When it comes to losing fat, building muscle, or manipulating your body composition in any way, there is no greater nutritional tool in your arsenal than protein.
Dietary protein heavily influences many crucial bodily functions, all of which have a strong effect on weight regulation, namely satiety (how satisfied you feel after eating), thermogenesis (the amount of energy required to process food), energy efficiency, and body composition (your muscle to fat ratio).
What are proteins and what do they do?
Proteins are a macronutrient that are found in every cell, tissue, and organ in the body. They are so crucial to the normal functioning of the human body that without them we could not exist. Antibodies, enzymes, and hormones are all functions of proteins. Proteins form the basic machinery within cells, and also act as support structures all throughout the body. Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 21 different amino acids in all, and they join together in all sorts of different combinations to make up different kinds of proteins that your body can use for whatever purpose it needs at the time.
Why protein is especially important if you exercise.
The human body can only synthesize 12 of the 21 amino acids on its own. This means that we must get the remaining 9 through our diet. It is for his reason they’re referred to as essential amino acids (I wish all scientific terms could be so straightforward and direct). It’s absolutely crucial that we get these essential amino acids through our food choices on a daily basis because unfortunately, unlike carbohydrates and fatty acids, our bodies are unable to store amino acids. We can’t just tap into a resource within our body on demand when we need amino acids, we physically need to ingest them on a regular basis.
If you exercise or are active in any way, protein really comes into play. The primary reason why protein is important (over and above it’s normal importance) is in its ability to build and repair muscle mass. To allow it to rebuild bigger and stronger, your body needs a surplus of protein. Without adequate protein, your muscles don’t grow. In fact, your muscles might even shrink if you’re exercising too much without adequate protein. Nobody wants that, therefore, a diet that is relatively high in protein is recommended if you’re trying to gain or maintain muscle mass.
As I mentioned earlier, protein should be your best nutritional friend. Protein will do a better job of satisfying you and cause your body to burn more calories than other macronutrients. Both of these things are extremely valuable if you’re trying to lose weight. If you ever find yourself in a rut and aren’t able to get a full, balanced meal in, try to seek out a protein source like a protein bar – that’s always your best bet.
How much protein do you need per day?
Traditionally, most major health authorities have recommended a relatively modest protein intake. The FDA recommends (based on the Dietary Reference Intake) about 0.36g of protein per pound of bodyweight. For the average adult, that equates to roughly 50g per day as part of a 2000 calories per day diet. Significantly higher amounts of protein per day have been frowned upon by authorities in the past, but recent research shows that any concerns about increased protein intake have been unfounded.
Indeed, this number assumes you are extremely sedentary, don’t workout, don’t want to lean out, or gain any amount of muscle whatsoever. It’s provided as a bare minimum – to prevent deficiency. Protein is a crucial building block of muscle mass and necessary for muscle preservation. If any of these things are important to you (and they should be), then you should strongly consider eating more protein. If they’re not, then feel free to stick to this 50g per day guideline.
The research that attempts to answer the protein question has really picked up in the past 10 years. There are literally dozens of different studies that attempt to definitively answer this question once and for all. The one thing that they all agree on is that protein intake is definitely associated with weight loss.
However, depending on what particular study you look at, the agreed upon figure generally falls somewhere between 0.7-1 grams per pound of bodyweight. This isn’t exact, but it at least acts as a guideline. The general theme in many of these studies is the more active you are, the higher in that range you should be. Use the following table to find out where you fall:
It’s worth noting that these values should be looked at as approximations. If you’ve spent any amount of time on this site, you should know by now that there is no one size fits all approach. If you’re a marathon runner, you may very well need to consume more protein than 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day.
If you find your body composition isn't satisfactory, bump up your protein intake!
If you find yourself not recovering after your workouts, losing significant amounts of muscle while trying to lose fat, or not being able to maintain your muscle mass in general, then a good rule of thumb is to bump up your protein intake.
1: The current recommended intake by health authorities is outdated and too low.
2: If your goal is to maintain or build muscle mass, pay extra attention that you get adequate protein in your diet.
3: Aim for 0.7-1g protein per pound of bodyweight, depending on your activity level. Refer to table above.