I have a question for you: how do you feel protein? Typically, people fall into one of two categories here. Half of us are skeptics and half of us are super-fans. The half that are skeptics might be afraid that it will bulk them up, that their system can’t process it, or that we don’t really need to it to survive. The half that are super-fans might rave about the lean muscle mass it provides, how meals feel more “complete” with it, or that they just love the flavor. What’s the deal here? Why are our relationships with protein so complex? How much do we need and does it have to come from meat? Grab your jerky (or leave it aside) and let’s dig in. 

For starters … Protein is one of the three macronutrients with its friends carbohydrate and fat. It’s made of chains of amino acids arranged in different orders. There are 20 amino acids, 9 of which are essential. Essential amino acids are those that the body can’t make on its own. You have to eat these amino acids. Which brings us to the two types of protein, complete and incomplete. 

  • Complete: those proteins that have all essential amino acids, only from animal sources 
  • Incomplete: proteins that do not contain all 9 essential amino acids, found in plant sources
Secondly… why protein matters. Protein serves a lot of roles in the body, including the following:
  • Building and maintaining lean muscle mass 
  • Helping make enzymes and hormones 
  • Keeping you fuller for longer by reducing levels of your hunger hormone (aka ghrelin) 
  • Keeping bones strong, which helps prevent osteoporosis
  • Boosting metabolism more than carbs or fat
  • Helping repair injured tissue 

So then… how much protein to eat.

  • For sedentary individuals: 0.8-1.0 g/kg body weight
  • For active individuals or those attempting to preserve lean body mass while losing weight: 1.0-1.5 g/kg body weight 
  • For athletes: 1.5-2.2 g/kg body weight 

Example of a 150 pound individual looking to preserve lean body mass and lose weight:
150/2.2 = 68.2 kg
68.2 x 1.0 = 68.2 grams of protein (minimum)
68.2 x 1.5 = 102.3 grams of protein (maximum)
This individual should aim for 68-102 grams of protein per day.

Like I mentioned earlier, there are plant sources of protein that contain some of the essential amino acids. Our body does a cool thing where it combines essential amino acids from different incomplete sources to make a complete protein. So if you had black beans at lunch, the amino acids will hang out and pair up with your sweet potato at dinner to make a complete protein. These amino acids hang out in the “pool” of eligible protein for 24 hours. Also, there is one plant source that contains all 9 essential amino acids (i.e. functioning as meat protein). This is our good friend quinoa. Quinoa is technically a seed, and it contains carbs in addition to protein.

However, increasing plant-based proteins isn’t just for vegetarians and vegans. Meat-eaters can also benefit from getting some of their protein from plant sources, as these are lower in cholesterol and fat. Challenge yourself this week to meet your protein goals, whether through meat-eating or plant-consuming!