Protein: Part II

Protein seems pretty simple; you need to eat more of it. So you eat more of it. Yet the average person still doesn’t consume anywhere near enough of it to be metabolically healthy. If you think back to Part I (I suggest you read it before you read this if you haven’t yet-but it’s not required), you’ll recall that “awareness” is the most important first step in increasing your protein intake.

The rest of the article outlined the importance of protein, how much of it to consume, why it’ll help you lose body fat, and why it'll keep you healthy and independent as you age. Being aware is great, but it’s only part of the whole. 

An analogy I like is the following: you can read all the books about self improvement you’d like, but if you never take action on what you learn in these books, how will you improve yourself? Likewise, you can be an expert on biomechanics and exercise science, but if you don’t implement this knowledge into your own training, you’ll never get stronger or more muscular (this is pretty common in the social media realm). 

Nutrition (and in this case, protein consumption) is the same.

Part I provided you with some critical knowledge about protein, so for Part II, let’s now shift our focus to a few steps you can take to ensure you have the following tools:

-A basic understanding of amino acids

-Examples of animal and plant protein sources

-How to know what constitutes a “good protein source” 

-How much protein is in a “high protein meal”

-How to ensure you’re consuming enough daily protein

Amino Acids

Disclaimer: This part of the article is intended to inform the reader by providing factual information on amino acids, and to simply compare animal and plant protein sources. It is not to push my beliefs on which diet you should follow and why you should or should not eat meat. My aim is to highlight planning considerations for any diet (way of eating) you choose to adhere to. In short, I’m not bad-mouthing those who choose a plant based lifestyle. 

Before we get into specific, protein-dense foods, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the amino acids, or the building blocks of protein. I touched very briefly on them in part I, but will provide a more in depth explanation in this article without getting too far into the science.

There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential (must come from food), and 11 of which are not essential (your body produces them- but they can be supplemented in specific situations). A complete protein has all 9 essential amino acids (EAAs), and an incomplete protein is lacking in one or more. Animal sources are complete proteins across the board, while most plant sources of protein are incomplete.

Consuming adequate amounts of all 9 EAAs is important not only for muscle growth/maintenance, but also to avoid nutrient deficiencies. This is one of the main reasons why it can be difficult to get enough protein following a vegan/plant based diet. Even if you’re consuming enough total grams of protein, it’s important to ensure you’re getting it from multiple different plant sources. Another difficulty with this diet is that almost all sources of vegan protein have considerable amounts of other macronutrients in them (and therefore, more calories).

Sure, you’ll find higher fat in some sources of animal protein (ribeyes, whole milk, 80/20 beef), but there’s always an option to seek out the lower fat (therefore lower calorie) options. Because of these details, if you do not consume animal products, meticulous learning and planning are required in order to ensure you’re not only eating enough protein, but also not eating too many calories.

If you’re fine with eating animal products, however, this is a non-issue, so long as you’re consuming enough total grams of protein per day. There are other considerations when planning a healthy plant based diet as well, but they do not apply to this article.

To paint this picture more clearly, let’s take a look at one of the best sources of animal protein vs. one of the best sources of plant protein.

 Comparison Analysis

As you’ll learn later, 40-50 grams of protein is a per meal great target for many people. There are few people who couldn’t eat 6-8 Oz of steak in a sitting. Top to it off, 8 oz of steak also has well over 100% of recommended daily intake of all 9 essential aminos.

To acquire 50 grams of protein from lentils (a commonly prescribed plant protein source), you’d need to consume 3 cups of them. I personally would not want to be in the same room as someone who just ate 3 cups of lentils, nor could I imagine myself trying to digest this quantity. 

The main consideration on the chart is the total calories of each food. 8 OZ of top sirloin is only 295 calories for 50 grams of protein, but since lentils have over a 2:1 carb to protein ratio, you’ll need to consume 670 calories in order to get 50 grams of protein from them.

Not to pick on lentils, but even if you were able to force down 3 cups of them (not recommended), you’re still only getting an adequate amount of 8 of the 9 essential amino acids. Lentils are low in both methionine and valine. 

I won’t even get into the micronutrient differences between red meat and a plant protein because I don’t want to add insult to injury.

This to say, it’s far easier to consume not only enough protein overall, but also enough EAAs when you consume animal products. It’s also easier to get adequate amounts of protein from far fewer calories. BUT, it’s also possible to be healthy when eating plant based, it just takes a lot more planning, which most people aren’t willing to do (which is one of the main reasons why 84% of them quit).

