There are all sorts of articles out there ranting about how the average American’s diet is insufficient in protein. Others claim many of us get too much. (And some of us must be doing it juuuuuust right.) We know protein is essential to the human diet, especially for anyone who exercises regularly and wants to build muscle, but that leaves us with questions about exactly how much we need and where we should get it from. In the world of protein powders, bars, shakes, and steaks, what’s the ideal protein intake?
To find out, 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.
How Much Protein 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 an optimal amount of protein intake — not too much and not too little.
- For a sedentary individual, Sedgwick recommends 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, which meets a person’s very basic needs. Since 1 kilogram is roughly 2.2 pounds, a sedentary, 160-pound man would want to take in about 58 grams of protein per day.
- A recreational athlete, which Sedgwick defines as someone who works out for a half-hour four to five times a week, needs about 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day. A 160-pound man who has a moderate exercise regimen would want to ingest about 72 grams of protein per day.
- For an endurance athlete, you need to be working out for 45 to 60 minutes four or five times a week — the goal is about 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. A 160-pound man with this kind of exercise routine should aim for 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 consume protein every three to five hours. Sedgwick warns against 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,” she says.
Protein-loading can also aggravate digestion problems if you ingest too much at once. In order to avoid these issues, Sedgwick suggests snacking; each snack should be around 15 grams of protein.
What about post-workout? It’s undoubtedly important to replenish your muscles, especially following an intense session. There are some studies that show that you can refuel within 24 hours of exercise, but Sedgwick says that the overwhelming majority of research supports repleting within a 30-minute to two-hour window after a workout.
Best Ways to Get That Protein
So now you know about how many grams of protein you need each day, and you know how to break down the quantity of protein you should ingest in a given period of time. But how exactly are you going to get those grams inside your body? Many athletes and trainers will argue that the best way is to stick with simple, solid foods. I once met an ultra-marathon runner who always brought cooked chicken along with him as his protein replenishing energy food; he snacked on the stuff mid-stride, in fact.
But beyond eating a meat entree, there are lots of great ways to get your protein going on, the simplest of which is:
The market is glutted with protein powders, and lots of them make lots of claims that are hard to substantiate. But having used and been satisfied with several brands myself, I’ll go ahead and recommend a few that are worth trying out.
Following a hard workout, your body needs a good dose of protein to restore, rebuild, and build up tired muscles. But you also need to replenish the sodium, potassium, magnesium, and other essentials you burned through while going hard. This powered shakes up into a drink providing 10 grams of protein and lots of rehydrating and restorative nutrients that will have you feeling better in the short term and potentially performing better over time. Also, they taste pretty good.
Revere makes two different post-workout protein powders, one intended for use after cardio sessions, the other for use after strength training. The primary difference between the two powders is protein concentration, with the former offering 15 grams while the latter packs a hefty 24 grams. The Cardio powder has a 4:3 ratio of protein to carbs, as you will have burned a lot of carbs during your long run, ride, or sports match, while the Strength powder has a lower 2:1 ratio, as you need to focus more on repairing and growing those muscles of yours after an anaerobic workout.
If you have ever dabbled in protein powders, you have probably already heard of or even used this brand. And with good reason: It’s highly effective, trusted by thousands, and when you buy in enough bulk, pretty well priced. Also, it delivers a hearty 24 grams of protein per serving. Oh, and it comes in a mind-boggling 20 different flavors, so you can probably find a variety that actually tastes good to you. Strawberry banana, perhaps, or white chocolate?
Using industrial hemp oil extract from leftover hemp stalks and stems, WillPower’s ReGen protein powder contains active cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical found in marijuana that reduces inflammation, soreness, and pain (all without getting you stoned). Combining that with 20g of grass-fed whey protein, 20 mg cannabinoids, and 6 g BCAA’s, ReGen meets half your daily protein intake requirements all while helping you to recover faster. It also comes in two pretty tasty flavors: vanilla and cinnamon cocoa.
If you hear “collagen” and think of a desperate housewife’s overstuffed kisser, it’s time to join the 21st century. Collagen peptides were one of 2018’s hottest health supplements, thanks to offering three key amino acids that no other protein supplement (plant- or animal-based) can provide. Along with delivering the sustained muscle-building energy you’re after, collagen is believed to reduce cellulite, ease joint pain, and even help regulate your metabolism. Collagen is also naturally more anti-inflammatory than whey protein — it actually soothes and repairs your gut. If other protein supplements leave your stomach feeling like a lead balloon, collagen peptides could be the answer. We love Vital Proteins organic whey protein with collagen peptides, which, along with a whopping 25g protein per serving, is made from a variety of responsibly farmed animal sources and provides a rich, creamy texture to beverages both hot and cold without adding any weird aftertaste.
