Protein is an essential part of any diet, but even seasoned fitness enthusiasts may still have some questions about this vital macronutrient and the best way to work it into a healthy day of eating. How much do you need, and how much is too much? And, If you’re a vegan, can you get enough?
To answer these questions and more Lisa Dorfman, a board-certified sports and performance nutritionist and author also known as The Running Nutritionist®, chatted with STAY FIT 305 all about sources of protein, when to consume it and how to know how much you need.
A former professional triathlete herself, Dorfman has been in the nutrition industry for over three decades and counseled clients from all walks of life. Olympic, professional, and college athletes have relied on her counsel, and she has served as a celebrity nutritionist for the stars of movies such Gone Girl, Avengers, and Iron Man 3. And, spoiler alert, Dorfman is a vegetarian- so if there’s no meat in your kitchen, you’re definitely in good company.
How much protein do you need...?
Put simply, it depends! The exact amount of protein an active individual needs each day can vary from person to person, but according to Dorfman it can range from 1.2 to 2.4 grams per kilogram of bodyweight (remember: 1 kilogram is about 2.2 pounds.) For reference, an average 150-pound individual should shoot for at least 80 grams every day.
...And what factors affect this?
A variety of factors affect exactly where you should fall on the scale of how much protein to consume per kilogram of bodyweight. Athletes who perform highly anaerobic activities such as heavy weightlifting, boxing, or sprinting will find that they need more protein each day to help their bodies recover.
“If you're doing a lot of high-intensity work where you’re just ripping apart your muscles,” Dorfman said, “then your needs will most certainly go up.”
Sleep patterns and stress levels can also affect how much protein you need, as “stressing out” or not getting enough sleep can make it difficult for your body to recover from the day. Further, Dorfman says, individuals consuming a lower amount of calories per day need more protein to make up for this deficit.
“The less you eat,” she said, “the more protein you need because then all of a sudden you rely on protein (as opposed to carbohydrates and fat) more as an energy source.”
How should you work protein into your daily diet?
You might want to forgo that 16-ounce steak dinner in favor of a more balanced approach to eating protein over the course of the day, Dorfman says. The best way to go is to eat this macro a few ounces at a time, “little by little,” to ensure your body always has what it needs.
According to Dorfman, chowing down on a protein power snack is especially important after a workout. Shakes, bars, and smoothies, she continued, are all quick and easy ways to get some protein in your system.
What are the best (and worst) sources of protein?
Lean meats and plant-based proteins, Dorfman said, are some of the healthiest sources of protein out there. Lean chicken, turkey, and pork are great, as well as fish and grass-fed beef. Vegan options such as quinoa, peas, whole grains, beans, and more make the cut too. And that whey (or pea) powder sitting in a tub on your counter? A-ok, says Dorfman. In fact, protein powders and bars are great sources of protein when you’re running out of time.
Now, what’s not on the list? First of all, Dorfman suggests saving marbled meat for the holidays. She also warns against vegan products designed to mimic meat and noted that not all foods marketed as “vegan” are actually healthy.
“Some of the vegan burgers out there,” she said, “have more fat than a regular beef burger, or more sodium and saturated fat.”
Finally, she said, a good rule of thumb is to make sure you can see the protein you’re eating. If it’s covered in sauces, oils, or breadcrumbs, it probably isn’t the best option.
Can vegans get enough protein?
Heck yes, Dorfman says. Animal and plant proteins can be equally nutritious, but vegetarians and vegans may need to monitor their intake more closely to ensure they get enough.
“Vegetarians can certainly be healthy,” she said, “if you do it the right way.”
When it comes to whole foods and sources of plant-based protein, she said, vegans and vegetarians have “oodles of variety.”
What are some common misconceptions about protein?
“(A) common misconception,” Dorfman said, “is that you can eat as much as you want and not have repercussions.”
While some individuals need more protein than others, there is such a thing as “too much.” Eating more protein than you need, Dorfman said, can lead athletes to feel “weighed down” or even dehydrated.
A good way to know if you’re getting the right amount of protein, she said, is simply look in the mirror and ask yourself a few questions. How is your muscle tone? Are you catching colds easily, healing extra slowly from injuries? Is your hair falling out, skin clear? If so, you may want to consider adjusting your diet or working with a nutritionist.
“It’s a quality of life evaluation,” she said. If you’re eating well, you’ll probably feel well too.