All About Protein (For Health, Strength, and Size + Best Sources)

“PROOOTEEEEIN.”

It’s the battle cry of the active guy looking to get healthier, stronger, and look awesome.

Now, it’s not the only macronutrient that’s important in our journey to better bodies, but it’s damn important nonetheless.

Why is protein so important?

  • Muscle is made up of protein. Muscle is what makes you strong and gives your body that aesthetic, masculine shape. Also, many other important structures are made up of protein as well.
  • Protein can help you maintain this muscle when in a calorie deficit shredding body fat.
  • Eating more protein at each meal can keep you more satiated, helping you eat less calories overall, further helping you shred fat.
  • Protein has the highest thermic effect of any macronutrient, meaning it takes more calories to process than fat or carbs. This can bump up your TEF (Thermic Effect of Feeding) and help you burn more calories, and yes, -say it with me- shred more body fat.

Convinced? Good. Let’s get down and dirty with it.

What is Protein?

*Disclaimer* we’re gonna get kind of sciency here, so buckle up and bear with me fellas.

Protein is made up of individual amino acids. There are 20 standard amino acids.

Here they are:

  • Alanine
  • Arginine
  • Aspartic acid
  • Asparagine
  • Cysteine
  • Glutamic acid
  • Glutamine
  • Glycine
  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Proline
  • Serine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Tyrosine
  • Valine

We can make some of these amino acids, but others we need to get from food. These are called essential amino acids.

From the 20 above, the 8 essential amino acids are:

  • Phenylalanine
  • Valine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Methionine
  • Leucine
  • Isoleucine
  • Lysine

Now, certain foods contain different types of protein, in different amino acid ratios, that are digested and absorbed differently by the body.

For example, milk contains the proteins casein and whey.

Casein will digest slower because it clumps in the stomach, making it harder to break down and release.

Whey digests quicker because the body can easily break it down and absorb it (hence why many take whey protein after workouts).

Protein from meat and plants will digest slower because they take a while to break down.

As a matter of fact, most natural protein sources take a while to break down and absorb (hence why protein helps with satiety).

Another factor in digestion and absorption is the fat and carbohydrate that come along with the protein. Some sources have more fat and/or carbs than others. This will lead to, you guessed it, further delay in digestion and absorption.

I think you get the point. Let’s move on.

How Much Protein Do You Need Per Day?

This is where things become less clear, and it depends on a lot of factors. There’s really no one size fits all answer.

Active guys like us will need more protein, as we’re breaking down protein from our training. This protein will then be used to build new muscle and other tissues.

Let’s start with the baseline.

The average sedentary man needs ~0.35 grams of protein per pound of body weight (0.8 gram per kilogram) [1].

For the 180 pound (~82 kg) man this means ~65 grams of protein per day.

However, those of us that train hard may need a bit more.

For active guys looking to gain or retain strength and muscle mass 0.5-0.8 grams per pound (1.1-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram) of body weight is recommended [2].

For the moderately active 180 pound (~82 kilogram) man this means ~90-147 grams of protein per day.

I like to get 0.6-0.8 gram per lb of body weight myself (usually closer to the 0.8 side).

Even further, your protein needs might be higher if you:

  • Are very lean, or dieting to get very lean (I’m talking under 7-8% body fat).
  • Train very hard. The harder you train, the more protein you’ll need (up to a certain point).

Also be careful about going too high in protein if you have or suspect you might have any of the following:

  • Kidney disease
  • Liver disease
  • A metabolic disease
  • Gastrointestinal issues

Disclaimer/tip: talk to your doctor or dietitian before upping protein intake if you think you may have a medical condition.

Experimentation will be needed to find your optimal protein range.

In addition to the above recommendations, you can tweak your protein intake by looking at other things such as:

  • Recovery time. How long are you taking to recover? If you’re training sensibly and taking too long to recover, more protein may be needed.
  • Digestion. If protein is causing gastrointestinal distress, you may be eating too much protein, or even using an inferior protein source (most likely filled with artificial crap).
  • Excessive fat gain. Too much protein can lead to unwanted fat gain as with any macro-nutrient. Fat gain means you’re overeating and your body is storing the excess calories.

