To form a healthy lifestyle, we need to develop successful workout and nutrition habits. Exercise, though difficult while you’re enduring it, is the easier of the two. Exercise requires components of both strength training and cardio exercise, as well as consistency, but besides that, there really aren’t a lot of rules. Nutrition, on the other hand, requires some effort to really pull off correctly. We’ve discussed plenty of nutrition topics, from the basics behind it to whether a flexible approach is the way to go. Today’s topic is one that is a cause for concern for many of my clients, and it’s that pesky protein intake. Protein intake is one of the most important variables of a healthy lifestyle, but besides saying it’s necessary (and probably trying to sell you a protein powder), it isn’t discussed much.
So why is protein so important?
Protein is one of the main macronutrients in our diets. It is calorically the same as carbs, yielding 4 calories per gram. Protein is made from amino acids, and is the main building block of our cells, including muscle cells. Protein, in enough amounts, helps with muscle building, which contributes to the toned, athletic look many of us are after, and also helps to prevent the breakdown on muscle.
To lose mass, we need to be in a caloric deficit for both our bodies and activity levels. This means that, specific to our own body composition and lifestyle, we need to eat less calories than we need to maintain out current weight. During a caloric deficit, 30% of each pound lost is muscle! In this case, a pound is not just a pound. Muscle mass burns more calories at rest, contributing to your overall metabolic rate. This means that the more muscle you have on your body, the more calories your body burns at rest. Consuming adequate protein (around 1g/lb of bodyweight) ensures that you are not burning as much muscle during this time of a caloric deficit. This helps to not only keep your existing muscle on your body as you lose fat, but also keeps you metabolic rate as high as you can while dieting. This means that, even as you lose body fat and size, you can keep your calories higher while dieting, leading to a less harsh feeling diet.
To gain mass, we need to be in a caloric surplus. This is the opposite of a deficit, meaning that we need to eat more than necessary to maintain our weight. In a caloric surplus, protein intake isn’t as high (around .8g/lb of bodyweight), but is still necessary to aid in recovery from workouts.
Now that we are all aware of why protein is so important to our intakes, no matter the goal, let’s take a look at ways to increase your protein without even realizing it. As we discussed earlier, adequate protein intake is between .8-1.2g of protein/lb of bodyweight, depending on the goal. For a 150lb woman, who is trying to lose mass, the daily protein intake she would aim for is around 150g. Many people do not get anywhere close to that amount of protein, so asking for Jane Doe to go from 50g of protein to 150g overnight would be ridiculous. There are ways we can sneak extra protein into her diet, without purely chugging shakes or downing bars.
Hack Your Plate
Many times, increasing your protein intake requires nothing more than a slight tweak to meals you already make. Simple ways to increase your protein intake include increasing your protein portion at meals and swapping foods for very similar ones. At dinner (or lunch), many people eat meals that include a vegetable, a grain, and a piece of protein (meat, fish, tofu). A simple way to increase your protein intake would be to increase the size of your protein portion. Instead of one piece of chicken breast, bump it up to one and a half, maybe even two pieces. That, depending on the size of the chicken, can increase your protein intake from 20g of protein, up to 30-40g in a single meal! As well, adding egg whites to your whole eggs in the morning is a good way to increase the protein content of a meal, without adding any other nutrient such as carbs or fats. Maybe you already feel like you eat enough meat, so you’re looking for another way to increase your protein intake. Many vegetables are high in protein, including broccoli (6g for a cup) and spinach (6g for a cup), as well as beans and legumes. Black beans and chickpeas contain 12-15g of protein per cup, but watch out that the carb content of them doesn’t push you over your limits. Edamame and tofu are complete plant based proteins, containing all essential amino acids, making them a high quality protein to add to your meals. Another helpful swap is to switch out your regular yogurt for some Greek yogurt. Greek yogurt is higher in protein than traditional yogurts, yielding between 12-20g of protein per serving of yogurt. As with any other yogurt, be sure to watch the sugar and carb content of flavored varieties. Plain Greek yogurt has a bitter or sour taste to it, lending itself well to smoothies or replacing sour cream in recipes.
High Quality Protein Sources:
• Chicken Breast: 20g protein for 4oz serving
• Egg: 6g per egg
• Egg white: 3g per white
• Lean ground beef/turkey: 24g for 4oz serving
• Greek yogurt: 20g per cup
• Quinoa: 8g per cup
I just said we weren’t going to chug shakes or down bars, and we’re not, but protein supplementation can be extremely helpful. I am a firm believer that the majority of macros and micros (vitamins and minerals) should be coming from whole food sources. However, whether it be because of time or lack of resources, protein supplements can be necessary to get you to that overall intake goal. I tend to keep myself to one serving of artificial protein (either a scoop of protein powder or a protein bar) per day, so as to make sure the majority of my protein comes from natural sources. A scoop of high quality whey protein powder can give you an extra 25-30g of protein, while also helping to reduce some sweet cravings without the sugar (as long as you snag a good tasting protein). As well, some protein bars are balanced enough to be a good snack, giving a sufficient dose of protein (12-20g) while also giving a boost of energy from carbs (around 20g) and some satisfaction from fats (8-10g). Whey protein is a derivative of milk protein, so if you have a sensitivity to lactose, I would recommend a pea or brown rice based protein. These exist, and can be just as protein packed as the lactose derived.
• Whey Protein Isolate: high quality protein with few fillers or additives
• Pea Protein: high quality vegan protein, good for those with milk sensitivities
• RXBars: all natural protein bar with whole ingredients (12g protein/20-25g carbs/10ishg fat)
• Clif Builder Bars: more protein oomph (20g protein, 20-25g carbs, 10ish fat)
• Fit Joy Bars: use stevia instead of sugar alcohols, much easier on digestion (20-25g protein, 20-25g carbs, 8-10g fat)
Increasing your protein intake doesn’t have to be a chore. Sometimes, it can be as easy as buying the food item directly next to what you usually get. Though the in and out of nutrition is more difficult to get down than the consistency of exercise, healthy eating doesn’t need to be complicated. There are many ways to increase your protein intake, ranging from swapping protein intakes to simply eating a protein bar. Use a few of these tips and tricks to increase that protein intake, to allow your body to run efficiently, no matter what goal you’re trying to meet.