Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Protein; Do We Need More?

No, we do not need more. Generally speaking we (Americans) get more protein than we actually need. However, you may be one of the few who don't get enough.

Source: iStockPhoto

Don't get all excited now. I'm not going to tell you that eating more protein will help you build muscle. Nope. In fact, I'll tell you right now that you could triple the recommendation of protein and it will probably make zero difference as far as muscle is concerned. It will most likely cause you to put on extra pounds though, as that extra protein will likely turn to fat (unless you burn it and use it for calories).

Source: iStock Photo

So, who may need more protein? Well you may need more if you aren't getting enough currently. But I'd be willing to bet you're getting plenty of protein, unless of course you fall into one of the following categories;

- Older adults (past age 60)

- Adolescents

- Vegetarians

- Vegans

As we age we slowly begin to lose muscle mass, and at the same time our bodies become less efficient at using the protein we consume. That being said, as we age, we need more protein! According to a recent article in Nutrition Action Healthletter (published by the Center for Science and Public Interest) we should aim for about 20-30 grams of protein per meal (assuming we eat about 3 meals per day). This is especially important for older individuals.

What if you want to consume more than 30 grams
? Many people eat a lot of their protein at dinner, and get much more than 30 grams.

Source: iStock Photo

This isn't the best idea because there is actually an upper limit on how much protein your body can use, in one single meal, for muscle synthesis (J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 109:1582, 2009). So what will happen to that protein? It will turn to fat, most likely. Another problem with high protein meals at night is that protein tends to keep you more alert and focused, therefore it may affect your sleep. Try adding more protein in the morning for breakfast, and slightly less at night.

"Good Morning" Sources of Protein

- Greek yogurt

- Regular yogurt

- Cottage cheese

- Milk (be careful with almond milk, it has very little protein)

- Eggs or egg whites

- Nuts and seeds

- Oatmeal

Another important point about the timing of protein consumption is that after a workout you're likely to get the best anabolic (tissue-building) response if you consume some high-quality protein. What about during a workout? Not such a great idea, as the proteins that regulate muscle growth shut down during this time. What if you can't eat right after a workout? That's ok, just try to get some high-quality protein within a couple hours of a workout.

Source: iStock Photo

What type of protein is best? Apparently leucine, which is an essential amino acid, drives a majority of the protein synthesis response (amino acids build proteins, which build muscle) (J Nutr. 136: 533S, 2006) . So after a workout, and especially as you age, focus on consuming some good sources of leucine;

Chicken or turkey breast
Cottage cheese
Beef (90% lean, if possible)
Yogurt (not Greek!)
Cheddar and swiss cheese

Or you could go the supplement route (my least favorite option, but it does the trick). I do like recommending protein supplements, such as bars and powders, if indeed it's too difficult to consume enough protein through diet, but I think most people can manage this just fine. I also think some protein bars and drinks can be very convenient sources of protein, but they should only be used if you don't have the time to make something else. I'll be creating some videos, relatively soon, talking about my thoughts on protein bars and what I believe to be some better alternatives.

Source: iStock Photo

And how much protein should you get? The RDA is about .36 grams per pound, but if you want to prevent muscle loss as you age, and possibly build muscle, it's a good idea to consume 25 to 50 percent more than the RDA (or the amount of grams equal to half of your body weight in pounds).

Two things to keep in mind;

1) Research indicates that consuming more than double the RDA for protein will not make you build more muscle.

2) You will not and cannot build muscle without resistance training! Keep it up your entire life.

QUESTION: What's your favorite source of high-quality protein? My two favorites are eggs and yogurt.

I received a question on my last post from a reader who was wondering about my exercise routine. Quite honestly, I don't technically have one. There are certain exercises I love and certain exercise equipment I use each and every day, but a "routine" is sort of non-existent. Nonetheless, I will be doing a post on my typical workouts and exercise moves in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!


  1. Hi Gina!
    This reminds me, I need to stock up on some cottage cheese. I used to eat it all the time!

  2. I've been trying to be more aware of my protein intake since becoming vegetarian. Since I still eat eggs and LOVE Greek yogurt, I don't think it's a problem for me!

  3. great info about protein. I didn't know that older people need more protein and that our body can't process too much protein in one meal!

    favorite source: egg, tofu and soy milk.

  4. I eat very little meat, so I'm always wondering if I'm getting enough protein. I guess my main sources on a daily basis are from greek yogurt (sad to see it doesn't have the best type!) and nuts/seeds. I have cottage cheese once in a while and try to have eggs once or twice a week. I definitely need to broaden the types of protein sources I eat! Thanks for this post, very helpful!

  5. Good protein info! So many of my students and clients are misunderstanding this issue--and guys tend to load up on the protein powders trying to get BIG...all they end up with is being gassy and not losing their chub :)

    People seem to be overly concerned about protein---one of the things I have people do is track their diet for a couple days in sparkpeople or fitday, and then they can look at percentages. If they're low...we try and add in some high protein food choices (but usually they're higher than they thought they were!), and if they're super adamant about protein powders I try to get them to use unprocessed sources like hemp protein so it's more of a food than a supplement.