Highest Protein Foods

Before we jump into the list, I want to remind you that just because a food has protein in it, doesn’t mean it’s “high protein” or a “good source of protein”. Generally speaking, If a food has more carbs and/or fat in it than protein, it’s not a good source of protein. The only arguable exception is eggs, which contain 7G protein and 7G fat. Eggs also could fall into the fat category or the protein category (I generally classify egg yolks as healthy fats and egg whites as protein-but it’s semantics). Let’s take a look.

What is a “High Protein” Meal?

A common mistake many people make is thinking their meals are high in protein, but in reality, they’re not. If you’ve read part I, you know that your goal for each day should be to consume approximately 1G per pound of bodyweight. 

Depending on how many meals you consume per day, this implies that each one has to contain a certain amount of protein. I commonly hear frustrated people who eat, for example, 2 eggs and some fruit for breakfast and consider it to be “high protein”. There are 14-15 grams of protein in 2 eggs. Unless you’re really small, eating 6-8 meals per day, or eating significantly more protein in your lunch and dinner meals, 15 grams of protein is not enough for one meal. 

How to Hit Your Daily Protein Target

There are a few strategies to ensure you’re getting enough protein per day. They involve a bit of simple math, but are totally worth doing if you know you’re consistently under consuming protein. 

Method #1 (simplest of all, but not for everyone): Take your bodyweight (or if you’re obese, your goal bodyweight or lean body mass if you’ve had a recent dexa scan) and divide it by the number of meals you eat per day (I highly suggest eating the same amount of meals almost every day- this goes for almost everyone). This number is how much protein (in grams) you need to consume at every meal. You can certainly add or subtract 5-10 grams here and there, but that’s the target. 

Example: (150 lbs human who eats 3 meals/day)

Step 1: Total grams of protein divided by meals: 150/3= 50 

Step 2:(+/- 10) = 40-60 grams of protein per meal

Result: 120-180 grams/protein/day (both numbers are adequate because although 1g/lbs bw is the  goal, .7 is adequate)

*note: Ideally, don’t try shoot for the -10G every meal. It’s just allowing for wiggle room.

Method #2 (more advanced/lifestyle based): This method can be utilized by people who practice intermittent fasting or prefer to eat one or some larger meals and also some smaller meals throughout the day (i.e. light breakfast/lunch, large dinner). Again, start with your body weight, but instead of dividing it evenly, divide it into “small meals” and “large meals” to come up with the total protein amount per meal. 

Example: (200 lbs human who eats 3 small meals and 1 large meal/day)

Step 1:calculate a large meal= 80 grams/protein (can be more or less, this is just the example)

Step 2: Subtract it from your total requirement, and you’re left with 120 additional grams of protein spread across 3 smaller meals. 

Step 3: divide your total by the number of meals: 120/3=40

Result: You’ll consume ~40G of protein in the small meals, and ~80G in the larger one totalling ~200G

Final step for both methods: Identify the protein sources you like to consume for breakfast, lunch and dinner (you can mix and match, i.e. eggs+egg whites+cottage cheese).. Utilize a macro tracking app or Google and calculate how much of the protein source you’ll need to equal the appropriate amount of protein for each meal.

Feel free to plan 2-5 breakfasts, lunches and dinners using the tracker, and rotate through each one as you’d like (a very effective strategy for consistency).

There are several more ways to ensure you’re consuming enough protein, but these are the two most techniques in order to get on track. Once you’ve been doing this for 3-6 months, it’s rather easy to keep a rough tally in your head of how much protein you’ve consumed each day.

Have a Backup Plan

Another consideration is to have a backup for days you know you’ve come up short. We all have them, it’s part of life. If you know you need 20-40 more grams of protein on a given day and you’ve finished your meals, consider having the ability to top it off with a protein shake, cottage cheese, or Greek yogurt (or whatever you prefer).

The only time I recommend against this strategy is when doing so would result in going over your calories for the day (assuming your goal is to lose weight). This is when you should relook your choices throughout the day and manipulate macros to ensure you’re prioritizing the right foods. 

To Summarize

Part I was an overview of why awareness is so important, why to prioritize protein, and how much per day to aim for. Part II highlighted what constitutes high protein, examples of good protein sources, and finally, some simple methods to ensure you’re eating enough each day.

This should give you all the understanding and tools required in order to start taking control of your health. Consuming more protein is one of the very best first steps one can take in a weight loss or health improvement journey.

Thank you for reading! Let me know if I missed anything important in regards to protein in the comments below.

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