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Protein for strength and energy: Am I eating enough?

food sources rich in protein

Sometimes, when speaking to a group, I might ask, "What's the most important role of eating protein?" 

And, typically the audience responds in one voice, "Muscles."

While, it's true that protein is important for building muscles, realize that it's not the primary role. 

The Primary Role of Protein

When we look in the mirror we may look the same from day to day, but we're not as static as we think. We're aware that our hair falls out periodically and is replaced with new hairs, but that's not all. 

We slough off our skin cells. And every cell within our body also breaks down on a regular basis. That includes the proteins in our bones, heart, liver, lungs, and more. There is protein in insulin, antibodies, and in our red blood cells.

Even those proteins in our muscles have to be rebuilt on a regular basis. That's why you can't expect to get in shape...and then do nothing and expect those muscles to stay there.

In fact, 1% of our body proteins breaks down every day and has to be rebuilt. Replacing protein is the most important role of dietary protein.

What Else?

Dietary protein also helps to fuel the body, fill us up, and help to maintain normal glucose levels.

While we know our cars and computers need a source of energy to operate, realize our body does, too. Not just for staying alive. We need fuel to be mentally focused and productive, as well as emotionally balanced with a healthy mood. A source of energy is needed for willpower, stamina, and motivation, too - these things are not just in our minds. 

While the body uses both fat and glucose (a carbohydrate) as fuel, sometimes we use protein for fuel as well. 

Much as we might wish, the body can't run on stored fat alone. That's why, when you go too long without eating, you get hungry. While even if we're lean we have hundreds of thousands of calories of fat stores. In comparison, we have just 300-400 calories of stored glucose (in the form of glycogen in our liver).

So, if you're not eating adequate carbs, protein fills that void in order to get the glucose that our brain needs. That's either from the protein in the meal you just ate - or chiseling the protein from your lean muscle mass (ouch!). 

Protein is more filling than eating carbs or fat. That's why you feel fuller with a three egg omelet than with a plate of pancakes (with the same amount of calories). And, lets face it, feeling satiated means that we're not distracted and thinking about food between meals so we can focus on more important things.

Often, just two hours after eating a high carb meal, one might start to feel hungry. Others report a mood change - feeling grumpy or even angry. Or what some people refer to as "hangry."  

That's the power of protein. 

Protein also helps to stabilize our blood glucose. So if you have diabetes or impaired glucose intolerance or maybe even hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), adding protein at every meal prevents our blood sugar for falling. Keep in mind that about half of all adults fits into one of these three categories. 

How Much Protein Do I Need to Eat?

The recommended dietary allowance for protein is around 50g. A bit more for men and a little less for women. 

And, it's quite easy to get that amount with cereal with skim milk for breakfast, a small turkey sub without any cheese for lunch, and single slice of pizza for dinner. 

I'm not suggesting that you eat these foods, I just want you to realize though how easy it is to get enough protein if that's all we need is the RDA.

But, the RDA is generally to replace the daily losses. For optimal health and energy (feeling full and energized), you'll need perhaps 50-100% more. But WHEN you eat this protein is really critical, too, so read on.

What's the Optimal Amount of Protein Recommended?

In order to replace the daily losses, build muscle mass, to feel full, to stabilize our blood glucose, and more, we likely need around 70 to 120 grams of protein every day. 

There's no need to go up above 150 grams. I know bodybuilders probably feel they do, but most of that extra protein will likely only get used on fuel. 

When you eat this protein is just as critical as how much.

Realize that the body builds proteins 24/7, not just at set times, so we need to make sure we have a constant source. So, instead of eating all your protein at one time…aim to get 20 to 35 grams of protein AT EACH MEAL - breakfast, lunch and dinner.

That number comes from the fact that the body can only manufacture this much protein at any one time. Eating more than this at any one meal means the excess won't make it into body protein, but rather will be used as fuel - or if you simply ate more than you needed at that time of the day - into your fat stores. 

What is 20-35g Protein? 

Now what does 20 to 35 grams of protein look like? Well, if you're eating animal foods, it's pretty easy. Aim for a piece of meat that’s the size of a deck of cards (20g) or the size of typical kitchen sponge (35g). Some experts suggest matching it to the size of the palm of your hand (not the fingers just the palm). Another way to get adequate protein is to think about filling up one-quarter of your plate with protein.

If you're eating veg or vegetarian, check out this list. All of these choices contain about eight grams of protein. So to get 20-35g per meal, you can mix and match - three eggs or two eggs and a cup of milk.

  • 1 Egg
  • 1c Milk
  • 1oz Cheese
  • 6oz (regular) Yogurt (Greek yogurt is generally twice as high)
  • ½ c Beans or Legumes, Soybeans, Tofu
  • 3/4 c Quinoa
  • 1 Veggie patty (check the labels)
  • ¼c Nuts or Seeds
  • 2Tbsp Peanut Butter 
  • 1/2 scoop Protein Powder (check the labels)

I had this client years ago who loved peanut butter and she tried going vegetarian and just getting all of our protein from peanut butter. She just couldn't get enough protein. On top of that, peanut butter is so high in fat that it was really hard for her to cut back on calories so she was gaining weight. 

So remember, aim for 20 to 35 grams of protein at every single meal for all your protein needs.

Help, I'm Not Eating Enough Protein

I hear this a lot. Mostly from women. Perhaps they prefer carbs over protein foods. Sometimes it's because they think that protein foods are fattening. (Did you know that both proteins and carbs are equal calories - one gram of each contain four calories). 

I've found that not eating enough protein is common enough that I dedicated one of my podcast episodes to this. Check it out. Or download my "Energize Your Life" podcast on your phone - all the links to your favorite channels can be found HERE

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