To me, protein feels a lot like the forgotten middle child of the 3 macronutrients.
Typically, fats and carbohydrates get all of the attention. And all of the debating about which is better or worse. All of this debating leaves poor little protein out in the cold, scratching at the window looking for some love.
Today, let’s give protein some love in this Simple Guide To Eating Protein.
In this Simple Guide To Eating Protein, you’re going to discover:
1. Why Is Protein So Important?
2. How Does Protein Help You Lose Weight (and more importantly, lose fat)?
3. How Does Protein Help You Get Stronger?
4. How Much Protein Should I Eat?
5. Where Do I Find Protein In Food?
6. But I Don’t Eat Meat, Where Can I Get Protein?
7. What About Protein Powder Supplements?
8. What’s The Best Time Of Day To Eat Protein?
That’s a lot of stuff, so let’s jump right in…
Why Is Protein So Important?
Alright, before we dig into this let’s get a little bit of science out the way:
Proteins are organic molecules made of various amino acids. These amino acids are literally the building blocks of life and are involved in most functions of your body. So, yeah, they’re a pretty big deal.
When you think of “protein” you probably think of building muscle, and you’d be correct. Protein is absolutely used by our bodies to build muscle.
However, that’s far from the only function of protein.
We use proteins to build and repair all of the tissues in our body. Everything from our hair, bones and skin, all the way down to building hormones and enzymes.
As we’ve talked about in “The Magical Benefits Of Protein For Weight Loss”, protein-rich foods can help us lose weight and keep it off.
Then on the flip side as we’ve already mentioned, protein can also help us get stronger and build muscle.
As you can see, protein is more like a Swiss Army Knife of macronutrients than a forgotten middle child. The functions and benefits of protein are almost endless.
How Does Protein Help You Lose Weight?
We’ve discussed this pretty thoroughly in “The Magical Benefits Of Protein For Weight Loss”, but we’ll hit the main points for you here.
Basically, protein helps us lose weight (and keep it off) in 3 ways:
- Muscle Synthesis – building of the muscles
- Satiety – keeping us feeling full and satisfied after meals
- Thermic Effect – burning calories through digestion
Protein & Muscle Synthesis
Muscle is very metabolically active. This means it actually burns calories just sitting on our bodies. That’s a pretty cool trick!
Some studies have shown that we burn an additional 20-50 calories per 10 lbs of muscle tissue.
To illustrate this, let’s take an example of two women, Linda & Karen, who both have the same body weight of 150 lbs.
A Tale Of Two Bodies
Linda has been strength training and eating healthy for years and has maintained a 23% body fat percentage. Therefore, Linda has 34.5 lbs of body fat and 115.5 lbs of everything else, including muscle tissue.
Karen on the other hand, has struggled with her weight for her entire life. She goes for walks but has never done any strength training. She is walking around at 35% body fat. Therefore Karen has 52.5 lbs of body fat and 97.5 lbs of everything else, including muscle tissue.
At the exact same weight, Karen is carrying an extra 18 lbs of body fat and Linda is carrying an extra 18 lbs of other tissue, including muscle.
Even if only 10-15 lbs of that “other tissue” is pure muscle, that still gives Linda an additional calorie burn of 20-80 calories/day, even when she’s sitting on the couch watching her favourite Netflix series.
An extra 20-80 calories/day may not seem like a lot, but when you take that over the course of months and years it really adds up.
Every month Linda is potentially burning up to an additional 2426 calories! That’s an entire day (or more) of healthy eating for the average person.
That could be the difference between gaining 10 lbs per year like most people or maintaining a strong, healthy body.
Needless to say, that time spent in the gym getting stronger and keeping your protein intake up is crucial for sustainable weight loss.
Effects Of Protein On Appetite
Satiety is just a fancy word for “satisfied after your meal”.
Another benefit of protein-rich foods is they tend to have a more satiating effect. This means you’ll feel more full and satisfied after your meals, leaving you less likely to overeat.
One reason for this may be the fact that protein-rich foods like beef and fish also come with tag-along dietary fats. But the fact remains that people who eat higher amounts of protein-rich foods tend not to overeat as much.
