Protein, protein, protein! Everyone is talking about it. Consume it after a workout, buy this supplement, eat it with every meal.
But what does the science say? In this post, I’m going to go over everything you need to know about protein.
Why is protein so important? Should you eat protein at a certain time? Do you need a protein supplement, like protein powder? Keep reading below to find out!
The importance of protein to your body and why it’s necessary to consume dietary protein
Protein is the second most abundant molecule in our bodies, second to water. Many different types of proteins exist in our bodies, all with specific functions. Some are involved in maintaining an acid-base balance (AKA – you don’t need to worry about staying alkaline with your diet – your body does it for you), energy production, cell signaling, or nutrient transport. It’s important to understand that almost all processes in your body require some type of protein.
Proteins are long chains made up of smaller units called amino acids. Amino acids come together to make polypeptides. These polypeptides, which are a large part of what I study in my graduate research, undergo specific interactions with one another to form proteins.
We know that to get a full and functioning protein, we need amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids that your body uses, but it can’t make all of them on its own. There are 9 amino acids that your body can’t make; these are called essential amino acids (EAAs).
EAAs come from – you guessed it – your diet, and more specifically, dietary protein. Every time you see the Nutrition Facts label that says x grams of protein, there is some distribution of amino acids in that protein, still in the form of polypeptides.
When you eat protein, your body has to break these down via digestion and then get these amino acids where they need to go to keep your body functioning properly!
One of my favorite things about protein is that your muscle tissue is comprised of special types of protein. The most important proteins that make up muscles are called myosin and actin. It makes sense that if you want to grow your muscles, you should consume enough protein.
Even if you aren’t trying to build muscles, you still need to consume a minimum amount of protein to be healthy.
So exactly how much protein should you be consuming?
There is a minimum amount of protein that you need to simply survive. However, we want to really thrive in our bodies, don’t we?
Typically, it’s recommended to consume between 10 – 25% of your total calories from protein. Protein has 4 calories per gram. For someone who consumes 2000 calories per day, that means they should eat between 50 – 125 grams of protein.
This doesn’t take into account any kind of physique goal. If you’re still reading at this point, I assume that you have physique goals (building muscle, losing fat, etc.).
Now, many studies are finding that eating between 0.6 – 1.0 grams of protein per pound of body weight allows individuals to build and/or sustain lean muscle mass in conjunction with resistance training. I weigh somewhere around 145 – 150 pounds, so I aim to consume between 140 – 150 grams of protein per day!
If you want to keep your muscles around when you’re in a “cut,” eating between 1.1 – 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight will help you retain all those gains.
There is strong evidence to support that 85% of plant protein and 95% of animal protein is absorbed. There is also very weak evidence supporting negative side effects to consuming an increased amount of dietary protein. Further reading can be found in the references so that you can judge for yourself!
You might also have this question: plant protein or animal protein, which is better? Well, given the fact that both have differing amino acid profiles (i.e. there are different kinds of amino acids in each), you would have to consume a larger variety of plant protein (and most likely more of it) to get the amount of amino acids that your body needs compared to animal protein. Additionally, animal protein is more easily absorbed by the body than plant protein.
It is perfectly fine to not consume animal protein, but keep the above in mind!
When should you supplement with protein?
A very simple answer: when you cannot eat enough from your diet alone.
There are so many products out there that are now supplemented with protein because it’s clear that protein is important. However, eating protein bars and protein shakes as a sole source of protein is not recommended.
I think nature knows how important protein is and has provided us with a huge variety to get our protein from!
When to consume protein
There will always be myths and misinformation surrounding protein “timing” and when you should eat protein for optimal results. If you don’t have a goal of building muscle, then consuming protein at a specific time isn’t nearly as important.
However, consuming protein with each meal helps you to feel full for longer, so that we don’t over-consume calories. My advice as a nutrition coach is to consume protein when you consume other nutrients.
Simply put, to keep our bodies in a constant state of building muscle, it’s advisable to consume small doses (~20 g) of protein throughout the day.
If you are consuming enough protein everyday to meet your goals and you don’t have the time/resources to consume small doses throughout the day, it’s not going to hurt your progress.
Oh, and that anabolic window? It doesn’t exist.
The bottom line is that your daily protein intake is the priority. If you are seeking muscle growth, you HAVE TO be eating about 0.6 – 0.9 g per lb of total body weight. If you don’t get the daily total number right, don’t even concern yourself with when you’re taking it.
This post could really go on and on, but I don’t want to make it too long. Still have questions about protein? Comment on this post or shoot me an email/DM on social media. I also offer free nutrition consultations!
Thanks for reading!
- Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (2005)
- Short review of some properties of muscular proteins. Cesk Fysiol. 2008; 57(1):10-4. PMID: 18630139
- Elango, R., Humayun, M. A., Ball, R. O., & Pencharz, P. B. (2010). Evidence that protein requirements have been significantly underestimated. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 13(1), 52–57.
- Protein. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Daniel E. Koshland and Felix Haurowitz. 2020.
- Hoffman, J. R., & Falvo, M. J. (2004). Protein – Which is Best? Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 3(3), 118–130.
- National Research Council. (1989). Recommended dietary allowances (10th ed.). Washington, D. C.: The National Academies Press.
- Norton, L. E., & Wilson, G. J. (2009). Optimal protein intake to maximize muscle protein synthesis. AgroFood Industry Hi-Tech, 20, 54–57.