Recently an old friend from college texted me this question. If you are a dietitian reading this I am sure you have been asked the same or similar regarding protein. For the rest of you I would guess that you have perhaps wondered the same, especially in light of all of the media hype centered around protein in addition to fads old and new such as Atkins and Paleo.
Let's start with the basics. What is protein? Protein is one of the 3 macronutrients that our bodies need to thrive. The other two, carbohydrates and fat, are equally as important and have both been under fire in the past while protein stays gleaming in the spotlight. First it was no or low fat, then no carbs, and now it's mega protein. In hindsight protein is the first macronutrient in which the American culture has pushed MORE of instead of less of. Why is that? The answer is multifactorial, and here are 3 key points to know about protein:
- Proteins are made up of essential amino acids - meaning we can only get them from FOOD- these amino acids are building blocks that have various functions in our body
- Proteins have many functions and some of which are to make other types of proteins-
- Enzymes (type of protein)
- Hormones (some are a type of protein such as insulin and growth hormone)
- Functions as an energy source for liver, muscle and intestines
- Metabolic signaling
- Protein helps maintain….
- bone health
- body composition (percentage of fat vs muscle)
- Blood glucose levels
- body weight
So you get the idea. Protein does a lot and is important for us all. There are some rare genetic disorders where one must be very careful with the amount and kind of protein they ingest (phenylketonuria for example) and for other populations a bit more is necessary (pregnant women, athletes). There are 3 components of protein that we can all take into consideration. The kind, the time we consume and how much we eat.
Protein is separated into animal protein and plant proteins. A complete protein is one which has all 9 essential amino acids, and an incomplete protein does not have all 9, or is very low in one or more amino acids, hence it is incomplete. Animal sources are complete protein and although most plant proteins are incomplete there are some exceptions. Hemp protein is a vegan source, which DOES have all 9 essential amino acids. Quinoa, buckwheat, soybeans and even blue-green algae are also considered complete. Legume are as well, but they are limited in two specific ones- methionine and lysine,l ow in leucine AND are not always well digested by all. Some common legumes are alfalfa, peas, beans, lentils, carob, soybeans, peanuts and tamarind.
I will cut to the chase now and provide you a list of high quality proteins and complement proteins- those that when consumed together make an incomplete protein complete!
High quality proteins:
- Animal protein- best to stick to lean cut meats, fish, cottage cheese, strained yogurt, milk (goat’s milk is better tolerated if you have some lactose intolerance), and eggs
- Hemp protein powder or hemp seeds
- Legumes- but remember, it may be a complete protein but are limited in some amino acids
- Buckwheat, Quinoa, Soy
- Rice and beans
- Whole Wheat pita and hummus or other bean dip
- Baked beans and Cornbread
- Peanut butter sandwich
Protein is a ubiquitous macronutrient in that it plays a diverse role in the body. It helps keep out skin, nails and hair healthy, and is responsible for making some enzymes and some hormones. The last thing we want it to take charge of is being used up for energy. Hence, this why the athlete's buddy carbohydrates are protein sparing.
There is a rhyme and reason behind timing when and how much protein you consume. What is super cool is that we are human and we are adaptable so if there happens to be one day once in a while that you are crazy busy that you do not eat at the exact time you usually do after a workout or miss lunch (insert scream sounds here) YOU WILL BE OK. Just do not make a habit out of it as this will not only affect your running performance but also your mood, blood sugar levels and energy.
Here are some general guidelines around protein for the general population:
30 grams, 3 times a day, so that's about 30 grams at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
So now lets personalize this a bit for the runner:
- Eat more than just 3 times a day- your appetite will grow the more you run. Snacks are important for the athlete and this who are very active.
- After a run the best time window to consume protein is within 30 minutes- 20 grams of protein in a post-training session is a good amount to aim for.
