Discover more from Longevity Minded
The Scoop on Protein
What is protein? Why is it important? How much do we need? When should we eat it? Where should we get it from?
I ran just over a half-marathon (21.30 km) last Sunday in 1:52:28 as part of a marathon training program I’ve been following for the past nine weeks. I don’t actually have any plans to participate in a marathon race yet… just training.
Welcome to the 20 new subscribers who signed up last week!
What is protein and why does it matter?
Protein is made up of twenty amino acids and is essential to building and maintaining muscle.
Getting enough protein is especially important as we age since the older we get, the more easily we lose muscle, and the harder it is to build it back.
Lean muscle mass not only contributes to a longer life but is also essential to a better quality of life, enabling you to live independently and to keep doing the things you love to do (gardening, golfing, hiking, surfing, etc.) until your final days.
Middle-aged and older individuals might benefit from annual or semiannual DEXA scans to track lean body mass (muscle) and increase protein intake if lean mass declines.
Other than protein’s role in muscle, it also acts as a building block for enzymes and many important hormones and contributes to functions ranging from growing and maintaining our hair, skin, and nails to helping create antibodies in our immune system.
Of the twenty amino acids, we must obtain nine of them—deemed the essential amino acids (EAAs)—from our diet because we cannot manufacture them internally.
Protein is unlike fat and carbs in that it is not a primary source of energy nor do we store it for future use as we do with fat in fat cells and carb-derived glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscles.
Eating protein also inhibits the release of the hormone ghrelin which makes us feel hungry. That means protein can help us feel satiated and reduce our overall calorie intake.
Bottom line: If you deprive yourself of protein, there will be consequences, especially as you age.
Protein Intake: How much protein should we eat?
“The first thing you need to know about protein is that the standard recommendations for daily consumption are a joke.”
– Peter Attia M.D., Outlive
The US recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.36 g/lb) per day.
Unless your goal is to stay alive long enough to watch yourself lose all of your muscle mass, this is not nearly enough.
Barring a pool of scientific research supporting the fact we need much more protein than this to thrive, some quick back-of-the-napkin math reveals how laughable this RDA is.
I weigh around 195 pounds and my maintenance daily calorie intake is approximately 3,000 calories. According to the RDA of 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight, I should eat 70 grams of protein per day.
Protein has four calories per gram which means, according to the current RDA, just 9% of my total daily calories would come from protein. That means the remaining 91% of my calories would come from the other macronutrients: fat, carbs, and alcohol.
Disregarding alcohol, I think we can agree that the vast majority of our daily nutrition coming from fat or carbs is not the most balanced way of eating.
If you’re on board with me that the current RDA is nowhere near enough to build our best bodies and live our best lives, then we can move to the next question:
What is enough protein?
The optimal amount varies between individuals depending on factors such as age, sex, body weight, lean mass, and activity level, but as a bare minimum, we should aim for at least 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.73 g/lb) per day.
Ideally, if you’re an active person with normal kidney function, target 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (1 g/lb) per day.
Protein Timing: When should we eat protein?
To maximize the effectiveness of the protein we eat, our protein consumption should be spread out over the day rather than consumed in one sitting.
An ideal way to do this is by breaking down your daily protein consumption into four servings per day, each serving consisting of 0.25 grams of protein per pound of your body weight.
two high-protein meals
a high-protein snack
a protein shake
For reference, a six-ounce (170 grams) serving of chicken, fish, or meat provides 40 to 45 grams of protein.
Protein Source: Where should we get protein?
I constantly nag my mom to eat more protein.
She does her best, but it drives me off the wall when she sits down with a meal containing beans or cheese or a glass of milk or a handful of nuts and says “Look, I’m eating protein!”
Yes, there is protein within those foods. But they are not primary protein sources.
If your diet lacks primary protein sources, it is impossible to get enough protein without overeating—that is, exceeding your maintenance calorie intake.
Take the silly, oversimplified example of only eating black beans.
By the time I eat enough black beans to hit my protein target, I will be way over in total daily calories which means I either overeat until I get enough protein or I eat the appropriate amount but miss out on my protein goal.
Both are bad options.
Secondary protein sources such as beans and nuts and quinoa are fantastic. But alone, they don’t pack enough protein to get us to our target.
So, aim to include primary protein sources—foods whose primary macronutrient is protein—in every meal. Here are a few options:
Fish, chicken, and meat
Eggs and egg whites
If you choose to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, it’s important to understand two things.
First, most of the protein in plants is tied up in indigestible fibre which makes it less bioavailable to us humans.
According to Dr. Don Layman, much of the plant’s protein is tied to its roots, leaves, and other structures, which means only 60 to 70 percent of what you consume is contributing to your protein needs.
We can overcome some of this issue by cooking the plants before eating them, but we’re still left with another problem…
Second, many plant protein sources are not complete sources of protein.
Remember those nine essential amino acids (EAAs) we need to get through our diet?
While animal protein sources contain all nine which makes them complete sources of protein, many plants do not which leads to reduced protein synthesis, the process by which our bodies create protein molecules.
Specifically, plant protein has less of the EAAs methionine, lysine, and tryptophan.
Unfortunately, while looking at these two factors together, it’s hard to deny that plant-derived protein is of significantly lower quality than that from animal sources.
The same science applies to protein powders.
Whey protein isolate is richer in available amino acids than soy protein isolate.
Protein Tracking for Vegans and Vegetarians
While meat eaters generally don’t need to worry about amino acids, vegans and vegetarians do.
If you follow a plant-based diet, focus on your consumption of the amino acids leucine, lysine, and methionine rather than only counting total protein intake.
To maintain muscle, aim for 3 to 4 grams per day of leucine and lysine and at least 1 gram per day of methionine.
To build muscle, increase leucine intake to 2 to 3 grams per serving, four times per day.
While you don’t have to become a religious food tracker, I suggest tracking your regular diet with Cronometer (which provides an amino acid breakdown) once in a while to get an idea of where your nutrition might be lacking.
That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading!
Help a friend—If you enjoyed this article, please share it with a friend who would benefit from reading it.
Let’s connect—If you have a question or just want to chat, I’d love to hear from you! Reply to this email, leave a comment, or find me on Twitter.
Much love to you and yours,
Brought to you by The Traveler’s Handbook to Staying Strong on The Road
If travel disrupts your regular routine, making it hard to stick to your exercise habits, halting your progress, and causing you to lose muscle and strength, this ebook is for you.