We've all experienced it. After a week of rigorous exercise and dieting—and Tupperware containers full of broccoli, brown rice, and chicken—you feel an uncontrollable urge to stray from your carefully planned meal plan. You measured and weighed all your meals but, alas, you hear ice cream and pasta calling your name. As it turns out, that voice could be especially loud if you're a woman.
According to a study published in the "International Journal of Eating Disorders," women tend to crave sugary snacks like chocolate, ice cream, and donuts. Men, on the other hand, prefer to sink their teeth into a well-marbled porterhouse. Women seem to lack protein in their diets, even when it comes to cheat meals! A lack of protein can be problematic for anyone, but it's especially troubling for women in the gym.
While your body needs carbs and healthy fats for energy, protein is essential for tissue growth and repair. If you're in the gym knocking out tough sets of squats and Romanian deadlifts, a lack of protein in your diet can hinder your body's ability to recover and grow!
Read on to learn more about the myriad powers of protein and how you can put them to work!
1. The Importance Of Protein
The reasons for adding more protein to your diet plan are numerous. Of the 20 amino acids that make up protein, nine are essential. "Essential" means that your body can't manufacture these aminos on its own. The only way they can be consumed is through food. Dietary protein supplies the building blocks of muscle tissue. It also supplies the materials needed for neurotransmitters and hormones.
Each time you hit the gym for a workout, you break your muscle tissues down. You actually build them outside the gym. To do that, however, you need enough fuel. With proper protein intake, amino acids come to the rescue of your damaged muscle, repairing those tissues so they grow back even stronger.
Protein provides other key benefits to the hard-working, fit female.
Protein: Stabilizes Your Energy Levels And Appetite
If you're constantly ravenous throughout the day, you're probably not eating enough protein at every meal. Compared to carbohydrates, protein takes longer to break down and digest.
This slow digestion time means you'll stay fuller longer and keep hunger at bay, making it easier to hit your caloric intake and macros for bodyweight maintenance.
Protein: Helps You Burn Calories More Effectively
Protein has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF), which is the amount of calories it takes your body to process and utilize a nutrient. At 20-35 percent, protein has the highest TEF.
This means that your body actually uses 20-35 percent of the energy from protein consumed just to digest and absorb it!
Out of every 100 calories you get from protein, 25-30 are burned in the digestion process.
Since your body expends more energy to process proteins than it does to digest carbohydrates and fats, people who consume more protein throughout the day might see faster fat-loss results than people on a lower-protein diet plan.
Protein: Safeguards Against The Loss Of Muscle
As your caloric intake drops, and carbohydrates and fats become scarce on a strict diet, there's a greater chance that your body will turn to incoming protein for energy. This leaves less protein for various bodily functions.
If insufficient amino acids are present, your body will start breaking down muscle tissue to get individual aminos. For you, this could mean a loss in muscle and a slower resting metabolism. Protect against this by prioritizing protein!
Protein: Boosts Your Immune System
Oh, the wonders of whey. If you choose to add whey protein powder to your diet, you'll be taking in more than muscle-building strength gains. You get an immune boost, as well. Whey protein contains glutathione, a tripeptide that helps strengthen immune function.
2. Myths About Protein
One of the reasons that some women shy away from protein is because they believe the myths. Don't let false rumors cost you gains. Clear up confusion by separating fact from fiction.
Myth: Protein Will Cause You Too Look Bulky
Protein will make you stronger. Associate it with powerful, lean muscle gains, not a masculine physique. Choosing chicken over chocolate and hitting the weights hard won't turn you into an "overly ripped" version of yourself. Put your mind at ease and know that this simply won't occur.
Ladies, remember that your body contains just a fraction of the testosterone needed to build up lean muscle tissue. Even with the addition of protein, you're not going to pack on muscle the same way your male counterpart might.
Your body can also only make so much lean muscle per day. Excess protein won't necessarily increase your muscular development. Excess protein gets broken into amino acids to be used as fuel or excreted, so don't worry too much about this myth.
Myth: A Higher-Protein Diet Is Hard On Your Kidneys
If you have pre-existing kidney problems, then you definitely want to be a little more careful about adding protein to your diet plan. But, provided you're an active woman in good health, you can safely increase your protein intake.
Just remember that increased protein can be dehydrating, so you'll want to increase your water consumption at the same time.
Myth: Higher-Protein Diets Compromise Bone Health
There's no definitive proof that high-protein diets cause the excess acid load that's been linked to bone loss and poor health.
In fact, according to the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," studies found that high-protein diets had a small but significant benefit to the lumbar spine.
3. Your Essential Protein Intake
So, how much protein do you need? The suggested number differs depending on the source.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the standard food guide recommendation for the average individual is set around 46 grams per day for women and 65 grams per day for men.
Keep in mind, however, that this is the recommendation for the average, semi-sedentary individual. If you're constantly exercising and breaking down lean muscle tissue, your required protein intake needs to increase. Likewise, if you diet and consume fewer calories from carbs and fats, the macros you consume from protein will need to increase.
People who just exercise and do not diet should aim to consume somewhere around 0.8-1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily.
If you're dieting and exercising, aim higher—between 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of your bodyweight per day. As your caloric intake decreases, your protein needs will actually increase, so keep that in mind as you plan out your diet.
Focus on eating high-quality protein sources such as chicken, fish, lean red meat, eggs, low-fat dairy products, and quality whey protein powder.