By focusing on getting plenty of meat, fish, eggs (and of course vegetables) in your diet, you’ll end up feeling more satisfied after your meals and less likely to succumb to cravings later on – if they come up at all.
Thermic Effect Of Food
If you’re a little rusty on your physics, let’s take a quick dive into some thermodynamics.
When we digest food it takes energy to break it all down. Energy comes in the form of calories. So, digesting our food actually burns calories. This is called the thermic effect of food.
But some foods are harder to break down than others. A cupcake doesn’t take much to break down, but a beautiful ribeye steak is another story.
Protein has the highest thermic effect, and it’s not even close.
Up to 30% of the calories from protein are burned simply breaking it down. Carbohydrates and fats come in way behind at 8% and 3% respectively.
That’s a big difference.
Let’s take a look at the example we used in “The Magical Benefits Of Protein For Weight Loss”.
How To Lose Weight Without Eating Less (Warning: calculations ahead…)
For a typical 100 grams of chicken breast there may be approximately 30 grams of protein.
At 4 calories/gram of protein, that means the protein in the chicken breast is approximately 120 calories of energy.
Of those 120 calories, digestion is going to require 40 calories (30%), leaving us with 80 calories.
Now, let’s look at 30 grams of carbohydrates – say, in a bowl of oatmeal.
At 4 calories/gram of carbohydrate, that means the carbohydrate in the oatmeal is 120 calories of energy.
Of those 120 calories, digestion is only going to require approximately 10 calories (8%), leaving us with 110 calories.
The same number of calories (120) going IN, but when you choose the chicken breast over the oats you’re at a 30 calorie deficit!
As you can imagine, when we look at this over the course of an entire day, week or month of meals, the macronutrient make up of your diet is going to play a significant role in how many calories you’re burning compared to how many calories you’re consuming.
Even if you keep your daily calories the same, but you replace the bread in your sandwich for a little bit more grilled chicken breast, you’d actually be closer to that calorie deficit you need to lose weight. Without actually feeling like you’re in a calorie deficit.
As you can see, if you’re trying to lose weight, focusing on protein-rich foods is going to make that process a lot easier. And a lot more sustainable.
But what if you’re not trying to lose weight? Well that’s awesome too, because you’re really going to enjoy this next section…
How Does Protein Help You Get Stronger
Alright so maybe you don’t necessarily want to lose weight, but you should definitely want to get stronger.
Developing a strong body is crucial for long-term overall health.
More strength lowers your risk of almost every chronic, age-related disease or health condition you can think of – chronic pain, bone breaks from falls, low back pain, Alzheimers, dementia. Everything.
Maybe you’re not so concerned with getting older quite yet (although you should be), developing more strength makes every activity in your life easier. It also makes you a much more independent person, less reliant on the help of others for physical tasks.
Either way, strength is important for overall health and building muscle is the way to get it.
So, how do we build muscle?
First off all, in order to build muscle we need to lift some weights.
Now, “weights” can really be anything that applies resistance to your muscles – dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, resistance bands or even your own bodyweight.
On top of that, we need to supply our body with the right nutrients it needs in order to build muscle. And the number one nutrient for building strong muscle is…
Yup, you guessed it – PROTEIN!
As we’ve already discussed in the “muscle synthesis” section above, protein (specifically, amino acids) are the building blocks of muscle.
When we lift weights we’re actually creating very small, micro-tears in our muscle tissue. Our body then repairs the muscle tissue through muscle synthesis using those fancy little amino acid building blocks. When this happens, our body overcompensates and makes the muscle tissue stronger as a way to defend against future stress.
When we repeat this process over and over and over again, applying increasing amounts of resistance over time, we develop stronger muscle tissue.
It’s quite the marvelous process that wouldn’t be capable without adequate protein in our diet.
To recap, here’s a little muscle building cheatsheet:
How To Get Stronger In 3 Simple Steps
STEP 1: Lift heavy stuff
STEP 2: Eat plenty of high quality protein-rich foods like meat, fish and eggs
STEP 3: Sleep; most of this process happens during sleep
Now that you know how protein helps you lose weight and get stronger, you’re probably wondering how much protein you should be eating.
That’s a very good question, which brings us to…
How Much Protein Should I Eat?
