muscles. You can find it in your hair, skin, and bones plus pretty much every other body part you can think of. There are about 10,000 different proteins all throughout your body!
Different proteins?! There are different types of proteins?
There sure are.
All proteins are made up of amino acids, and there are over twenty different amino acids. Nine of those amino acids are considered “essential” and for a protein to be considered “complete”, it must contain all of the over twenty different amino acids.
The nine essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine, and we get them from our food sources because we can’t store amino acids long-term. When you track your macros, specifically protein, the protein you’re tracking is complete and therefore contains these essential amino acids.
Tips for Setting Your Protein Target
At this point, you’re probably wondering how much protein you need to eat in a day. After all, it’s super important!
However, I do have a quick disclaimer for people struggling with disordered eating. If tracking anything related to your nutrition, including protein, is triggering: please don’t track. If this is you but you’d still like to understand the effects of protein on your body, skip ahead to the next section titled the 4-Day Energy Experiment.
For people who don’t have issues tracking nutrients and who’d like to start tracking protein, I always recommend starting with the current guideline from the National Academy of Medicine, which is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight as a target. One pound is about 0.45 kilograms, so a 175-pound person weighs about 79 kilograms and can start with about 63 grams of protein a day.
To calculate this yourself, follow these steps:
- Find your weight in kilograms by multiplying your weight in pounds times 0.45.
Example: 175 (pounds) x 0.45 (kilograms per pound) = 78.75 kilograms
- Multiply your weight in kilograms by the guideline of 0.8 grams to find your beginning protein target.
Example: 79 (kilograms) x 0.8 (grams per kilogram) = 63.2 grams
Easy peasy, right? This target-setting guideline is a great starting point but, as we like to continuously remind our clients, all bodies are different. You might set a target and find that you don’t feel your best. Maybe it’s too much protein and you’re not enjoying eating anymore. Maybe it’s not enough protein and you find that you’re still hungry or your muscle recovery is slower than it was in the past.
In these situations, I encourage my clients to experiment. That’s the beauty of our bodies – we have our own in-house experimentation lab where we can try different food sources, protein targets, and eating times to figure out where you feel your best.
The 4-Day Energy Experiment
One activity that I have most of my Habit Change Experience clients do is called the 4-Day Energy Experiment. It’s a quick, easy way to try different protein sources and assess how you feel immediately and a few hours after eating.
You can do something similar at home by alternating the protein source for each meal and making a note of how you feel immediately after eating, and then two hours after eating. You can use the notes app on your phone or a journal to input your entries using this template:
- Meal: breakfast, lunch, or dinner
- Protein Type: no/low protein (i.e bread), animal protein (i.e. meat), plant protein (i.e. soy)
- Protein Source: brief description of food
- Estimated Grams of Protein Eaten: number in grams (an estimate is totally fine!) – disclaimer: please leave this out if tracking is triggering!
- Energy Immediately After Eating: increased or decreased
- Energy Two Hours After Eating: increased or decreased
Here’s an example:
- Meal: breakfast
- Protein Type: no/low protein
- Protein Source: piece of toast with butter
- Estimated Grams of Protein Eaten: 6 grams
- Energy Immediately After Eating: increased
- Energy Two Hours After Eating: decreased
I recommend that you have two days where you eat animal or plant protein at all meals, and then two days where you eat more “no/low protein” foods than foods containing animal or plant protein. I also recommend that these days are continuous – do them all the same time so you can really compare how you feel.
Here’s my recommended protein types for each day of the experiment:
- Day 1: Breakfast – no/low protein, Lunch – animal or plant protein, Dinner – no/low protein
- Day 2: Breakfast – animal or plant protein, Lunch – no/low protein, Dinner – animal or plant protein
- Day 3: Breakfast – animal protein, Lunch – animal protein, Dinner – animal protein (replace this with all plant protein and remove the 4th day if you consume a plant-based diet)
- Day 4: Breakfast – plant protein, Lunch – plant protein, Dinner – plant protein
So, in summary, to set your protein target I recommend that you:
- Start with the National Academy of Medicine’s guideline, track your protein intake, and assess how you feel after one week.
Do you feel satisfied after your meals? Was it hard for you to reach your protein target? How are your energy levels?
If you’re feeling good at the target set using the guideline, no need to change anything! Keep on keepin’ on.
If you’re not feeling so good with this initial target…
- Try the Energy Experiment described above!
This experiment will give you real-time data about your unique body and needs so you can set a protein target that works best for you. Maybe you’ll find that your body feels better eating plant-based protein sources, or that you need more protein than the guideline provided. For me, I find that I feel best at about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight and when I consume less animal protein.
Whatever you do, beware of anyone telling you there’s some “magic” protein target for you. There’s really not, and scientific data is limited in this arena – most likely because all bodies have different needs, making humans especially challenging to study.
Do you have questions about protein or setting your protein target? Feel free to leave a comment here, send us an email, or book a totally free, no-strings-attached strategy session!
- The Cleveland Clinic: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/macronutrients-vs-micronutrients/
- Harvard School of Public Health: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/
- National Academy of Medicine: Institute of Medicine. 2005. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/10490.
- British Journal of Nutrition: Westerterp-Plantenga, M., Lemmens, S., & Westerterp, K. (2012). Dietary protein – its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health. British Journal of Nutrition,108(S2), S105-S112. doi:10.1017/S0007114512002589
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