Over the past several posts I’ve shared with you a bit about who I am; some thoughts on weight, food, health, and fitness; a brief overview of the four pillars of getting lean, strong, and healthy; and the benefits of taking a habits-based approach to nutrition rather than the popular diet-based approach to nutrition.
By now, you’re probably thinking, “ROB! Get to the point. Tell me something I can DO.”
Well, today is your lucky day, my friend.
Make Protein the Foundation of Every Meal
A fundamental step in building killer eating habits is making protein the foundation every meal. Every single meal, the first thing we consider should be, “where’s my protein?” This nutrient is the bomb, and in this post I’m going to tell you why. I’ll also share with you some strategies to make sure you’re getting the most protein bang for your buck.
Here’s an outline of the path we’re going to take:
- What is Protein?
- Why do I Need Protein?
- What are the Best Sources of Protein?
- How much Protein Do I Need?
- Common Concerns With Animal Protein (Health / Environmental / Ethical)
- What to Do Next
Let’s do this.
What is Protein?
Protein, found in foods like chicken, fish, beef, pork, and eggs, is made up of chains of amino acids that our bodies break down and then reassemble to serve various purposes. Our bodies use roughly twenty unique amino acids – some of which we’re able to produce on our own (endogenously), others we must obtain from outside sources (protein in food). The amino acids we must obtain from outside sources are referred to as the “essential” amino acids.
That’s all I’ve got.
Shortest subsection ever.
Why Do I Need Protein?
As you may already be aware, adequate protein is key to building and maintaining muscle mass (you will NOT get bulky without a crap ton of dedicated, specific effort), especially when losing weight. However, protein also serves a variety of other vital functions:
- Growth and repair of organs, including the heart, liver, skin, hair, fingernails, and bones.
- Use for creation of enzymes, which facilitate thousands of reactions including healthy digestion and metabolism.
- Acts as a precursor to neurotransmitters, critical to maintaining a stable mood and clear thinking.
Protein also has a significant impact on our appetites. Compared to other energy-providing macronutrients – carbs, fat, and alcohol – protein is the most satiating. That is, calorie-per-calorie, protein keeps you full longer, especially when transitioning from a low-protein diet to a high- or even moderate-protein diet.
What Are the Best Sources of Protein?
Nearly all foods contain at least some protein, but not all protein sources are created equal in terms of the amino acids they provide us. This is where amino acids (which, if you’ll recall, protein comprises) come into play.
Some plants like soy, beans, and peanut butter are reported to provide high amounts of protein, but lack one or more essential amino acids or the protein they provide is not very bioavailable – meaning our bodies can’t utilize it as well as other proteins. This is why we may hear about vegetarians and vegans combining different food types to get adequate protein – they are making up for the different amino acid profiles of different plant foods.
Animal sources like meat, fowl, fish, and eggs, on the other hand, have much more complete ratio of the amino acids you need, higher protein per serving, and the protein is more bioavailable. Not only are the amino acid profiles of plant proteins typically less favorable than that of animal sources, but plant sources also typically provide much less protein-per-calorie than animal sources.
Below is a list of protein content per 100 kcal for a variety of foods (inspired by a graphic I saw from a coach named Sohee Lee):
- Turkey breast, skinless, 22 grams
- Tuna, light, 22 grams
- Greek yogurt, 0% fat, 18 grams
- Sirloin steak, lean, 17 grams
- Tofu, 11 grams
- Whole Egg, 9 grams
- Black beans, 7 grams
- Quinoa, 4 grams
- Peanut butter, 4 grams of protein per 100 kcal
- Almonds, 4 grams of protein per 100 kcal
See what I’m getting at here? Don’t go crushing peanut butter under the guise of “muh protein”.
Don’t get me wrong; plenty of vegans and vegetarians are able to get adequate protein. However, there’s a big difference between adequate and optimal. In my opinion it’s tough to get optimal protein intake on a vegan or vegetarian diet. If you’re concerned about the health, ethical, or environmental impact of a diet that emphasizes animal proteins, I’ll touch on each of these concerns briefly below but you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for resources from people much more well-versed in these subjects than I am.
If you’re in the store and are trying to determine whether something serves as a quality source of protein or not, ask yourself, a good rule of thumb is to look for foods that provide at least 20 grams per standard serving. There’s a lot of marketing hype out there encouraging us to believe that bars, snacks, and other food products with as low as 6-10 grams of protein per serving are “good sources”. Don’t buy into it. You deserve more than that.
Experiment, seek out quality protein sources that you enjoy, and that you are confident you’ll eat consistently.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Sooooooo we’re going to briefly touch on some technicalities (grams, pounds, etc.) and then move into some more easy-to-follow guidelines that don’t require neurotic weighting, measuring, or counting.
The US government recommends 0.3 grams per pound of body mass per day for most people. However, this is only the amount determined to prevent deficiency. Other popular recommendations for active individuals and those with body composition goals fall in the ballpark of 0.5 – 1.0 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. If you’re looked to lean up a bit or particularly enjoy protein, you might even go as high as 1.5 or 2.0 grams per pound of body weight. This would be mainly for the appetite effect, though, and not necessarily for any effect on your physique.
All of that being said, counting and tracking pounds and grams can be a real pain in the butt, so we’ll instead look at a different way of gauging our protein intake. Rather than bust out a scale and measuring cups, you can use your palms to gauge what a “serving” of protein looks like. Basically, you look at your palm (not including your fingers and thumb) and aim for a serving of protein that matches it in size.
I picked up this strategy from Precision Nutrition a couple of years ago, and have been using it personally and suggesting it to my clients ever since. The beauty of this approach is that it automatically scales to account for differences in body size. Larger person? You’ll have larger palms to go along with your increased protein requirements. Smaller person? You’ll have smaller palms to go along with your lower protein requirements.
One to two palms of protein per meal, or 4-8 palms per day is a general range that will work well for most of us. If you’re just getting started, then you might feel better at one palm per meal (or 4 per day). However, if you’re training heavily, would like to manage hunger while losing weight, or just like protein (which is totally cool, I certainly do), you might prefer to eat two palms per meal (or 8 per day).
Experiment, find an amount that works for you, and that you feel confident you can eat consistently.
Common Concerns With Animal Protein (Health / Environmental / Ethical)
I intend to eventually put together a resource page answering questions controversial topics such as these. There are people out there MUCH more knowledgeable on these subjects than I am, who explain things infinitely more clearly than I ever could. If you’d like for me to share with you some of the resources that led me to the conclusions below, I’d love for you to email me at email@example.com.
Is Animal Protein Unhealthy?
As a general statement, much of the science that originally implicated animal products (I’m talking about The China Study) has been brought to light as questionable at best. It’s my understanding that so long as our protein is largely unprocessed and comes from healthy animals, we don’t really have much to worry about. I’m no dietitian or nutritionist but, as far as cancer is concerned, it’s my understanding that the main effects are seen with primarily with processed meat, and that the effects are still not quite that strong. As far as kidney disease is concerned, it’s my understanding that so long as we don’t have an existing kidney problem we’re good to go.
That said, I’m not a dietitian, nutritionist, doctor, or omniscient nutrition guru. All I can do is share with you what I understand in the context of what I’ve learned from folks much smarter than I am.
Is Animal Protein Unsustainable?
Again, it depends.
This is an EXTREMELY complex subject, one that basically comes down to the fact that our current model of industrial food production and distribution – even plant-based – is absolutely unsustainable. Mono-crop farming and concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFO) are rapidly depleting resources and there’s a good chance there are just too damn many people on planet Earth (sorry to be the bearer of bad news). However, there are steps we can take to minimize the impact that our choices have on the environment and on the wellbeing of animals.
Is Animal Protein Unethical?
That’s right. It depends.
Was the animal raised on a local farm with rotating crops and regenerative agriculture practices, or in a CAFO? What about the plant foods that would replace the animal food? How many animals’ habitats were destroyed to allow for those soybeans that would be replacing the meat to be grown? How many field mice were killed by combines during harvesting? Is a field mouse’s life worth less than a cow or a pig’s?
Not so black and white, huh?
Again, if you’d like more information about these questions and how I arrived at these conclusion, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course, if you’re just over animal products, I’d be glad to direct you to some good vegan and vegetarian resources as well.
- Protein is the bomb.
- The highest quality sources of protein come from animals.
- Aim for one to two palm-sized servings of protein per meal.
- The health/environmental/ethical implications of animal protein are more complicated than we most often assume.
- Email me with any questions at email@example.com
What to Do Next
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Well, perhaps not ever. But it will be a very good one.