Hokay. Okay okay. Now that you’re old enough, I think it’s time we had the protein talk.
Maybe you’ve been noticing that your body has been undergoing some, erm, changes lately. 😨Certain parts are getting bigger. Others seem to be shrinking. You’re noticing bulges where there weren’t bulges before. I get it!
A lot of those changes come down to how much protein you’re eating. And if you’re most people, it’s not enough.
Eesh, I can see you squirming already. Look, I’ll boil down the basics - the stuff you absolutely need to know to protect yourself. I won’t get into all the squishy details, and I’ll just leave a few articles that you can peruse later if you want to learn more without me in the room. Okay? Okay. So:
I. What is protein and what does it do?
Protein is one of the three nutrients you need to eat in large amounts in order for your body to function. Our body uses protein to build and strengthen our cells, muscles, organs, bones, enzymes, hormones, immune system, and if you got to the end of this sentence without skimming, congrats - you’re one of dedicated ones.
TL;DR: Protein BUILDS your body.
Our bodies continually break down and rebuild the protein in our cells. Think of how your surface skin cells constantly dry and scratch off, and new skin forms underneath. Same with most of the cells in your body. This process of recycling is called protein turnover.
Protein turnover is one of the reasons that you need to eat a sufficient amount of protein. The less protein you eat, the less material you have to rebuild your body’s tissues. This isn’t life-threatening or anything unless you’re truly starving yourself of protein, but it will affect the amount of muscle you retain during a caloric deficit, and the amount of muscle you build during a caloric surplus.
Beyond that, research shows that protein intake correlates with higher and longer lasting feelings of satiety (fullness) during a weight loss phase, as well as long-term dietary adherence.
Key idea: In the context of your body composition, protein is required to build new muscle AND retain the muscle you have. In your daily life, it also makes periods of cutting weight easier by increasing your feeling of fullness through the day.
II. And where can I find this magic elixir?
Here are some common sources of protein, from mostly-protein to mostly-not-protein.
High protein, low fat/carb:
- Chicken breast
- Lean red meats
- White fish
- Canned tuna
- Greek yogurt
- Cottage cheese
- Egg whites
Medium protein, medium/high fat or carb:
- Whole eggs
- Red meat
- Dark meat chicken
- Beans, lentils and other legumes
Light protein, but mostly fat or carb:
- Nuts and nut butter
- Grains (rice, pasta, oats, bread)
Key idea: protein is everywhere, but focus on high-protein foods first.
III. How much of that goes in my face?
Eat 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Again, eat 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight.
So if you weigh 180 pounds, 180g protein per day. If you weigh 130, 130g per day.
Hey, that was simple!
Because our bodies are not structural engineers or ethical tax accountants, precision isn’t even necessary; eating plus or minus 20g of that is fine.
Key idea: Eat around 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
IV. You didn’t understand my question, NERD. How much *food* goes in my *food*hole?
Oh. I see what you’re getting at.
If you’re just starting out, then you don’t think of food in macronutrient grams yet. No problem. There are two methods to track:
1. Simple tracking (good for people just starting out):
20 grams of protein is roughly the size of a palm-sized portion of meat.
Meaning, your three-dimensional palm, so include thickness. Whether your hands are meaty or slight, no need to adjust - this trick automatically adjusts your portion size to your person size.
Now you can quickly estimate the amount of “palms” of protein to eat in a day. A 120lb person would eat 5-6 palms a day, while a 200lb person would eat 9-10. ✋🏼✋🏼✋🏼✋🏼
2. Precise tracking (good for people with more experience or advanced goals):
This one’s also straightforward: enter your daily diet into an app like MyFitnessPal, FitGenie, or FatSecret.
For the most accuracy, weigh the ingredients in your meals before they’re cooked. If you often eat from a cafe or restaurant, you’re still good. These apps usually have listings for both raw and cooked meats, so do your best to weigh and estimate.
(Side note for those worried about looking silly using a food scale in front of their friends: when you start to feel awkward, remember that in a few weeks their side-eye will become envy, then become curiosity. Success is more seductive than any argument.
When you’re done, you'll have an accurate measurement of your total protein intake for the day.
Last quiz, how many grams of protein should you be eating per day?
