Why You Need Protein and How Much
First there was the low-fat, no-fat craze. Then came the era of abandoning all carbohydrates. These days, people like to rage against the evils of gluten. But no matter the trend, there’s one thing people will always agree on—and that’s the need for protein.
If someone told me how to eat, but couldn’t explain the science behind it, I’d consider it a huge red flag. So before we dive into understanding why protein is essential to our diet (and why you probably need more), I think it’s important to understand not only what proteins are, but the important role they play in the body.
Proteins serve a variety of incredibly important functions in the body. First of all, they are structural—meaning proteins actually take up space and create the body’s tissue and organs. But they are also functional—meaning proteins serve to do the majority of the work in cells. Proteins transmit signals in the body (hormones), fight viruses (antibodies), facilitate chemical reactions (enzymes), and transport atoms and small molecules within cells throughout the body. And if you’re a personal trainer like I am, this is proteins’ biggest selling point—proteins build and repair muscle. In other words, if Superman were an organic compound, he would be a protein.
I may risk getting a little too technical here, but stick with me. Proteins are made of long chains of amino acids. Within a protein, multiple amino acids are linked together through peptide bonds—creating unique three-dimensional structures, each with a separate function. Imagine proteins like building blocks or Legos: each chain of amino acids can link and bond with the next and the next, until you have large formations and folds, creating what scientists call “macromolecules.” But even as macromolecules, protein bonds are too small to see—even under the power of a microscope.
People are born with or can create most protein-building (aka proteinogenic) amino acids. In fact, of the 20 proteinogenic amino acids, 11 occur naturally within the body. But 9 of those essential amino acids won’t exist in your body unless you consume them in your diet.
And that brings us to food.
In my work with My Joe Body, I help people of all walks of life look their very best. My philosophy is, if you’re going to do the hard work, you might as well look great doing it. But as you know now, exercise is only part of the equation. To build and repair muscle tissue after an intense workout—you guessed it. Your body needs protein. And according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest What We Eat in America report, that message is coming across loud and clear. Men over the age of 20 consume an average of 98.9 grams of protein every day. But depending on your body weight, that could be far too much, or far too little.
For the average person, I recommend consuming 1 gram of protein for every kilogram of body weight each day. Since there are about 2.21 lbs in every 1 kilogram—take your body weight and divide it in half to estimate the number of grams of protein you should consume. In other words, a 120 lb woman should consume roughly 54 grams of protein each day. For clients on an intense body-building regime, I suggest increasing that number to 1 gram of protein per pound.
Choosing the foods that get you to that target number? Well that’s the fun part. I often suggest sticking with lean meats and fish for protein—since they pack a high protein punch with very little fat. And there are ways to get protein in other places, as well. Eggs, peanut butter, edamame—and of course, the highly beloved ancient grain, quinoa—these all offer 6-8 grams of protein per serving. Stay clear of marketing ploys to get you to buy products high in sugar and carbohydrates that claim to be enhanced with “Protein.” Whether you’re lifting weights, or practicing yoga, if you’re unsure of where to start in building your protein plan, Bodybuilding.com keeps a running list of the top 40 protein-packed foods. It’s a great reference.
Ultimately, no matter what happens in the future of fad diets—protein is sticking around. No one wants to live in a world without Superman.
-Joe Johnson is a credited fitness coach and personal trainer. Learn more about Joe at www.myjoebody.com.