Do you eat enough protein?
If you answered no, you're not alone.
The average western diet is high in grains, sugar, and fat.
But while these foods taste great, they aren't so good for our health.
A diet high in carbohydrates and fats is also a major cause of protein deficiencies.
This is obviously bad...but why is protein so important to begin with?
Today, I'm going to answer that question and (hopefully) convince you to increase your protein intake.
Here's what you'll learn in this article:
*I've also created a high protein diet plan for muscle building & weight loss- which you can download below:
Let's do this!
The role of protein
Protein is one of the three macronutrients, alongside carbohydrates and fat.
A macronutrient is a major food group, which is needed in large quantities in our diet.
The dietary referenced intake (DRI) for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of bodyweight.
But there is evidence to suggest that we need up to 2x that amount for optimal weight loss and health.
Protein serves four main functions in the body:
- Repair & maintenance: Your muscles, bones, skin, and hair are all made up of protein. These tissues are maintained and replaced with new protein.
- Hormones: Chemical messenger proteins act as a bridge between the cells and organs in the body, allowing them to communicate.
- Enzymes: Many enzymes, responsible for chemical reactions in the body are made up of protein.
- Transportation & storage: Proteins help transport important molecules around the body.
Protein is also made up of smaller 'units' known as amino acids.
There are 22 amino acids, 9 of which are 'essential' in the human body.
Essential amino acids can't be produced within the body and therefore must be consumed through food.
But you can't just eat any food containing protein:
Protein quality is very important.
This is determined by the amino acid profile of the food:
- Animal protein is considered as a 'complete protein' because it contains the essential amino acids, in just the right quantities.
- Plant based protein is considered as a lower quality form of protein because it doesn't provide the optimal amounts of the essential amino acids. However, it can be combined with other plant sources to make complete protein.
So now you know the basics of protein and why it's crucial for the functions in the human body, what are the benefits to eating more of it?
5 incredible benefits of a high protein diet
A high protein intake is key for muscle building and weight loss.
Without a sufficient supply of protein, your results will be severely limited.
Here are 5 reasons why you need to get more protein.
#1 Protein raises energy expenditure
Protein has the highest thermic effect of the three macronutrients- meaning it requires a lot of energy to digest it.
Studies have shown that this is around 15-30%.
"So you're telling me that by increasing my protein intake...I can burn calories?"
In fact, one study found that by replacing 17-18% of your carbohydrate intake with protein, you can increase energy expenditure by up to 3%.
Not too shabby eh?
#2 It's crucial for building muscle
The evidence is undeniable- a sufficient protein intake is needed to build muscle.
This makes sense, after all, protein provides the essential amino acids needed for protein synthesis.
So if you want those 18 inch guns, you need to eat your protein!
If you want those 18 inch guns, you need to eat your protein!
#3 A high protein intake prevents muscle loss (in a calorie deficit)
In a calorie deficit, you need to reduce your energy intake by eating less food.
And because the calories have to come from somewhere, more often than not your carbohydrate intake is going to take one for the team.
Unfortunately, this means you have less glycogen for workouts and you strength will suffer.
By increasing your protein intake, you can prevent muscle loss from strength decreases.
This will lead to a higher fat to muscle loss ratio...
And prevent the dreaded skinny fat physique.
#4 Protein keeps you full for longer
Do you struggle with hunger on your diet?
Eat more protein:
Protein has the biggest impact on satiety of the three macronutrients, with carbohydrates coming in second, and fat being the least satiating.
The reason for this is simple- protein increases the production of hormones like GLP-1 which help you to stay full for longer.
Protein also lowers Ghrelin, which is known as 'the hunger hormone'.
One study showed that a high protein diet resulted in 43% more weight loss vs a high carbohydrate diet. That's crazy!
Studies have shown that protein helps you stay full for longer by decreasing hunger hormones!
#5 It strengthens the bones
A high protein intake promotes stronger and healthier bones.
In this study, older women with the higher intake of protein were 69% less likely to fracture their hip.