This really depends on you and your body, but I’ll try to keep this as simple as possible for you.
There are essentially 2 ways to look at measuring how much protein you’re eating:
- Doing calculations and weighing your food
- Using the BP Hand Method
With our Blue Phoenix Coaching clients we typically don’t jump into calculations and weighing your food until Level 2 & 3, but to give you an idea, we’re going to start there today.
In terms of actual amounts, most people would do very well aiming for 0.8 grams of protein/pound of bodyweight.
So if you weigh 180 lbs, you’d aim for 144 grams of protein/day.
180 (your bodyweight) x 0.8 grams = 144 grams
If 100 grams of chicken breast contains approximately 30 grams of protein, that would be roughly 400 grams of chicken breast per day.
Since numbers and weighing your food can be confusing and overwhelming for most people just wanting to eat a little bit better, let’s go over the “BP Hand Method”.
The “BP Hand Method” For Measuring Protein
The hand method has been around for a long time and really helps to simplify the process of portion control.
When a new BP Coaching client starts with us, this is always where we start. Until you’re able to consistently eat using the BP Hand Method there’s no need to get into the added hassle of weighing your food.
We’ve found that most people are quite happy with the results they get simply by using the BP Hand Method and never need to get into weighing their food.
The best part about this method is that it’s extremely simple and very sustainable.
So, here’s what I want you to do:
STEP 1: Open your hand and look at it, palm facing up
STEP 2: That’s it, you’re done
For protein, we’re going to use the palm of your hand as our portion size guide. Pretty easy, right?
1 serving of protein = 1 “palm”
We want to aim for a serving size of protein-rich foods to be the size of the palm of your hand. Then, each day you’re going to aim for 1-2 “palm” sized servings of protein with all of your meals, or 3-6 “palms” per day.
If you’re a bigger person who is very active, you’ll aim for the higher end of 6 “palms”/day.
If you’re a smaller person, you might aim for the lower end of 3 “palms”/day.
Other variables to consider when choosing how many “palms” you need might be:
- Your current goals
- Your body size, composition or caloric needs
- How active you are
- Your eating preferences
- How frequently you eat
- Your appetite or satiety levels
- Your progress
These are all things we help our Blue Phoenix Coaching clients with. So if you’d like a little bit more help figuring this out for yourself, I highly recommend checking out the Blue Phoenix Fitness Coaching Experience.
So, now that you know why protein is so important and how much you should be eating, you’re probably wondering where you’re going to get all of this protein?
After all, you can’t just go to the grocery store and look for the “protein” aisle.
To answer that, let’s take a look at…
Where Do I Find Protein In Food?
This is a fantastic question, and I’m glad you asked. Obviously, we can’t simply head into our local grocery store and pick up a pound of “protein”.
Fortunately, there is a very simple method to find the absolute best, highest-quality protein sources – animals.
Foods like beef, chicken, turkey and fish are among the highest quality, complete protein sources we could hope for. And as a bonus, they also carry an enormous amount of other nutrients like healthy fats and zoonutrients (nutrients found only in animal tissue).
To help get you started, here are some common animal-based protein sources you’d find at most grocery stores:
- Ground beef (preferably grass-fed)
- Any cut of steak (ribeye, sirloin, T-bone etc.)
- Any cut of beef roast
- Bison, elk, deer
- Pork ribs, pork chops
- Ground pork
- Wild caught salmon, tuna, halibut etc.
- Lobster, crab, shrimp, other seafood
- Chicken thigh, breast, leg
- Ground chicken
- Turkey breast, thigh, leg
- Ground turkey
- Eggs (preferably free-range)
Animal-based foods like those should make up the majority of your 3-6 “palms” per day of high quality protein. These will give you the biggest bang for your nutritional buck, as they are complete protein sources and are best utilized by our human bodies.
But Cam, I love animals and I don’t eat meat! What do I do??
I love animals too, but my first suggestion would be to reconsider your reasons for not eating meat.
If you’re avoiding meat because you believe it’s healthier, I’m very sorry, but you’re wrong. Avoiding meat is not necessarily healthier and for many people could lead to worse health issues over time due to nutritional deficiencies, digestive issues or even allergies.
