Protein: The "Magical Macro"

Protein, Part I

Fitness fanatics and high level athletes aside, most people struggle to consume enough daily protein. There are a few reasons for this, but it all starts with awareness; knowing why protein is important, being informed on how much protein you need, and finally, how much protein is in certain foods and what constitutes “high protein”.

Once you’re aware, it then becomes necessary to plan and track. I don’t think everyone needs to track every single macronutrient (protein, fats, carbs)  they consume, but at minimum, tracking grams of protein per day can be a great first step. This article will provide some facts about protein, along with why it’s important to maintain health and increase longevity.

In part II, I’ll include a breakdown of the best protein sources, what constitutes “high protein” and how to plan your day so you ensure you’re eating enough of it. I know it seems simple, but the vast majority of people under-consume it, whether they know it or not.

What is protein?

Protein is one of three macronutrients (some people say alcohol is a 4th, but let’s ignore that for now). It is essential, meaning, you need it in order to stay alive. Fat is also essential, and carbohydrates are not. You could never eat a single gram of carbohydrate again in your life, and you’d be fine (not recommended for most people, however).

Protein is made up of amino acids that grow and repair muscles. There are complete proteins (animal products) which contain all 9 essential amino acids (there are 20 total, but 9 are required to thrive and must be consumed-the body doesn’t make them), and there are incomplete proteins (most plant sources) that do not contain all 9 amino acids.

You must consume a minimum amount of protein in order to stay alive, a higher amount to maintain metabolic health and an even higher amount to gain muscle (or maintain it if in a deficit). 

How much is enough?

FDA recommended minimums are literally how much protein you need to stay alive and not become ill. If you’re reading a fitness blog, you’re likely interested in more than just “existing”. So let’s skip to the minimum requirements and focus on the requirements for people who care about health and vitality.

Most literature indicates that a minimum of .7-.8 grams per pound of bodyweight is enough protein for muscle maintenance (in a calorie deficit/maintenance), or muscle gain (in a calorie surplus). If you’re really dialed in and you’ve built great protein consumption habits, this amount will suffice. But for the vast majority of people, this is not the case.

Because most people grossly undershoot their daily protein target, I always recommend shooting for 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day. Not only does this technique make for very easy calculations, but it also ensures that if the person comes up short for the day, they’re usually still over the .7 mark. 

*note: for very obese people, this number can be adjusted to 1 gram per pound of lean mass (if you’ve done a recent bodyfat % test like a Dexa scan) or 1 gram per pound of goal bodyweight (i.e. If you’re 350 lbs and your goal (long term, of course) is 250, you’ll shoot for 250 grams/day)

You can also eat more protein than this recommendation per day if you’d like. Barring any underlying kidney disease, more protein will not cause negative ramifications. This can be a great strategy for those struggling with satiety (more on satiety below!). Just know that beyond a certain point, more protein will not result in more muscle mass (I wish!).

“Why do I need so much need protein? I’m not a bodybuilder, and don’t want to look like one.”

This is like saying “Why do I need to learn to drive, I’m not a Formula 1 driver?” The skill of driving is important for daily activities. Being able to drive well will reduce your chances of dying in a car accident, but it won’t put you on the Formula 1 circuit. Protein will do the same, but obviously in a different manner.

The consumption of adequate protein isn’t going to turn you into a bodybuilder overnight, nor will it over weeks, months, years, decades, or for 99% of people, ever in their lifetime. There are many more pieces to the puzzle when it comes to looking like a bodybuilder (great genetics, decades of hard work, dedication to every lifestyle factor, and, by the way, performance enhancing drugs [PEDs].)

For the average person (or even someone who wants to be above average- build appreciable muscle but not step on stage) who wants to drop some fat (again, this requires a calorie deficit), eating enough protein will benefit you in the following ways:

Muscle Maintenance

You’ll maintain more lean tissue (muscle mass). If you want to lose weight, what you really want to do is lose fat, and not muscle mass (except for very specific/uncommon scenarios like a weight class athlete or distance runner). There's a difference between the scale weight decreasing and the improvement of body composition (your body fat % and how you look).

Maintaining muscle while losing fat will improve your body composition.I’m aware not everyone cares about how they look (but if we’re being honest, the vast majority of people do), but losing muscle AND fat and focusing on nothing but the weight on the scale is a recipe for long term failure. It’s also not as healthy as being relatively lean and muscular. Why? When you lose muscle, your metabolic rate slows down.