The RDA for protein is 0.36 grams per pound of bodyweight.
This is sufficient for preventing protein deficiencies but studies have shown it is inadequate for strength training or weight loss.
The recommended intake for recreational lifters and active individuals is up to 2x that amount at 0.75 grams per pound of bodyweight.
But you're probably wondering:
Is there any benefit in going above this?
The short answer is no.
A study carried out in 2013 assigned 39 adults into three groups:
- RDA: The recommended daily allowance of protein.
- 2x RDA: Double the recommended intake of protein.
- 3x RDA: Three times the suggested intake of protein.
The subjects then participated in a 4 week diet, at a 40% reduced calorie intake.
Surprisingly, they all lost the same amount of weight on average...
But there's a catch:
In the 2x and 3x RDA group, the proportion of weight lost from fat mass and fat-free mass was higher, meaning they retained more muscle mass.
However, no differences were found between the 2 higher protein intake groups.
Are there any side effects to a high protein diet?
A high protein intake is generally healthy and has minimal side effects.
However, there are specific conditions in which a high protein diet can cause problems:
- High cholesterol: If you eat the majority of your protein from processed meat and high-fat foods, then you're putting yourself at risk of developing high cholesterol levels. However, if you get your protein primarily from lean cuts of meat, eggs, and fish then you can actually decrease the levels of 'bad' cholesterol in the body.
- Kidney problems: If under the rare circumstances you suffer from chronic kidney disease, then a high protein intake can cause further damage.
- Osteoporosis and kidney stones: There is some evidence to suggest that an abnormally high protein intake can increase then chance of kidney stones and osteoporosis.
If you have healthy functioning kidneys, then a high protein intake shouldn't effect you.
A high protein diet for vegetarians- is it practical?
There is a huge misconception that vegetarians and vegans can't build muscle.
While it's true that a 100% plant-based diet is typically much lower in protein, there are ways around this.
You also need to watch out for misinformation.
Myth #1 | You can build muscle on a low protein diet
Many vegetarians are led to believe that they can build muscle on a low protein diet, but this is false.
The research shows that a low intake of protein is insufficient for building muscle.
Myth #2 | Protein deficiencies don't exist
Protein deficiencies are very much real, and can contribute to harmful effects on the brain and immune system.
Myth #3 | Vegetables are high in protein
It's widely believed by vegetarians that vegetables are a good source of protein.
In reality, this simply isn't true.
To get the same amount of protein from vegetable sources, you would need to eat huge amounts.
For example, broccoli contains a measly 14 grams of protein per 500 g versus chicken which has 155 grams for the same weight (that's a whopping 1000% increase).
Myth #4 | Plant protein is just as good as animal protein
As I've already explained earlier, plant protein is a lower quality source because it has an incomplete amino acid profile.
Animal protein has a more complete amino profile as well as a higher bioavailability.
This isn't to say you're doomed as a vegetarian.
Here are some great vegetarian sources of protein (besides meat or dairy):
You also have the option of supplementing with a soy-based protein powder (see below).
The top 10 high protein foods (that taste great)
Ok, so by now you're probably convinced that a high protein intake is a good idea.
But what are the best protein sources?
I've got you covered.
Calories for 1 large egg: 78
Protein: 6 grams
Eggs have caught a bad reputation in the food and fitness industry because of their high cholesterol content.
However, research has shown that dietary cholesterol has minimal effect on LDL cholesterol levels in the bloodstream.
So it seems that eggs aren't bad for us as we once thought.
In fact, they're one of the most nutritious protein sources around, with the highest energy to nutrient density ratios of any food.
Calories in 100g of chicken 113
Protein: 22 grams
Skinless chicken breast is a high quality source of protein.
It's also incredibly versatile and can be used in many different recipes.
Calories in 100g of cottage cheese: 98
Protein: 11 grams
Cottage cheese contains less fat than traditional cheese and is higher in protein.
Cottage cheese is also loaded with calcium and vitamin B12.
Calories in 100g of Greek yogurt: 59
Protein: 10 grams
Greek yogurt has a thick texture and is very creamy.