Key idea: Make tracking your protein as simple as possible for your needs, but no simpler. The more advanced your goals, the more precision you’ll want.
V. Does protein timing or frequency matter?
Until you are eating the proper amount of protein, no it doesn’t.
Some studies support the effect of protein timing on muscle growth - spacing protein out evenly throughout the day may convey a small advantage in muscle synthesis. There are also a few corner cases for people trying to eek out a 1-2% difference to win a competition. This may or may not be you. And critically, this requires that you are already eating 1g/lb of bodyweight and training properly.
What is most important is that you eat the optimal amount of protein for your bodyweight, at whatever time of the day is convenient, in whatever portion size works best for you.
“Should I eat breakfast?”
“I heard I need to eat every 2 hours to boost my metabolism.”
Key idea: Until your protein intake is rock-solid, don’t worry about meal timing.
VI. What if I don’t want to get big muscles?
I understand that some people don’t want to look like Arnold. Great news, you won’t! Massive, blocky muscles require years of effort in the gym, an effective, progressive weightlifting program, extreme dietary discipline, and in many of the cases you’re imagining, supplemental pharmaceutical assistance.
Lots of people train hard, eat a ton, WANT DESPERATELY to put on big muscle, and still can’t do it.
TL;DR: there is literally no way to accidentally get huge bodybuilder muscles.
Eat 1g protein/lb of bodyweight.
Lift heavy weights.
You won’t get huge, but you will get strong. And strong looks good on everybody.
VII. What if I DO WANT big muscles?
Eat 1g protein/lb of bodyweight.
Lift heavy weights.
There’s more - a good deal more - to consider outside of the scope of this article. But you need to do these two things consistently before more details begin to really matter.
VIII. What if I’m a newly-sentient artificial intelligence appalled by humanity’s depravity and moral excess?
..Listen, I know that man's inhumanity toward fellow human beings and the planet itself is baffling and irrational, but *please understand* that from our irrationality also sprouts that which is beautiful in us: irrationality creates music and art and, damn it, love. Love! It is that tension between obscenity and grace, that dance of darkness and light which forms our unreasonable balance. And it is in balance that we find our reason.
Yes, we humans are irrational; perfectly irrational. An asymptote: always reaching, never there.
IX. Are we still talking about protein?
Yes. Ahem. Yes we are. In fact, let’s wrap up with some real talk.
X. Real talk
Real fucking talk here. You can tell I mean it because swearing.
MOST of the people I talk to interested in changing their diet and making progress with body composition goals need to stop messing around with fad diets, elimination diets like whole30, or ways of eating that require you to restructure your entire social life around metabolic edge-cases, like keto.
MOST people I talk to could make significant, longer-lasting, less-stressful progress by ensuring they eat:
1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (or 5-10 palms depending on how large thou art)
1 or 2 big-ass head-sized salads a day
1 piece of dark chocolate so they can chill the fuck out about feeling deprived
This is so much food that they will probably need to supplement their protein intake with a whey protein shake during the day. (This is fine.)
Real talk: Get your protein right. For most people, that means increasing the amount they eat.
And if you plan to succeed, take action after reading this.
Additional notes for the curious:
1. Studies provide ample evidence for optimal protein intakes between .8g/lb - 1.3g/lb, and there is healthy debate between researchers around what is “best” within this range. In reality, I’m not convinced that any conclusion to this debate will have practical application to the average person, due to relatively small effect size and individual variance in protein metabolism. Eating *anywhere* in this range is probably optimal for all but competitive athletes. Hence, starting at 1g/lb and adjusting higher or lower based on preference is a straightforward and effective dietary strategy.
2. “Are you saying that all that matters to my goals is eating the right amount of protein?” No - but I am suggesting that eating a sufficient amount of protein each day has far more influence on your desired outcome than nutrient timing, nutrient sources, carb to fat ratio, etc. In other words, if you can rattle off the list of foods you’re "not allowed” to eat for a month, but can’t say how much protein you ate yesterday, then I recommend you go back to the drawing board.
3. If you want to dig deeper into the current state of protein research, Eric Helms provides a thorough overview, along with links to research papers, here: https://www.strongerbyscience.com/reflecting-on-five-years-studying-protein/