- The guidelines for runners according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition are 1-1.6 grams per kg body weight - example to follow! ↓
Joe Shmo is 150 pounds, which is 68 kg. He needs approx 70-110 grams of protein a day.
Breakfast - 20 grams
Snack 15 grams
Lunch: 20 grams
Snack- 20 grams
Dinner 20 grams
Snack: 15 grams
This is just an example and there is some wiggle room here. If Joe ate 25 or 30 grams at a meal no biggie here, but research shows that over 30 grams at one time is not really anymore beneficial in how the body utilizes it. However, nutrition science is ever evolving and more genetic focused studies are under way so maybe for some people it may be helpful, and maybe for others more harmful. For now, be rest assured that you do not have to fill your plate with a protein on top of protein on top of protein at dinner time.
For a post-run recovery intake at least 15 grams of protein intake is my recommendation. A ratio of 3:1 or 4:1 of carbs:protein is efficient depending on your goal for weight. Because we are not robots (yet) and we eat food and not numbers I put these numbers into food for you:
10 grams of protein looks like: 1. Cups of Soy Milk
15 grams looks like: 4 ounces of cottage cheese
20 grams looks like: Eggs Sandwich with 2 eggs and 2 pieces of whole wheat bread
30 grams looks like: 6 ounces Strained yogurt such as Greek or Skyr mixed with half cup chicken for a nice little chicken salad
So just how MUCH do you need? This is the part we have been waiting for! Well... I do recommend you see a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) to find your optimal intake as we are not all built in a box. Here is some background on protein recommendations in America.
- The Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA’s) for protein were developed for most healthy people and covered the MINIMAL adequate amounts needed
- The Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI’s) are more broad and range from the adequate intake (RDA) to prevent nutrient deficiencies to the upper limit (UL) which is the amount one can consume without it actually being toxic
- The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDRI) is a value for a macronutrient (a carb, fat or protein) in percentages- for example the AMDRI for protein is 10-35% of a person's daily calorie intake- no worries about getting into the nitty gritty details of calculating this out (again, that is part of what dietitian can do for you when necessary).
So confused yet? Yea, sorry about that- but it IS a good idea to get a sense of what are all these numbers on a nutrition label. The takeaway here is that any dietary recommendations set forth by a committee to meet a very large population of people are not set in stone and instead are guidelines to ensure people are not under doing it or overdoing it. When you work with a dietitian he or she can fine tune these recommendations to better fit YOUR needs based on not only your height, weight, goal, and activity level, but also support any current medical complications you may have and most importantly PREVENT disease by taking special consideration of family history, environment and genetics.
Remember all that talk about essential amino acids and how some foods have more of one and lack another? There is one in particular that is especially important to us all, and more so for athletes (drum roll please) it is leucine. Leucine is key as it helps to make proteins in the body by triggering the metabolic pathway ( think of the domino effect) signaling that the meal just consumed was adequate enough to grow muscle tissue- how cool is that? It's like food is talking to our muscles and telling them to grow (less room for fat)!
I'm a dietitian, I love food, I promote REAL FOOD- and there is a time and place for supplements, however they are to SUPPLEMENT your diet and nothing that a healthy individual should rely on- furthermore you get so much more out of food than you do from a pill. So instead of running to your local drug store and looking for leucine in a box eat more of these high leucine foods:
- Pork Chop*
*One serving of these is 3 ounces, which is about the size of a deck of cards.
Now that we have all that taken care of get out there and start running! Remember when you finish you have 30 minutes as the optimal time to get in a snack with at least 15 grams of protein. Want to give your chocolate milk a nutritional kick? Try goat's milk with raw cacao or carob powder and a little honey, mix well and pour over ice. Not keen on goats milk? Hemp milk is also a great alternative. No supplements needed, just good ol’ food.
The Role of Protein in Overall Health: Quality, Quantity, and Timing Considerations. Seyler, J, Layman D. SCAN's Pulse. 2012, Vol 31, No.3
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