Speaking of gut repair and hot health trends, meet fermented protein! As wack as it might sound, fermenting breaks down the protein molecules before you consume them, making them much easier for your body to absorb as well as digest. Plant-based proteins in particular contain phytates and lignans, two anti-nutrients that protect the plant (thanks, evolution!) but can really do a number on your digestive system. Fermentation removes those anti-nutrients, leaving the pure, high-vibe plant nutrition behind. Genuine Health creates their vegan protein supplements out of a mix of super grains, legumes, grass-fed dairy and spirulina, adding beneficial bacteria and enzymes, then drying the mix into a powder. With 20g of protein per serving, this protein supplement will not only leave you feeling great, but elevate your gym status to trendsetter.
Forget everything you think you know about chalky post-workout drinks with weird aftertastes thinly masked by an overload of artificial sweetener. Today’s drinkable protein supplements are smooth, tasty and a great way to meet your nutritional needs while preserving the lightness of being you worked so hard to achieve.
For those moments when you want less than a meal but more than a snack, this 12-ounce blend of plant-based protein, slow-burning carbs, essential vitamins, and minerals is the perfect “in-betweener.” With 55 percent fewer calories than Soylent’s other beverages, just 3 grams of sugar and 10 grams total carbohydrates, it’s a sweet, satisfying reward that keeps you going.
While most famous for their medicinal elixirs, Rebbl is making a name for itself these days with equally high-vibe protein drinks. A base of coconut water and plant-based protein (from peas, sunflower seeds and pumpkin) is pumped up with brazil nuts, sweetened with organic dates, and kissed with a variety of magical super-herbs like maca, reishi and ashwagandha for a protein dose that’s both mouthwatering and body-harmonizing.
Because consuming protein within two hours after a workout reaps the replenishing benefits your muscles need, it’s not illogical to plan for your afternoon workout to be supplemented by your evening meal. That’s why I’m a big fan of protein-rich pasta — you’re going to eat dinner anyway, right? So why not make the meal a part of your fitness regimen as opposed to making it a calorie counting, potentially guilt-inducing affair? The secret is to substitute ingredients such that you don’t feel like you’re compromising on taste.
Banza pastas are made almost entirely out of chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans), and as such this stuff packs in almost twice the protein content of your average pasta made from grain. A single dry 2-ounce serving delivers an impressive 14 grams of protein, and you’re almost surely going to eat more than two ounces of the stuff per meal. Just make sure not to overcook the stuff or it gets a bit gummy.
I’m not going to pretend this brand’s noodles — which are offered in edamame, soybean, and black bean varieties — cook up just like classic spaghetti, but I will tell you the stuff has three times the protein content. Rather than serving these “pasta” with a marinara sauce, I recommend using them in stir-fry type meals that will complement the flavors and feel of these wheat alternatives, rather than trying to pretend they are regular ol’ spaghetti noodles.
If the marketplace is crammed with protein powders, then it is overrun with protein and energy bars. You probably already have your favorites, and I hope you’re quite happy with them. There is one protein bar I tried for the first time just last week and that has become my new go-to and in which I believe strongly enough that I’m recommending it to you. It is the:
These bars have 20 grams of protein and just one gram of sugar. They deliver 210 calories and a hefty dose of calcium and phosphorous. And they taste amazing and go down surprisingly easily given that concentration of protein. I have taken to eating a ONE Basix bar while actively running, usually taking a bite about once a mile on my current seven-mile route. And with this arrangement, I never feel like I’m running out of gas and I have yet to cramp up while digesting on the go. And with flavors like Cookie Dough Chocolate Chunk and Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk, I have yet to tire of their taste, either.
We’ve all been in that predicament — you don’t want to negate the effects of the killer workout you just crushed, but you’re also jonesing for a sweet reward. Atlas Bar puts an end to that problem with high-protein, low-sugar, real-food bars that ring all the right sweet bells while serving up 16 grams of protein per bar. With a minimalist lineup of ingredients that includes grass-fed whey, almond butter, and pink salt, these bars are the most genuine post-workout nutrition you’ll find anywhere.
If your protein bar preferences lean toward the plant-based, you’ve probably tried more than a few — rice protein, hemp protein, pea protein, etc. Aloha protein bars offers a deft combination of these bases, along with other tasty additions like pumpkin seed protein, cashew and sunflower butter, monk fruit extract and even pink sea salt. Don’t let the pretty packaging fool you — Aloha delivers 14g of protein per serving, along with a hefty side of fiber. (Which we all need after protein-loading, though nobody wants to talk about it.) With no artificial flavors (or even the off-putting natural kind, like stevia), Aloha is a delicious, healthy boost to any post-workout smoothie, and plays great in homemade energy bars, granola and chia pudding.
And if you’re not into ‘protein’ bars, there’s always old-school jerky to get your meat fix.
Article updated on March 11, 2019, by Chelsea Batten.
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