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.
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 two-ounce serving delivers an impressive 14g 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 20g 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.
DNX bars aren’t your average protein bar. Keto friendly, Whole30-approved, and sourced from 100-percent grass-fed beef, grass-fed bison, and free-range chicken, DNX Bars combine the aforementioned meat with nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables to provide not only 14 grams of protein (for most bars), but also come in under 10g of carbs. They also come in interesting and unique flavors not found elsewhere like Jamaican style beef, Peri Peri style chicken, fennel sweet potato, and more.
And if you’re not into ‘protein’ bars, there’s always old-school jerky to get your meat fix.
Article originally published by Lisa Dunn on April 7, 2016. Last updated by Steven John on June 18, 2018.