    Thanks for the great summary on this topic!

  6. Wow, Gina, you are the best... thank you so much for this post!! Amazingly, Zach and I were just wondering about this topic... A friend of ours, who exercises moderately every day, like we do, was telling us he had been told "by a body builder friend" to consume 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, and both of Zach and I said "that sounds too high!" We thought it was more along the lines of no more than half a gram per pound, but both Zach and I wanted to double check with an RD for the exact value, and I said "I'm sure Gina has posted about this topic..." and lo and behold, you did! You rock!! Thank you soooo much!! Our friend is going to be very happy, too, because he told us that trying to consume 180 grams of protein a day was "stressing him out!" That's a LOT of protein! I'm going to tell him he needs to get his nutrition advice from an RD from now on! :-)

  7. There's a huge misconception that we all need more protein in America! I'm glad you addressed that in this post, while explaining some might need to be conscious of their protein sources. However, as a vegetarian, I really don't think it's difficult to get enough protein...there are so many options including a ton of different varieties of beans, nuts, grains, yogurt, eggs, etc.

    One of my favorites is peanut butter!!

  8. My fiance drinks a protein powder drink after working out. I always think it's silly because we eat meat practically everyday. He's hoping to "build muscle."

  9. Great post!

    Since we started eating a lot less meat, I've been a bit more conscious of how much protein we consume. I like your point that our bodies can't use too much in one meal. I think too many people try to eat most of their protein in one sitting...

    I eat Greek yogurt and oatmeal almost every morning and add egg whites, wild canned salmon, or beans to my lunch salads. We also have some protein with dinner.

  10. I love beans and greek yogurt for protein - hard boiled egg whites are another fave.

    I don't eat meat but do eat fish - canned tuna, salmon are my faves.

  11. wow were you thinking of me when you wrote this post...I am going to print this out. I need protein suggestions like WOAH =)

  12. Great post! So many people think that more (excessive) protein = building muscle.
    PS- I think a wedding cruise would be awesome :)

  13. oh! great post girl :) and awesome tips! i can't help my protein loving self haha

  14. i loove eggs as protein, but i've never splurged to get organic ones until this weekend. HOLY COW the 12 eggs i bought cost me over $6 at whole foods. sighhhh
    Eating that runny yolk tonight made it worth it though. :P

    Hope everything is going great with you!!! I love that you and Nick are planning for the future. Any babies coming into this world soon? :) hehee Not kidding.

  15. GREAT post! As a vegetarian, I hate that people always assume we don't get enough protein. It's *possible (then again, it's *possible someone could starve in a McDonalds) but if you're conscious of good protein sources, it's certainly not an inevitability. Americans have such a skewed idea of "normal protein intake" that they assume anything less is deficient! Ugh.

  16. hmm looks like I need to boost my protein a bit! I think I get about 45 grams per day.
    My fave source is BEANS!

  17. Very interesting article on protein! I learned a lot! :) Thanks!

  18. I think that even the 0.8 g/kg requirement might be overkill for most healthy Americans. :) And as mostly a veghead, I have no problem getting in plenty of protein through eggs, beans, and quinoa.

    Is Greek yogurt not a good source r/t being mostly whey protein? Just curious. :)

  19. i also think protein helps with weight loss especially with satiety but you're right more isn't necessarily better. My favorite protein sources? Salmon, siggis yogurt, omega 3 eggs and cheese!

  20. Huh I didn't know there was evidence to support an upper limit of protein per meal. Thought that was myth! My favorite protein sources are yogurt and tofu. And maybe peanut flour, but I really doubt that's a high quality source of protein.

  21. Great post Gina! I get so fumed when people talk about amping up their protein to build muscle...thanks for putting this in to perspective!! I love eggs and Greek yogurt!

  22. Great post! Vegetarians should just eat at the end end of the normal range to account for possibly not getting all the essential amino acids, but the needs will not be too much higher. Being a vegetarian, I know lots of people who get plenty, and I have seen a few just starting out and really not getting enough just because they are so focused on not eating meat and trying new things. Protein can then be overlooked. The best advice for vegetarians is eat a variety to ensure all those essential amino acids are consumed. There is so much confusion out there that I recently decided to join the Vegetarian Nutrition DPG so I could be up to date on everything in that area. I love eggs! Nut butters are also very good, but too much and it can add up fast!

  23. So. True.

    Funny timing that I just talked about protein powders on my blog :)

    The important thing is to get a BALANCE of the macronutrients, and to consume what feels right for our bodies.

  24. I eat a lot of Fat Free Greek Yogurt which is a great source of protein with no fat and not that many calories. Second would be chicken breasts-love it!

  25. Protein is one of the most important nutrients that we should always take. We need a lot of it to maintain our health.

    Buy Vega