Putting the “Pro” in Protein
The straight dope on everyone's favorite macronutrient--and how to consume it for best results.
The Upshot, Upfront:
You get protein from animal products—but also legumes, grains, seeds, nuts, and other veggies.
Consume at least 20g of protein, four to five times a day, adjusting for your size and how intensely you work out.
Nobody denies that the raw-egg-quaffing scene from the 1976 boxing classic Rocky was a star-making turn—for protein. From that moment on, consuming this macronutrient became humankind’s perceived key to athletic excellence. That, running up museum steps, and punching meat.
Is protein really that important, though? The answer is yes, but there’s a smarter way to consume it than climbing out of bed every morning and obliviously risking a salmonella infection. Let’s learn how.
We are all made of
Sure, you have some fat and carbs floating around under your skin offering structure and energy, but for the most part, you’re a walking bag of protein. Muscles, bones, skin, internal organs, and enzymes—and much more—are all protein.
Said protein, including your muscles, perpetually breaks down. This is called catabolism. Then it rebuilds. This is called anabolism. Put them together and you have protein metabolism. The reason we need to consume protein is to help us rebuild during anabolic stages.
But it’s not like you eat an egg and then it travels intact to where you need it—although that would be pretty cool because we’d all look like a jumble of meat, eggs, dairy, veggies, seeds, nuts, legumes, and grains.
(For what it’s worth, this Sesame Street segment tormented me as a child, which explains a lot of things, including my profession.) Regardless, the protein you eat is broken down and rebuilt into building blocks called amino acids.
Amino acids and how to get ‘em.
For your body to function at its best, it needs 20 different amino acids. 11 of those your body can synthesize. The other nine—known as essential amino acids (EAAs)—come from your diet. EAAs include branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). Any food that contains all nine EAAs in adequate levels is called a "complete protein." Complete proteins are important because amino acids work as a team. If you're low on one EAA, the rest of them can't do their jobs at an optimal level. This is called a “limiting amino acid.”
The easiest way to make sure you’re getting complete proteins—and some of you might not like this—is to eat animal products: meat (including fish), eggs, and dairy. Just like us, animals are made of protein, including the right levels of the nine essentials.
But we can also get plenty of protein from plant sources. Soy products, pea protein powder, pistachios, quinoa, and chickpeas all either contain complete protein or come relatively close. But instead of stressing about a specific source, I recommend satisfying your EAA needs by eating a variety of veggies, legumes, and grains. In fact, legumes and grains combine to make a complete protein. This is why so many cultures lean into the rice and beans combo. (For the record, you don't need to eat them together. Just get them each at some point during the day.)
Nuts and seeds also contain decent protein, although they contain more fat so, as healthy as they are, they shouldn’t be your primary source.
Do you pee out excess protein?
Unlike carbs and fat, the body doesn’t store much protein. We are not protein camels. We store a tiny bit in our muscles, but otherwise, whatever we consume is either utilized or converted to energy. Excess amino acids are not turned into bonus muscle, nor are they "peed out." If you eat more protein than you need, it's converted into an energy source—either glucose or adipose tissue (fat).
That said, in order to convert protein to glucose, it goes through a process called deamination, which produces ammonia, which is toxic to our cells, so it's converted to a substance called urea and excreted through urine. We don't pee out excess protein, just its stinky byproduct.
How much protein do you need?
The amount recommended serving varies depending on a few factors, but it’s typically somewhere between 20g and 40g. The chart below splits the middle at 30g.
As for a daily goal, if you’re active and you'd like to customize your protein intake to meet your specific needs, aim for .5 to .9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight depending on activity level. The more you exercise, the more muscle you break down, so the more protein you need to maintain and rebuild that muscle.
Keep in mind that you’ll see different numbers on the internet. Some of this has to do with evolving research, but it’s mostly because the original recommendations are in metric, which Americans often screw up. Both my wife and my dad are French, so the numbers provided above should be accurate, alors!
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most of us get all the protein we need. So, especially considering you’re an athlete who wants make the most of your nutrition, a better question to ask is…
When should you eat protein?
Remembering that we’re not protein camels, it’s important to eat protein throughout your day to make sure you have a supply of amino acids on hand for each anabolic wave.
We used to think post-exercise protein ingestion needed to happen within 30 minutes of a workout. Now we believe it’s more about feeding at regular intervals. With this in mind, you don’t need a fast-absorbing protein like whey (which comes from dairy) immediately following exercise, but it’s still an effective strategy so that you get those EAAs ASAP to help with recovery—and, well, it tastes good. If you’re not into animal hostilities, try pea protein powder, which also absorbs fairly quickly.
Before bed, casein protein powder is ideal because it’s slow-absorbing, so it acts like an amino acid slow-drip through the night. Considering casein also comes from dairy, if you’d prefer a whole food solution, yogurt works great.
My super-simple recommendation.
If you don’t want to do a bunch of Nutri Fu©, here’s a basic recommendation that should work for most people. Consume at least 20g of protein (30g would be ideal), four to five times a day, adjusting for your size and how intensely you work out. An ideal plan would be breakfast, lunch, and dinner, post-workout, and before bed. Bonus points if there’s protein in your snacks.
Following this protocol should help you fully recover so that you can train harder and take on the reigning champ—no meat punching required. (Unless that’s your thing.)