I have to admit, my life goals don't involve "max reps" or "big gains" at the gym. It mostly involves "work really hard", "don't say or do anything super embarrassing", and "remember to brush your teeth - even if you have to use the back up toothbrush in your desk at work." Oddly enough, those less muscle minded goals of mine require protein too. We need protein for more than just building muscles. Cartilage, skin, blood, and hormones need protein to function normally. Now, not all protein is created equal. There's a difference between good proteins, bad proteins, weight lifter protein, and "normal person, not even a gym rat" protein. The truth is, we all need it. Did you know the whole point of having DNA is that it makes blueprints for... protein?! It's very valuable to our bodies, but how do we know the best sources, and how much we should be eating?
The protein we eat is broken down into chains of amino acids. You can picture the protein chain like a string of pearls and each pearl is an amino acid. Those amino acids break apart and not only help build muscle (which is why every bro at the gym is drinking a shake right now), but also:
Yes. Other foods besides meat have protein. Nuts, seeds, rice, quinoa, beans, legumes, and other plants also contain protein, but don't contain all of the amino acids we need. There are 9 essential amino acids (meaning we can ONLY get them through our diet, and we NEED them... ahem, essential). Animal sources of protein (meat and dairy) have all 9, and are therefore called "complete" proteins. Plant protein (any protein not from an animal) is considered "incomplete" since plant proteins are missing a few amino acids. To cover those 9 must haves - eat clean, organic, grass fed, pastured animal protein, OR eat 2 plant proteins at the same time. For example:
For most people this is rare. However, if you're a wannabe (or actual) muscle-y meat head here's a heads up. Large amounts of protein at every meal, AND in between meals may be spiking the wrong hormones. High protein intake can mess up healthy insulin levels and increase an enzyme called TOR that accelerates aging. Try to get no more than 30% of your calories from animal protein (plant protein is still fine). In other words, 1-2 servings of meat or dairy at each meal, but the other 1/2 or 2/3 of your meal should be plants and fat. Keep in mind that the type and quality totally matters. Is it processed, non-organic, mcdonalds garbage cheeseburger "protein" or is it organic pastured free range chicken? Clean organic protein benefits your body more, because your immune system doesn't have to fight all of the toxins, hormones, and antibiotics in a fast food burger. Also, your body can only absorb so much at one time. More than 20-30 grams at each meal is likely to be discarded in your urine, and a SUPER hefty amount can be tough on your kidneys.
More commonly, we aren't getting enough protein. Signs of too little protein in your diet may be:
Check the chart below to see if you're meeting the suggested amounts. Sometimes a busy lifestyle makes getting enough protein difficult. Do you eat on the go? Is it hard to make time to cook regularly? Try a protein shake, BUT PLEASE not a pre-packaged Slim-fast or Muscle Milk. They can be loaded with sugar, artificial sweeteners, conventional dairy, soy, and heavy metals that all can cause stomach upset, inflammation, and other strange symptoms. You're probably better off using an organic plant powder, but make sure it's complete. Look for a vegan protein with a combo of pea proteins and other plants like rice or hemp.
If you can't properly digest protein, you can't use it. Do you ever get that rock in you stomach feeling after eating? Are you eating more protein, but not seeing benefits? You may need a little help in the form of a digestive enzyme. You might also have food sensitivities or allergies. Eggs and dairy both happen to be good sources of complete proteins, BUT are among the most common food allergies and sensitivities in the United States. So while the protein you eat might have good intentions, it could actually be irritating your intestines. This is why many body builders that drink whey protein (derived from dairy) and eat hard boiled eggs all day have terrible bowel issues. The key is staying in tune with your body. Be willing to go a few days or weeks without certain foods to see if they're bothering you, and see if a round of digestive enzymes helps you out.
-- For reference: 3oz of chicken has about 21 grams of good, complete protein. --
The DRI (dietary reference intake) is .36 grams per lb of body weight... i.e. a 140 lb female should be getting at least 50 grams a day. That's the absolute minimum, and by no means optimal. And this number doesn't account for your unique daily life. Are you always on the go? Are you a man or woman? A weekend warrior? Are you currently cooking another human in your belly? Do you sit all day, and relax after work by laying down? No judgement, but your number will change depending on your lifestyle. If you exercise regularly, bump up your calculation to .5 or .7 grams per lb of body weight. For that same 140 lb woman who now exercises daily (good for her!), she'll now need 70-100 grams of protein per day. It also depends on the type of exercise. Yoga/Pilates peeps might require less (towards the .5g/lb end) while marathon runners and heavy lifters might need the high end (.7g/lb).
Side note: Kids (because they're growing) should get .5g/lb of body weight.
Your body uses protein throughout the day to function, so just like vitamins it's better to space them out than to shove it all in at one time. Try to get 20 to 30 grams at meals, and make up the bonus with snacks if you need to. If you're much more of a "snacker" than a meal person, get 10-15 grams at each snack/small meal. Worried about your workout? If you exercise, make sure one of your protein rich meals or snacks is within 2 hours of your gym trip.