Getting enough protein seems to be all the rage in wellness these days. So much so, that many of you may be wondering if focusing on protein is the next fad diet or wellness trend. Today, we are going to discuss the importance of adequate dietary protein, and how to build up to eating enough of this macronutrient.
Protein Intake History
If you’ve done any research on macronutrients you may be familiar with the RDA – the Recommended Dietary Allowance – stating that protein intakes should be 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight to prevent deficiency. The key words to pay attention to are the ones in bold – to prevent deficiency. What this means is that, in order for someone to prevent becoming malnourished, they need to consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For someone who weighs roughly 165 pounds, that minimum number is about 60 grams of protein a day.
You might be surprised to see those numbers. Many people that I’ve worked with at STAT Wellness come in at a much lower baseline than that 60 grams. And again – that’s just to have enough protein for daily survival. When it comes to thriving, building muscle, and even healing from injury or disease, the need for protein increases significantly.
Part of the need for protein comes from the need that our body has for amino acids – the building blocks of protein synthesis, that directly impact processes in the body. Amino acids are really the building blocks of life – they are directly utilized in metabolic function, and having low intake of essential amino acids can cause weakness and impaired immunity. There are nine essential amino acids that can only be taken in through foods. When we talk about consuming protein, we are really talking about getting enough of the essential amino acids to support optimal health.
Newer estimates calculate that a better protein recommendation is about 0.8 – 1 gram per pound of body weight in adults at a healthy weight. For individuals weighing more than optimal for frame size, an appropriate estimate would be closer to 0.8 – 1 gram per pound of ideal body weight.
The importance of meeting protein need estimates increases as we age, when the threat of muscle loss has a direct impact on our health span/longevity. Of equal importance is spreading out protein intakes throughout the day, so the body can properly absorb the beneficial macronutrients without putting a strain on organ systems such as the kidneys, which help to excrete excess amino acids from the body.
If you’re wanting to build muscle specifically, you may even consider consuming a source of protein within an hour after exercise. Aim for about 15-20 grams of protein, or around 2 oz, to help build and repair muscle tissue.
I need to increase protein – so now what?
If you’re reading this and realize you need to increase your protein intake, I’d like to offer a couple of suggestions for ways to do this slowly and sustainably. First, you won’t go wrong by following the general plate method of eating – fill half your plate full of non-starchy vegetables, 25% of your plate protein, and 25% of your plate whole food forms of starches. Then, add in one to two servings of healthy fats.
Aiming to fill 25% of your plate with protein will help get you closer to your protein target. Pay attention to how much protein is on your plate now. If you’re getting half that amount at all three meals, try to increase to the full amount at just one meal, first. It can be tempting to try to meet your goals all at once. However, I recommend taking things slowly, and incrementally increasing by just a half-portion over a two to four week time period. Depending on how much more protein you need in your diet, it could take a few months before you’re closer to your target! Don’t forget, I’m happy to meet with anyone to come up with a plan for how to do this for your body and lifestyle.
For those of you who want the numbers, 3-4 ounces of protein from fish, poultry, beef or pork will provide anywhere from 25-35 grams of protein. If you’re interested in weighing, I suggest weighing in ounces to cut confusion, as the gram WEIGHT of a food is different from the grams of PROTEIN the food contains. If using a food scale feels like too much of a burden, aim for a similar size protein as a deck of cards.
I have also found in clinical practice that individuals generally *feel better* when they increase the amount of non-starchy vegetables relative to the amount of protein they are eating. Part of the reason for this is likely that adequate vegetable intake helps support optimal acid-base balance in the body. If you’re someone who struggles to get in enough non-starchy veggies daily (anywhere from 4-8 fistfuls), this is another reason why the plate method can be such a beneficial way of building your meals. If you’re working to increase protein and struggling with vegetable intakes, it’s a good idea to slowly increase both over a period of months until you’re at a better balance.
Another thing to note is that increasing protein-dense foods does typically directly increase the amount of dietary fat that we consume. While fat from protein-containing foods is a healthy part of dietary intakes, you may need to adjust additional sources of fat in the diet so that you aren’t unintentionally over-consuming this macronutrient by default. A great way to think about this is to add just one serving of a healthy fat when you’re consuming a fattier piece of protein (think salmon, chicken thigh), and to consume two servings of a healthy fat when you’re consuming a more lean piece of protein (like chicken or turkey breast).
I hope this help shed light on why increasing protein isn’t just a fad. We need this powerful macronutrient, especially to help prevent loss of muscle as we age. Don’t hesitate to make an appointment with me at STAT Wellness if you need help meeting your protein goals!