It's a great choice for a high protein desert.
Calories in one cup of quinoa: 222
Protein: 8 grams
Quinoa is a seed/grain that is high in essential vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
It has a low glycemic index (GI), which is great for lowering blood sugar and preventing type 2 diabetes.
Calories in one can of tuna (112g): 184
Protein: 30 grams
Tuna contains a high amount of omega 3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of inflammatory diseases such as IBS and cancer.
Tuna is also surprisingly low in calories and high in protein- making it perfect for dieting.
Calories in 100g of lentils: 116
Protein: 9 grams
Lentils are a type of legume.
They are one of the best sources of plant-based protein for vegetarians.
Calories in 1oz of peanuts: 161
Protein: 7 grams
Peanuts are a great snack due to their relatively high protein and fibre content- keeping you full in-between meals.
Calories in a 400ml glass of milk (skimmed): 140
Protein: 12 grams
Milk is incredibly nutritious...if you can stomach it.
Research has shown that approximately 75% of the worlds population can't digest milk because they lack the enzyme lactase.
However, if you aren't lactose intolerant, then milk is a great source of calcium (and protein).
Calories in one scoop of whey: 120
Protein: 24 grams
Whey protein is a fast and convenient source of high quality protein.
5 Simple (and easy) tips for increasing protein intake
Getting enough protein on a daily basis can be challenging, especially in a calorie deficit.
Here are my top tips for getting more protein in your diet.
Tip #1 | Use a calculator to determine your protein requirements
If you don't know your protein requirements, you can find out in less than 5 minutes.
All you need to do is click here to visit an online calculator.
First, click the moderate preset (below).
Next, input your calories and click calculate.
Then you'll be given your daily macros (including your protein requirements).
Tip #2 | Track your macros using a food journal
Now you've calculated your daily protein requirements, you need to make sure you're consistently hitting that target.
You can do this easily with a food diary or a digital calorie tracker like Myfitnesspal.
*For more information, check out my ultimate guide to counting macros.
Tip #3 | Use protein 'quotas' for every meal
Protein quotas are the minimum amounts of protein you need to include in each meal...
Which is based on your meal frequency.
For example, if you eat 3 times per day and your protein goal is 160 grams, you would divide 160 by 3, which equates to 53 grams per meal.
You can track your quotas with a paid account on Myfitnesspal.
Tip #4 | Pre-load your early meals with lots of protein
The easiest way to get more protein in your diet is to consume the bulk of your protein in your first two meals.
If you're worried about protein absorption- don't be.
Claims that the body can only absorb 30-40 grams in one sitting are taken out of context.
In reality, the body can absorb a great deal of protein.
Tip #5 | Use protein powders
Protein powders are an easy way of sneaking in an extra 25-50 grams of protein per day.
For most people, this will be enough to hit their protein intake, in addition to their regular diet.
What are the best protein powders (and do you need them)?
For the majority of people, protein powders are completely unnecessary.
However, if you're busy and only get time to eat once or twice per day, then protein powders can be a convenient source of protein.
In that case, I recommend whey protein. It has a fast absorption rate and is low in carbohydrates/fat- making it perfect for flexible dieting.
For vegetarians and vegans, I recommend a soy-based protein powder to increase protein intake.
BONUS: High protein diet plan for weight loss *Includes protein food chart
Protein is arguably the most important macro-nutrient in your diet:
- It has the highest thermic effect: meaning you get to eat more food and store less of it as fat.
- It has the biggest impact on satiety: which is perfect for dieting.
- It provides essential amino acids: These are used in protein synthesis and help you build muscle mass- without them, your training is useless!
Remember, if your goal is to build muscle you should be eating 0.75g per pound of bodyweight...
And if your goal is to lose fat, you should bump that up to 1g per pound of bodyweight.
If you're struggling to hit your protein requirements day-to-day, then you can benefit from using protein powder.
Now it's over to you!
What is your favourite high protein food? and why? Let me know in the comments below: