One step you can take to improve practically every aspect of your body composition, mood, appetite, and overall health is making protein the foundation of every meal.
That is, for each and every meal, start by identifying a protein source around which to build everything else.
What is protein?
“Protein” refers to chains of amino acids that our bodies use for everything from building muscle and organs to supporting immunity, detoxification, cell signaling, metabolism, antioxidative response, gut health, neurological function, and gene expression (1, 2, 3).
Exact numbers might vary depending on who you ask, but we generally use 21 unique amino acids, nine of which – termed “essential” – we must get from food (6).
What foods have protein?
Protein can be found in plants, animals, algae, and fungi, but animal sources – like meat, dairy, fish, and eggs – typically offer more digestible, bio-available, complete amino acid profiles, plus nutrients like heme-iron, cholecalciferol, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), vitamin B12, creatine, taurine, carnosine, and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) that aren’t found in other sources (7).
Prioritizing animal foods can also help promote adequate calcium, vitamin D, potassium, iron, and folate intake (8).
Finally, you’ll probably find it much easier to hit your protein needs with animal foods, especially if prioritizing minimally-processed foods.
For example, it might take around 200 calories’ worth of steak to get 30 grams of protein, whereas it would take over 800 calories’ worth of almonds to get that same 30 grams of protein (9).
That’s not even accounting for differences in amino acid quality or other nutrients.
How much protein do I need?
The recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram (g/kg), or 0.36 grams per pound (g/lb.) of body weight, per day, but you might consider this more of a bare minimum than an optimal amount (10).
You’ll likely look, feel, and perform your best with the following daily targets from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (11):
- For building and maintaining muscle: a minimum of 1.4 – 2.0 g/kg (0.64 – 0.91 g/lb.)
- For retaining lean body mass during weight loss: up to 2.3 – 3.1 g/kg (1.0 – 1.4 g/lb.)
- You might even see benefit going higher than 3.0 g/kg (1.36 g/lb.)
Aiming for a middle ground of 1.0 gram per pound of body weight per day might be a simple, easy-to-remember starting point.
How do I start eating more protein?
Consider making one or two palm-sized (4.0 – 8.0 oz.) servings of beef, fish, shellfish, game, or other animal protein the foundation of every meal, three to four times a day.
This will usually provide around 30 to 60 grams per meal, which will get most of us the ball park of 1.0 gram per pound of body weight.
Of course, if you want to calculate your specific requirements, and then measure and track your food intake to make sure you’re on target, that’s totally reasonable, too.
Regardless, you may want to experiment to find your ideal protein intake and sources.
For example, if you want extra help managing hunger while leaning out a bit, you might dial your protein up while dialing fats and/or carbs down.
On the other hand, if you want more carbs or fats for training or to gain weight, you might dial your protein down a bit, cautiously not to drop so low that you start to lose lean mass.
Pay attention to how different sources affect how you feel.
For example, some folks do just fine with dairy, whereas others don’t.
You might not get this all figured out right off the bat.
Get started, pay attention to your progress, and make adjustments as necessary.
Take one step at a time.
Keep moving forward.
You’ll never be perfect.
You can be consistent.
You’ve got this.