In this situation, my recommendation would be to opt for higher quality, sustainably raised meat, fish and eggs such as grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish and free-range eggs. If possible, find a local farmer and purchase your meat from them.
If you’re avoiding meat avoiding meat because you just can’t stand the thought of an animal dying, or for religious reasons, then I can’t argue with that.
For those that are completely set on a vegetarian or vegan diet, I’ll always do my absolute best to help you eat that way in the healthiest, most awesome way possible.
So, for you, let’s dive into…
The Most Awesome Plant-Based Protein Sources
For those that are set on eating a vegetarian or vegan diet, there are a few things to keep in mind.
Going into the details of plant-based diets is beyond the scope of this article, so let’s keep it nice and simple.
Plant proteins are not “complete” proteins like animal proteins are. This means plant proteins are missing various amino acids, depending on which plant the protein is coming from.
For this reason, you’ll need to eat a variety of plant protein sources to ensure you’re getting all of the amino acids your body needs. You’ll also want to ensure you’re eating at least 1 cup of cooked legumes – chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, tempeh or edamame. Legumes tend to be high lysine, an amino acid that’s harder to find in most plants.
Here are some suggestions for foods you’ll want to incorporate into your diet:
- Lentils (French, red, black, green, brown)
- Beans (Navy, lima, kidney, black, garbanzo, etc)
- Split peas
- Black eyed peas
Keep in mind, these types of foods only count as your protein source if another better quality protein source (i.e. animal-based protein sources) are not present. If you’re eating meat, fish or eggs then these foods would count as your carbohydrate source.
Some people do find they have digestive issues when eating higher amounts of legumes. If you find that you’re getting a lot of bloating or other digestive stress, be aware of that and adjust your diet as needed.
Another option would be to find a really good, high-quality vegan protein powder. Some of them don’t even taste awful… 🙂
If you’re not completely against the idea, I would highly recommend at least eating a couple eggs or some wild caught fish a couple times per week. This would make it infinitely easier to avoid deficiencies.
What About Protein Powder Supplements?
Years ago, protein powder supplements were reserved for only the hardest of hardcore meatheads in the gym.
Today, my grandma and grandpa have an account at the local supplement store where they pick up their protein powder.
Protein powder supplements have come a long way over the years. There are plenty of high-quality options that even taste great mixed with just water.
Do some research and find a brand you trust. Here are a few things to look for:
- No added sugar (ideally less than 4 grams/serving)
- No artificial sweeteners (sucralose, aspartame etc.)
- Stevia as a sweetener tends to be O.K.
- At least 24 grams protein/serving
- Whey Protein Isolate is ideal, but not a must (whey protein is animal-based)
When you get a good quality protein powder, there are no negative effects. Think of protein powders as a more efficient and convenient way to make sure you’re getting enough protein.
The majority of your protein should still be coming from whole foods, but there’s also nothing wrong with using a protein powder either.
What’s The Best Time To Have Protein?
Short answer – there isn’t a best time.
Long answer – we’ll save that for another article.
As long as you’re following the “How Much Protein” guidelines above, you’re good to go. Don’t stress about the perfect timing.
One time it may be more beneficial would be post-workout. If you’ve just completed a hard strength training session (good job!) and you won’t be eating for a while, it would be a really good idea to have a protein shake handy.
Getting high quality protein within 1-2 hours of your strength training workout does wonders for that muscle synthesis we discussed earlier.
Aside from that, just follow the guidelines above and you’re all set.
Ready To Kick Things Up A Notch?
This Simple Guide has no doubt given you plenty of tools and strategies to begin eating healthy and living your most awesome life!
But if you’re wanting to go a bit further or you’re looking for some extra personalized help, I have 2 options for you…
If you want step-by-step, personalized guidance on exactly what you need to do to reach your fitness or weight loss goals…
- Customized workout program
- Specific lifestyle-based nutrition plan
- 100% access to your personal coach at all times
Then you’ll want to apply for our awesome 1-1 Blue Phoenix Fitness Online Coaching Experience
Looking for some workouts you can do at home with no-equipment and limited time?
Drop by and and say hello
Stay strong and live awesome, my friend.