Monday 11 March 2013

Week 11 Nutrition Habit: Finding Your Optimal Protein Level

How much protein should I be eating? If you want to perform optimally, recover quickly, gain lean muscle or even lose body fat, you need to know the answer to this question! Therefore, in week 11 of the 52 Weeks to Better Nutrition and a New You series, it is time for you to calculate and start eating your optimal protein level.

The Benefits of Protein While, this should be review for many of you, it is important to quickly look at why protein is so important for your goals:

Training Recovery
Intense training breaks down tissues which must be re-built. Insufficient protein intake means impaired recovery.

Muscle gain
This is an obvious, but essential one. Trying to build muscles without enough protein is like trying to build a house without wood.

Fat loss
Is the beef patty really the problem here?
Many people mistakenly think that high-protein foods will make them fat. While eating high-fat protein sources will obviously increase total calories and common additions to protein foods add extra fat, sugar and calories (e.g. think of what goes with the beef patty you get at a typical fast-food restaurant) protein does not make you fat! In fact, protein along with vegetables are the two most important types of food to eat for fat loss. Here is why:

  • Protein foods have a lower glycemic load than most foods and help to reduce the glycemic impact of a meal.
  • Protein foods increase TEF (thermic effect of food). TEF is the amount of calories you burn digesting the food you eat and this is a small contributor to total energy expenditure. It takes more calories to digest protein than it does carbs or fat.
  • Protein foods are satisfying and help reduce the urge to over-eat other foods that would sabotage fat loss efforts.
Calculating Protein Daily Protein Requirements
Protein requirements should be individualized based on body weight and training stress. Here are some guidelines to help you:

Activity Level                     g/kg (lbs) body weight
Sedentary                            0.8 (0.4g/lb)
Recreational exerciser            1.0-1.4 (0.5-0.7g/lb)
Wt training (maintenance)       1.2-1.4 (0.6-0.7g/lb)
Wt training (muscle gain)       1.4-1.8 (0.7-0.9g/lb)
Endurance training                 1.2-1.4 (0.6-0.7g/lb)
High intensity interval training  1.2-1.8 (0.6-09g/lb)
Weight-restricted sports         1.4-2.0 (0.7-1g/lb)

Reference: Antonio, J, et. al (eds.). Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press; 2008. 

What about going over this amount?
While some people are over-paranoid about eating too much protein, it is important to recognize that you can eat too much of anything. If you find it helps having a bit more than this, use your discretion - just be sure to always assess your health, body composition and performance when making any nutritional changes. Also, remember that a lot of the crazy high recommendations are from magazines and websites that sell protein supplements or recommendations from steroid-using bodybuilders. It seems that steroid use enhances the body's ability to synthesize protein and this users may get additional benefits from a very high protein diet. I personally have gone as high as 2 grams of protein/pound per day, but failed to see any real significant difference between that and eating my usual  ~1 gram per pound. At some point, more is not helpful and may just be wasting your money.

Step 1: Daily protein intake
Based on your body weight and training status, calculate your protein intake.

Step 2: Protein per meal 
Divide your daily protein intake by the number of meals you eat in a day to get the approximate amount of protein you should eat per meal.

Step 3: Protein options & serving sizes
Look for healthy protein foods you like and find out an approximate serving size you would need to eat to get your protein per meal amount. Find a website like Nutrition Data that allows you to look up your favorite foods and adjust serving sizes to get the required amounts of protein. Note: unless you are preparing for a bodybuilding show, you will not need to weight each protein serving exactly. Just approximate amounts will do. For example, a meat serving for many people will be about the palm of their hand.

Step 4: New habit
Each meal, select a healthy, appropriately-sized high-protein food source. If you are consuming protein with each meal, your new habit for the week is to progress the quality of the protein you are eating.

A Practical Example
Here is an example with a 180lb athlete who is doing high intensity training and eating 5 meals per day:
  • Total protein grams per day (lower end of range): 180 x 0.6 = 108g protein per day
  • Total protein grams per day (upper end of range): 180 x 0.9 = 162g protein per day
  • Protein per meal (108/5 = 22, 108/162 = 32): 22-32g of protein per meal
  • Sample protein options and serving sizes  to get 22-32g of protein:
    • Chicken breast: 2.5-3oz
    • Lean (90%) ground beef: 2.5-3oz
    • Wild salmon: 2.5-3oz
    • Cottage cheese (2% milk fat): 1 cup
    • Eggs: 3-4 large eggs
    • Protein powder: 1-1.5 scoops

Here are the links to the previous 2013 weekly habits in case you missed them:
Week 1: Kitchen Cleanout (at the end of the introduction to this series)

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