It may be hard for us fitness lovers to accept, but protein skeptics still abound. The starvation-dieters, the women who think they'll get bulky, the anti-fat crew-for them, the myths and misperceptions about protein have a strong hold.
If you're like me, you may have a friend who has sworn to eating only iceberg lettuce with vinegar at every meal. In her mind, she's just calorie cutting, and she'll end up with a ripped six-pack before summer is in full swing.
Of course, I ask her, "Hey, where's the protein?" To which I get this response: "I don't need protein. I want to be thin, not bulky. I'm not a female bodybuilder, okay?"
To use a popular acronym, I say, "OMG." People still believe this crap? Well, here are 5 reasons we can give to those poor, deprived dieters to convince them that what a ripped-to-shreds, super toned bod really needs is PROTEIN.
Lesson 1 Protein Won't Make You Bulky
Let's just get this out of the way before moving on to the benefits of protein:
Protein is only important for bodybuilders?
Women shouldn't use protein powder because they'll get bulky?
Wrong and wrong.
First of all, if you don't want to be a bodybuilder, that's okay. You won't be unless you try really, really hard.
It takes years of effort, discipline, and lucky genetics to build that kind of muscle. But, you should know that lean muscle is the foundation of some of the hottest bodies out there. Just look at Jamie Eason, Jennifer Nicole Lee, or any of the Team Bodybuilding.com athletes-women and men alike!
Second, ladies, you won't bulk up from eating protein or taking protein powder. You won't even get bulky from lifting heavy weights, bodybuilder style. You don't have the testosterone for it. Instead, you'll support lean, sexy muscle that creates a toned and curvaceous physique.
If you ate 20 chicken breasts a day, would your body grow 20 extra inches of muscle as a result? Of course not.
The muscle mass you build will largely depend on whether you're doing physical training like lifting weights. And any excess protein that isn't broken down by the body and used as an energy source (depending on how many carbs and fats you're consuming, as well as your activity level) will be stored as body fat.
Even those 10 "naked" burgers could still make you fat if you're a couch potato. Muscle tissue is largely composed of protein, but it's not where protein is stored.
The body can't physically store protein as a nutrient. It'll break protein down into its building blocks, amino acids, and either use them, store them in fat cells, or get rid of them.
Lesson 2 High Protein Foods Won't Make You Fat
Still worried that you'll be over-consuming protein? Then learn to choose your protein wisely. Picking the right high-protein foods will actually help you shed fat and look like a cover model.
If it's the fat content you're worried about, consider this: cooked chicken breasts only have 2 to 3 grams of fat per serving; low-fat cottage cheese only contains 1 to 2 grams; even lean red meat only contains 6 to 8 grams; and egg whites and many varieties of fish are as close to fat free as you can get.
But here's a note on fat: you need it too. If you strip your diet of healthy fats then you could negatively impact hormone levels, brain function, energy levels, and more.
Lesson 3 Want Hunger Control? Eat Protein
Is it any wonder why "appetite suppressants" fly off the store shelves? Because being hungry sucks, and dieters want an easy solution to help them suppress cravings for chocolate, pizza, and ice cream donuts. (Wait--am I the only one who imagines that combo?)
The solution: Eat some protein with every meal and even snacks!
Protein has a different relationship with your digestive system than other foods-basically protein doesn't cause the intense spike in blood sugar that carbs do. With a smaller effect on your blood sugar comes a smaller crash. That means sustainable energy throughout the day and fewer cravings.
Protein can keep you fuller for longer, too. So skip the low-fat blueberry muffin for breakfast and opt for a three-egg omelet. You'll be giving your muscles much-needed nutrient support, helping to stabilize your blood sugar, and minimizing the chance of mind-bending food cravings.
How is that for diet support? Protein earns 10 gold stars.
Lesson 4 Everybody Needs Protein, including Endurance and Cardiovascular Athletes
Yep, you guessed it, sista from another mista. You need protein. Endurance athletes often require even more protein than their strength-training counterparts because they are burning up so many calories during exercise.
And if you're on a diet that wouldn't adequately feed a bunny rabbit while also doing tons of cardio, your body is going to break down muscle. Even when you're a size 0, you'll look soft and stringy. Sound attractive? Maybe to a cephalopod-but the 8-beefy-armed octopus may, in fact, scorn your skinny-fat body, too.
Fact: There are 10 essential amino acids that your body needs because it can't make them. And you can get them from protein. So not only do you always need to consume some protein, but if you're burning tons of calories doing cardio, you need a lot more protein than you think.
One study that was published in the journal Sports Medicine assessed the association between protein intake and athletic performance. The study suggests that endurance athletes may require 50 to 100 percent more protein over that of what a sedentary individual requires.
Regular exercise will normally increase calories burned and muscle being broken down, so it's only normal that you'll require more protein to help re-build muscle tissue and replenish your nutrient needs.
Lesson 5 Consume 1 Gram of Protein Per Pound of Body Weight
Now let's assume everyone is in agreement: We need protein! But how much? Here's an easy rule of thumb: 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight every day. If you want to make progress with your workout program and be in the healthiest and sexiest shape of your life, protein will be an integral component.
Do a quick check over your current diet. Figure out how much protein you're getting. If you're not even coming close to 1 gram per pound per day, focus on protein-rich foods.
Some people may tell you that you should only eat 20 grams of protein in one sitting, max. But then if you only eat four meals a day, you'll fall short on your needs. While it's not recommended to eat all your daily protein requirements in one sitting, don't worry about consuming a larger dose of protein when you need it.
What's more important is that you get the protein you need in for the day. If you consume 30 grams of protein at breakfast, then your body will digest that protein faster than 50 grams.
Digestion will take place regardless of how much food is consumed. It's just a matter of how long the entire digestion process lasts.
What Should You Eat?
The most concentrated forms of protein in the human diet are animal meat products, meaning you can eat a small and get a lot of protein, comparatively.
So to get your 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, here's a list of great protein choices:
skinless chicken breast
skinless turkey breast
Some dairy products are high in fat and may not be helpful to a fat-loss diet. But others can be great options to help you lose weight and keep it off.
Some nuts, vegetables, and whole grains have small s of protein too. But often the protein found in these foods is called "incomplete" because it's missing some of the amino acids compared to foods like tofu and chicken.
However, you can still pair incomplete proteins with complete proteins to boost your protein intake.
- Lemon, PW; Proctor, DN. (1991). Protein intake and athletic performance. Sports Medicine. Nov;12(5):313-25.