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last updated March 3, 2021

Make protein the foundation of every meal

by Rob Arthur

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).

Eating more protein promotes higher metabolism, feeling more full, losing more fat – not precious muscle, organs, or other tissue – and is associated with lower risk for depression (4, 5).

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.

That’s okay.

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.


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    • Hey, Gio!

      Thanks for reaching out.

      It’s my understanding that the limit you describe (which varies, based on who you ask) is often based on what has been found to be “optimal” for muscle protein synthesis, and not necessarily a “limit” as to how much one can eat in a single meal and still actually absorb.

      Here is a paper you might find useful:

      https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5828430/

      The “Conclusions” section explains that this “optimal rate” is based on rapidly digesting protein sources eaten in isolation, and that eating less-processed forms of protein and/or eating protein in a mixed meal with other nutrients would slow the rate of protein digestion, thus potentially reducing the amount of amino acid oxidation.

      Also, increased amino acid oxidation above that level doesn’t mean that all amino acids above that level are oxidized, only that they are oxidized at a rate that is no longer optimal for muscle protein synthesis.

      On a related note, muscle protein synthesis describes only one effect of protein on the body.

      We use protein for countless other processes, so while we might not be optimally stimulating muscle protein synthesis, we might still be stimulating it, just not optimally, plus we might still be using that protein for all of the other processes it supports.

      I will look into what other resources I can find on the subject, though, and will update this article accordingly.

      Thank you so much for the wonderful question!!!!

      Rob

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