A good strategy is to get protein in at every meal. Aim to get 20-40 grams at each meal (depending on how many meals you eat). This usually equates to 1 to 2 servings of high protein foods per meal. High protein foods look like: a chicken breast, a 6 ounce steak, 2 eggs, a glass of milk, two servings of beans, etc.

Just about everything has protein in it, so any vegetables or fruit you have with your meal will also add to your protein total.

I like this approach, as you can easily assess if your protein intake is optimal or not and add more protein to each meal if needed.

The Best Protein Sources

The best protein sources are going to be whole foods that are sufficient in amino acids.

You may have guessed it, animal sources are going to be the best sources of protein when looking at this criteria.

The leanest protein sources are:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Tuna
  • Egg whites
  • Whey protein powders

Other good sources, but ones that may have more calories include:

  • Beef
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Cottage cheese

Should you supplement with protein? This inevitably comes up when guys start off. The thing is, you don’t NEED a protein supplement if you’re getting adequate protein at regular meals. There’s nothing magical about protein supps. They’re just protein. They’re used best when if you’re extremely busy and always on the go or when you eat a plant-based diet. Other than extreme cases like these, supplementation isn’t really necessary and whole food sources reign.

Good plant sources of protein:

  • Beans
  • Legumes
  • Peas
  • Grains (like quinoa)

While calling plant sources incomplete is inaccurate (it should read insufficient), plant based foods are usually very low in some amino acids. This means that your body will not be able to synthesize this protein until you reach the threshold for protein synthesis. You can circumvent this by mixing sources (peanut butter and whole wheat toast, beans and rice, etc.).

A Cool Tool

Do you ever wish there was a tool that could help you find quality protein sources?

Well it just so happens there is one.

It’s called the Protein Digestability Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS).

We can look at the PDCAAS of protein sources to determine the protein quality of certain foods.

Here are the foods with the highest quality protein, according to the PDCAAS:

Note: food (score). 1 is the highest score.

  • Milk (1)
  • Egg (1)
  • Whey protein (1)
  • Casein (1)
  • Beef (0.92)
  • Chickpeas (0.78)
  • Black beans (0.75)
  • Peas (0.6)
  • Wheat (0.42)

I couldn’t find PDCAAS of chicken or turkey anywhere during my research, but my guess is it would be up there with beef.

Is the PDCAAS perfect? No. But it’s a nice reference.

Applying Protein Intake to Getting Healthy, Strong, and Shredded

When it’s all boiled down, here’s how we apply this:

  • Eat a varied, whole food diet with plenty of quality protein sources. Look at protein from a broader perspective, and take into account how it fits with your body, your diet, and your life.
  • Most guys will do good with 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight (1.1-1.8 grams per kilogram). Some will need less, others more.
  • Aim to get 20-40 grams of protein at each meal, depending on how many meals you eat and how much protein you need.
  • Train hard, rest hard, and kill stress.
  • Admire yourself in the mirror at least once a day (mandatory).

Conclusion

Protein matters for an epic physique that performs.

To summarize what we learned here today:

  • Protein is made up of 20 amino acids, 8 of which we must get from food sources.
  • Protein is important because muscle and other body structures are made up of protein, protein helps maintain muscle while losing fat, protein keeps you satiated, and protein raises your TEF.
  • About 0.5-0.8 gram of protein per pound of body weight (1.1-1.8 gram per kilogram) a day is the general guideline for most active guys.
  • Getting quality sources of protein at every meal can help you reach your protein goals, and mixing up your protein sources where possible can help you get more variety and keep you from getting bored.
  • Supplementing protein is not necessary but can be helpful.
  • For guys eating plant-based diets, getting in and mixing plenty of high protein plant foods and using plant-based protein powders can help you get in your daily requirement.

PROTEIN.

-ETD

References

  1. Departments of Animal Science and Medical Physiology and Faculty of Nutrition, Texas A&M University, March 7, 2016. Dietary Protein Intake and Human Health | Food & Function
  2. Phillips SM, Van Loon LJ, 2011. Dietary Protein for Athletes: From Requirements to Optimum Adaptation | Journal of Sports Sciences