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All About Protein

Why do I need protein?

After water, the biggest component in your body is protein. Over 98% of the molecules in your body are replaced every year. So you need protein as a building block. If you don't get enough protein, or if you are eating poor quality protein, your body will not grow strong muscles, bones, blood, teeth, etc.

How much protein do I really need?

Sorry, there's no definitive answer. Every expert has a different opinion. Here are a few examples:

Let's start with sports nutrition expert Michael Colgan. His research suggests that the type of sport you do has an effect on the amount of protein you need. Strength sports people need approximately 2.0 gm of protein per kg of bodyweight per day. Athletes who need speed first, then strength, then endurance need about 1.7g/kg/day & endurance athletes need 1.4g/kg/day.

This requirement is based on a high level of training, 3-4 hours a day. If you are only training 1-2 hours a day, your requirement will be less, by approximately 0.3g/kg/day. For an 80kg man doing 1-2 hours riding a day, this would be 80 x 1.1g = 88g per day. Doing 3- 4 hours riding, he would need 80 x 1.4g = 112g. Note: These are his rough guidelines only, each person will have different individual needs.

The Zone's Barry Sears multiplies your lean body mass in lbs. by a sliding scale ranging from 0.5 for couch potatoes, to 1.0 for very heavy training. Say our 80kg cyclist has a fat % of 20%. That means his lean body mass is 64kg (or approximately 140lbs). He would come into the 0.8 category, so would need 140 x 0.8 = 112gm. However, a very fit lean cyclist of the same weight with only 15% body fat, & a higher lean body mass, would need 120gm.

The range we're talking about is slightly higher than Colgan, but depends on lean body mass, rather than weight. The other main difference is that the amount of protein, once calculated, must be strictly adhered to "to get into the Zone", and determines the amount of carbs & fat you can eat. Check out the Zone page for more details.

The Eat Right For Your Blood Type diet's Peter D'Adamo recommends different ratios for each blood type. His rough guidelines are 20% for A & AB, 34% for B, and 45% for O types. The metabolic diets don't specify protein requirements in grams, but Hunter-Gatherers need animal protein at every meal, whereas extreme Agriculturists thrive on a vegetarian diet.

Traditional nutritionists will probably recommend 10-15% of calories. A lot of naturopathic nutritionists are concerned that the level of protein consumption is too high. I have seen recommendations ranging from .6g/kg/day to 1g/kg/day.

So who's right?

The best way to determine your need for protein is to determine your metabolic type first. That will give you a good idea of how high your protein levels need to be. If you are trying out a particular diet regime, start within those guidelines.

Otherwise, start with Michael Colgan's recommendations and see how you feel. It's fairly easy to tell if you're not getting enough protein - you will lose (or at least not gain) muscle mass and strength. You may find that your muscles take a long time to recover after exercise, or your energy levels might be very low. Try adding a little more protein to your diet and see if you improve.

It's harder to tell if you're getting too much. If you are drinking lots of water and are feeling fine, you're probably doing OK. If you eat excess protein to a level that your kidneys can't handle, you will start to get kidney pain and feel generally unwell. It may take a bit of trial and error to get the balance right for you.

What’s the best protein for me?

The first factor here is bioavailability. Michael Colgan wrote in depth about bio- availability in an article in NZ Fitness Magazine. He ranks protein sources in the order listed on the right.

But you also need to take into account how your body responds to each of these protein sources. Some people don't digest whey products particularly well, even high quality ones. Your metabolic type will determine which proteins sources suit you best.

Some athletes following a whole food diet find they have excellent muscle growth and recovery eating raw egg yolks or raw liver after workouts, for example.

Our take on this is: eat a variety of different foods - the ones that work for you - and get your protein from as many different sources as possible. If you find that you're not getting enough protein from your normal diet, you can add in a supplement. But if you're on a strict whole foods diet, you may find you can't have any of them.

If you want to try a whey protein supplement, check out how to find a good one. I prefer to avoid any other kind.

Protein Source Bioavailability
Whey peptide blends 110-159
Whey concentrate 104
Whole egg 100
Cow's milk 91
Egg White (albumin) 88
Fish 83
Beef 80
Chicken 79
Casein 77
Soy 74
Rice 59
Wheat 54
Beans 49

How much protein is in my favorite food?

If you are aiming to eat 120gm of protein a day, you might want 30gm 4 times a day. 30 grams of complete protein would come from approximately:

  • 110-120gm of lean meat or poultry
  • 150gm of fish
  • 6 eggs
  • 1 cup of cottage cheese
  • 2-3 cups yogurt
  • 1 "shake" made from microfiltered whey protein powder, or whey protein concentrate (the only types of protein powder we recommend)
  • We do not recommend soy as a protein source

Nuts and seeds have some protein, but have at least 75% fat in them, so should be considered a fat source. Legumes and grains also have some protein, but are primarily a carbohydrate source. If you are following a vegetarian diet, you need to combine 2-3 of these 4 food groups at a meal to make complete protein. Some examples:

  • Whole grains, with nut milk and some sunflower seeds or ground flaxseed
  • Beans and rice
  • Corn tortilla with mexican beans
  • Hummus (chick peas and sesame paste) with whole grain pita breads
  • Tempeh with stir fried with rice and veggies, with a handful of pumpkin seeds (Note that the only soy products you should eat are those that have been fermented, like tempeh, miso or tamari)

When should I eat it?

It's good to have some protein at breakfast, 20-30g if possible. This helps keep your blood sugar steady throughout the day. If you are taking a supplementary "shake", take it when your body needs easily digested protein most, either an hour or two before hard training, or straight after. Other than that, spread your protein intake evenly throughout the day, and aim to have at least some protein and fat with every meal or snack.