Protein is one of the building blocks of our bodies. Along with carbohydrates and fats, these three macronutrients are responsible for how the body functions, feels and performs daily. Lacking in any macronutrient can be an issue, but the question of protein comes up often when looking to lean out, build muscle or increase sports performance.
A protein deficiency can affect the body in many ways. One of the most common symptoms is swelling — or edema — in the hands, feet, legs and abdomen. When protein circulates in the bloodstream, it keeps fluids from building up. Since there are many causes for edema, checking with a doctor is the best first step.
Brain fog and mood swings are other symptoms of low protein intake. The neurotransmitters in the brain are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, and relay signals with information between cells. If there isn’t enough protein to make the neurotransmitters, this could cause dips in dopamine and serotonin levels, changing how a person thinks or feels.
External signals of protein deficiency can be seen in the hair, skin and nails. Brittle or thinning hair, dry and flaky skin, and deep ridges on your fingernails are indicative of a low production of proteins such as elastin, collagen and keratin. The lack of collagen could also be an explanation for slow-healing injuries from scrapes to sprains to breaks.
Protein fuels the body and keeps it satiated. If snacking between regular meals is an issue, there may be a need for more protein. Eating foods with protein when the desire to snack arises may reduce the inclination to eat junk food.
So, how much is “enough” protein?
Ideally, a person would consume a minimum of 10 percent of their daily calories from protein. To calculate a gram goal to track, multiply body weight by 0.36. (Example: 150 lb person would consume 54 g of protein). This amount would ensure that enough protein is consumed to care for the body’s function and to alleviate deficiency.
The question would then arise, what if the goal isn’t just to survive, but to decrease body fat, increase muscle tissue or enhance performance during an athletic event? The answer to this is tricky, as it depends on the starting point, current intake and intensity of training. But for the sake of ease, it can be broken down into three protein goals.
1. Goal: Reduce body fat. The protein goal for someone trying to reduce body fat would be 20-25 percent of their calories.
150 lbs x 0.70 = 105g of Protein
2. Goal: Increase muscle mass. The protein goal for someone trying to increase muscle tissue would be 35-40 percent of their calories.
150 lbs x 1.4 = 210g of Protein
3. Goal: Strength and speed. The protein goal for someone trying to increase power and agility without putting on a lot of mass would be between 25-35 percent of their calories.
150 lbs x 1.1 = 165g of Protein
These are great baseline numbers to evaluate intake and see how the body performs over the course of four to six weeks. Under-eating protein and experiencing muscle wasting is one of the most frustrating issues that is faced by athletes who have worked so hard to build the muscle they carry. To break down protein need in an even more specific evaluation, the body’s ability to absorb and utilize protein can be broken down into three categories.
1. Normal Utilization- The body does not require more than 20 percent of daily calories from protein. Fat loss is not increased, and excessive calories from protein may be stored as body fat if the energy is not utilized.
2. Slightly Enhanced Utilization- The body thrives from 20-25 percent of daily calorie intake being protein. Body fat loss is effective without muscle wasting, and there is little chance of increasing stored fat with a resistance-training regimen.
3. Enhanced Utilization- The body requires 25-30 percent of the daily calorie intake to be protein. This reduces muscle wasting when training for fat loss. Resistance training is required with the increased protein intake to maintain muscle mass.
Being mindful of how the body is utilizing protein, and knowing whether more is necessary or less is required to meet your goals can be determined through mindful consumption or genetic evaluation.
Getting enough protein doesn’t need to come strictly from animal sources. Most of the foods consumed in a well-rounded plan, including vegetables, nuts and grains, help to increase the total amount of consumed protein daily. For those who do not consume any animal products, they can still meet their protein needs for the lifestyle goals they have set by choosing a variety of plant foods.
Knowing that the body needs protein, here are great sources to meet the desired intake:
Broccoli (1 ounce) 3 grams
Brussels Sprouts (1 cup) 3 grams
Kale (1 cup) 3 grams
Cashews (1 ounce) 5 grams
Almonds (1 ounce) 6 grams
Oatmeal (½ cup) 6 grams
Egg (1 whole) 6 grams
Lentils/Black Beans (½ cup) 9 grams
Quinoa (½ cup) 12 grams
Tofu (½ cup – 4.4 oz) 11 grams
Low-Fat Cottage Cheese (½ cup) 13 grams
Low-Fat Greek Yogurt (½ cup) 14 grams
Pork/Lean Ham (3 ounces) 18 grams
Broiled Fish (3 ounces) 20 grams
Lean Beef (3 ounces) 22 grams
Ground Turkey (3 ounces) 22.5 grams
Chicken Breast (3 ounces) 24 grams