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An Ode to Protein
What makes this macronutrient so great, how much should you eat, and where can you find said quantities? Plus a poem, because I needed some levity this week.
If I was entering a poetry contest and the rules stipulated that I could only write about one of the macronutrients, I would have to choose protein.
Carbohydrates, fat and protein–the three nutrients we need in the largest quantities–all deserve reverence for the life-giving energy they provide… despite each being attacked by headline pandering media and snake oil peddling diet gurus at various moments in our nutritionally complex past.
But if forced to pay homage to only one, it would be protein.
Why is protein special?
Unless you are in a fasted state, the body doesn’t use protein for energy the same way it does carbohydrates and fat. Instead protein is used to build muscle, bone, hair, skin, hormones, and enzymes.
It makes you feel fuller longer and reduces cravings.
This is partly because protein reduces your level of the hunger hormone ghrelin and boosts a hormone called peptide YY that makes you feel full.
While protein contains 4 calories per gram, just like a carbohydrate, the thermic effect of protein is significantly higher.
This means it takes your body more energy to digest protein than it does carbohydrates or fat.
For many of the reasons above, especially its role in muscle synthesis and controlling hunger, protein has also been shown to improve body composition, when combined with resistance training.
Interestingly, the body can’t store protein.
When its needs are met, the excess amino acids are converted into energy and stored as fat if not used. So, while this macronutrient is quite impressive, it is possible to overeat protein so don’t think it’s a free pass.
What is protein?
Proteins are large macromolecules that comprise one or more long chains of amino acids. There are about twenty different amino acids, nine of which are considered essential amino acids (EAA).
EAA can not be created in the body. They can only be supplied by food.
When you hear someone say that beef, chicken, or eggs are a source of complete protein, that means that they contain all nine of these EAAs.
There are complete plant sources too: quinoa, buckwheat, and tofu for example.
But, while other grains might be low in one or two of the EAAs, you can usually get full coverage by combining two sources (i.e. rice and lentils, or rice and beans).
How much should you eat?
Dietary Reference Intake–what the U.S. government recommends for healthy people–for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of body weight.
However, for people doing high intensity training, protein needs can go up to .64-.9 grams per pound.
If you engage in resistance training and you are focused on body composition, even more protein may make sense.
I tend to eat about 1 to 1.1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight per day. For me this is ~135 grams of protein. Significantly more than the 49 grams that are required for basic needs.
Despite bad press, high protein diets are not bad for your kidneys if you are healthy. In fact, as we age, we all face sarcopenia, or age-related muscle loss. Increasing protein intake can offset the impact.
But remember, we can’t eat our way to muscle. You have to lift weights and eat enough protein to get results.
In the words of Ryan Andrews, a registered dietician and strength coach, “we need a small amount of protein to survive, but we need a lot more to thrive.”
Timing is also important.
Remember the body can’t store protein. And it needs time between eating meals to process it.
It appears that splitting your protein consumption over 3 to 5 meals per day is best for muscle protein synthesis.
In my case, I typically eat 4 meals per day so I aim for about 35 grams of protein at each meal.
If you want to go deeper, follow Bill Campbell on Instagram where he produces handy analyses of studies on these types of topics.
Favorite Foods and Snacks
When we think about health and fitness, many people jump to supplements. But, study after study has shown that most supplements are not required.
I can get my 135 grams everyday with food alone. I enjoy protein shakes so they do figure in my regular diet, but I don’t need them to hit my protein goals.
My favorite sources of protein are:
Fage Greek Yogurt
Siggi’s Icelandic Yogurt
I eat 1.5 servings as a breakfast most days - that’s 27 grams right there.
I always have frozen chicken burgers on hand for fast lunches.
Skirt steak is a staple around here for fast weekday stir fry dinners.
I eat a lot of egg whites mostly because I prefer to get my fats from other sources. But a whole egg is great too.
Yes, I like peanut butter and egg white sandwiches.
I’m a huge fan of Safe Catch brand tuna because it is sustainably caught and rigorously tested for mercury.
I wish it was socially acceptable to eat this on planes…
My go-to for taste, texture and nutritional profile is Unico’s Apollo protein (I haven’t met a flavor I don’t like).
I like to mix the powder into a pudding-like paste with milk and top it with whipped cream and Reese Pieces cereal.
If tomorrow I was forced to become vegetarian, I would lean into lentils, rice, and beans. Maybe one day I’ll try… but this feels very daunting to me.
Before we get to the poem, a final word.
I do my best to eat lean protein and fruit or vegetables at every meal.
But sometimes life is a shit show.
Jerky, popcorn and almonds can be lunch. A protein shake with an English muffin and peanut butter can be breakfast.
Perfection isn’t the goal. But eating enough protein is.
With all that said, here is my Ode to Protein.
Oh! To be so strong! Tear down first to build back up Blocks unite in strength The magic happens When kitchen and gym unite Work hard, replenish Real food is better Get some protein every meal Stay satiated
If you want to deep dive into nutrition, these are some of the resources that have helped me the most:
Here are a few past articles also on nutrition:
I love dissecting questions and researching responses. Let me know what’s on your mind!