Muscle is an expensive tissue, meaning it requires more calories just to retain it. In other words, when you’re simultaneously not eating enough protein AND not eating enough calories, you’re likely to slow your metabolism down and maintain the same body fat % (or increase it because it’s based on total body weight- not what most people are after). “Congratulations, you’ve lost 10 lbs but you’re just as fat or fatter.” This seems to be a bit sensationalized, but it’s incredibly common!

All this to say, if you want to lose weight and for the majority of it to be body fat, you need to eat more protein when you’re in a calorie deficit. 


The 2nd, but just as important reason to consume more protein when you’re in a calorie deficit is satiety. Satiety essentially means you’re satisfied with how much you’re eating, and you’re not constantly hungry. Achieving satiety during weight loss is not realistic 100% of the time.

Occasional hunger is part of the process (if you’re never hungry, you’re not going to lose much body fat). But increasing your levels of satiety is critical in regards to reaching your goals and sustaining them long term. If you’re going to bed hungry every night, or your daily thoughts revolve around food, even the most strong-willed people eventually give in. This is an unsustainable way to live.

Luckily, protein is the most satiating of the three macronutrients. Eating more protein will not only keep muscle on your body, but also make you less hungry day by day. This is a double-win.

Thermic Effect

The final, but not quite as important factor regarding protein consumption is its thermic effect. The thermic effect of food (TEF) is how many calories your body expends just to digest and process the food you’ve eaten. Protein has the highest thermic effect of any macronutrient at 20-30%. What this means is that when you eat 100 calories of protein, you’re only really eating about 70-80 because it takes 20-30 calories just to digest!

Fat and carbohydrates also have a TEF, but it’s not as significant (fat is less than 5% and carbs are 5-10%). This may or may not be a significant statistic to you, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not something to spend too much mental energy on, but it certainly isn’t something to ignore, especially given the fact that it's very difficult to overeat calories from protein alone (remember that whole satiety thing we just talked about?)

To summarize, when you eat more protein while in a calorie deficit, you’ll maintain more muscle, feel more full, and burn more calories just digesting the food. That’s the trifecta of amazing benefits to consuming more protein.

Also, most protein sources are delicious, assuming you’re not just eating plain chicken breast all the time (more on this in pt. II).  And those are just the short term benefits. Let’s get into the longer term benefits.

Protein, Muscle, and Aging

When we get older, our body becomes less cooperative than it was when we were in our 20s. For some examples, once we surpass the 3 decade mark (not exact, this is highly individual) we can no longer sleep 4-5 hours per night and expect to get by, we can’t go party in Vegas for the weekend and not pay the price for a few days after, we have more aches and pains and are more injury prone.

But another, often overlooked result of aging is that we begin to lose muscle mass, primarily type II (fast twitch) muscle mass. This is referred to as sarcopenia. It begins for most people in their 40s and generally declines at a linear rate thereafter, eventually reaching ~50% by age 80! Sarcopenia is the leading cause of loss of independence and functional decline (the inability to perform routine life functions).

Fortunately, there are two really simple (but not always easy) ways to combat this. Combining consistent resistance training (minimum of 1 day, preferably 2-4 days per week) and adequate protein intake will significantly decrease your chances of suffering from sarcopenia later in life.

To paint this picture more clearly, let’s look at a real life example:

If you go to your local gym and look around, you’ll see fit people in their 20’s, 30’s and some in their 40’s and 50’s. For the most part, they don’t stand out, because there are a lot of people (especially the 20-30 age range) who look fit. It’s not an abnormal sight. It’s far easier for a 30 year old to maintain a certain level of fitness than it is for a 70 year old. Most importantly, an unfit 30 year old can still be independent. They can probably still pick up their kids, load luggage into the overhead compartment, do chores and yard work, and get by in everyday life. 

But if you saw a 70 year old in the same gym who was lean, strong, vibrant and muscular, that person would certainly stand out. Why? Because it’s so rare to see someone of that age who still maintains the discipline to eat enough protein and train their muscles consistently.

A 70 year old person with strength and vigor is going to be significantly more independent and functional than a 70 year old who doesn’t exercise and doesn’t eat enough protein. This person will likely not only live longer (life-span) but also remain healthy longer (health-span). 

All this to say, whether you’re in your 30’s and looking to lose some unwanted body fat, or you’re in your 50’s or 60’s looking to remain independent and thriving, eating enough protein is essential. In the next article I’ll provide examples of high protein meals, along with tips on how to ensure you’re eating enough of it. 

Thank you for reading! Let me know below if you have questions, comments or thoughts about protein. 

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