Everything You Need To Know (But Were Afraid To Ask) About Protein

about protein

There are tons of think-pieces out there about how Americans don’t get enough protein, or maybe they get too much. You’ve probably heard vaguely threatening advice about gains and cultivating mass and how to up your protein intake and whatnot. There are powders and pre-made shakes and bars. You’ve probably even seen people walking around with shakers full of chocolate protein shakes.

But what’s the actual deal with protein? We talked to Tali Sedgwick, a registered dietitian and the brains behind Food NE/RD, a San Francisco-based nutrition counseling center that focuses on individualized health plans, about all things protein.

What’s the deal with protein? How much do I need?

“Your muscles are made of protein,” says Sedgwick. “So whether you’re sedentary or an endurance athlete, you need it to function.”

But there’s a golden zone of protein intake–not too much and not too little.

For a sedentary individual, Sedgwick recommends .8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. (One kilogram is roughly 2.2 pounds.) So a sedentary 160 pound man would want to take in about 58 grams of protein per day. Sedgwick says .8 grams per kilogram of body weight meets the body’s very basic needs.

For a recreational athlete–which Sedgwick defines as someone who works out for half an hour 4 to 5 times a week, or about 150 minutes–the goal is about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day. A 160 pound man who has a moderate exercise regimen would want to take in about 72 grams of protein per day.

For an endurance athlete–working out for 45-60 minutes 4 or 5 times a week–the goal is about 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. A 160 pound man who is an endurance athlete would want to take in 87 grams of protein per day.

Timing Is Everything

The timing of your protein intake largely depends on your own needs as an individual, but the general recommendation is to eat every 3 to 5 hours.

Sedgwick says to avoid protein-loading at all costs. “Your body has a threshold where it becomes saturated at a certain point, so if you take in all your protein at once, you won’t absorb as much as you would if you staggered your intake.” Sedgwick says protein-loading can also aggravate digestion problems if you protein-load too often or ingest too much protein at once.

In order to avoid protein-loading and stick with the every 3 to 5 hours rule, Sedgwick suggests snacking. The general amount of protein in a snack should be around 15 grams.

Getting in protein before exercising largely depends on an individual’s digestive system and the intensity of the impending workout.

As for when you should eat protein after exercise? Well, that depends. It’s undoubtedly important to replenish your muscles, especially after an intense workout. After exercise, Sedgwick says, most research supports repleting within a 30 minute to two hour window. There are some studies that show that you can replenish your muscles within 24 hours of working out, but Sedgwick says the overwhelming majority of research shows that up to two hours afterward is the way to go.

When In Doubt, Go For Solid Food

“Shakes can’t replace food,” Sedgwick says. “Beverages don’t trigger satiety as much as food does.”

Snacking on solid, wholesome food is the way to go. One of her favorite high-protein suggestions is a turkey and cheese roll-up: pick up a nitrate-free turkey and low-fat cheese so you get all the nutrition and flavor without as many calories. If that doesn’t strike your fancy or you’re looking for other snack ideas, we talked to Sedgwick about healthy, filling snacks back in February.

Soy and Casein and Whey, Oh My

If you’re still having trouble taking in enough protein in your food, then shakes are a good way to fill those gaps. For instance, if you have trouble eating breakfast in the morning, a shake is better than just eating, say, an apple, which will leave you feeling hungry and more likely to overeat later in the day. Sedgwick stresses that you shouldn’t become over-reliant on shakes, but that if you’re going to use shakes as supplements, you can do it in a smart way.

When you walk into a GNC or, hell, down the health-food aisle at the grocery store, the number of protein powders can be overwhelming. The three best and most frequently used protein powders are whey, casein, and soy (though that’s not to say that you couldn’t indulge in hemp protein if you wanted). Here’s a quick primer on the three biggies:

Whey is a milk-based protein. “It’s fast-absorbing, and it’s generally easy on the digestion.” Because of its quick absorption, it can aid in muscle gain, and it is, according to Sedgwick, the golden standard of protein.

That’s not to say, however, that casein and soy are worthless–not even close.

Casein, the other protein that comes from milk, is slower to digest. Though the slow-digesting protein is not great for a post-workout replenishment shake, it’s a great protein for a bedtime shake. 

Soy protein, extracted from the soybean, has been much-derided over the years, the subject of rumors that it increases estrogen and decreases testosterone production in men. But that’s not the case–the phytoestrogens in soy have a negligible effect on hormone levels in men and boys. And in fact, soy, which is fast-absorbing, is a good alternative to whey if you’re lactose intolerant or a vegetarian. Bonus? Soy contains all nine amino acids and can be used as a supplement to whey to optimize muscle growth.

Make Your Own

If you’re going to supplement your protein intake, do it smartly. While pre-made shakes and bars are okay in a pinch, Sedgwick stresses that you should make your own whenever possible.

“There’s possibly stuff in those bars and pre-made shakes that you don’t want in your body,” Sedgwick says.

While mixing your powder of choice with water is all right, Sedgwick says there’s evidence that mixing protein with carbohydrates increases absorption. (Not to mention that protein powder and water is an unpleasant, chalky experience no man or woman should ever have to go through.)

The Manual came up with two recipes for effective (and delicious) protein shakes.

The Tropical Vacation

1 scoop vanilla soy protein powder (we prefer NOW Soy Protein Isolate
1 banana
1 ½ cups coconut water
1 tbsp greek yogurt

The Nutty Professor

1 scoop chocolate whey protein powder (we prefer Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Gold Standard
2 tbsp sliced almonds
1 ½ cups almond milk
1 tbsp peanut butter

As always, if you’re going to start a new diet or exercise regimen, consult your doctor and/or a registered dietitian.

Header image courtesy of Victor Casale via Creative Commons.