In blog post of 9/29/2014: So, what should you eat for optimal health?, I listed the seven basic principles I have extracted from the many diet books and resources I have studied. These principles are:

  1. What you eat, how much you eat and when you eat, all matter
  2. Eat clean
  3. Eat lots of vegetables and fruits
  4. Use only healthy fats and fat sources
  5. Incorporate sufficient proteins in your diet
  6. Best beverage to drink is pure water
  7. Add or subtract specific foods based on your personal needs

In the last posts, we discussed the first four of these principles. Today, let’s focus on the fifth principle: Incorporate sufficient protein in your diet. And, as usual without any fluff stuff, let’s get to it.

First, what are proteins and what is the big deal?

Proteins are the main building blocks of the body. They’re used to make muscles, tendons, organs and skin. Proteins are also used to make enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters and various tiny molecules that serve important functions.

Without protein, life as we know it would not be possible.

Proteins are made out of smaller molecules called amino acids, which are linked together like beads on a string. The linked amino acids form long protein chains, which are then folded into complex shapes.

Some of these amino acids can be produced by the body, while we must get others from the diet. The ones we cannot produce and must get from our foods are called the “indispensable” (sometimes also called “essential”) amino acids.

Protein from animal sources such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, and yogurt provide all nine indispensable amino acids, and for this reason are referred to as “complete proteins.”

Proteins from plants, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables tend to be deficient in one or more of the indispensable amino acids and are called “incomplete proteins.”

So, how much protein do we need?

There are different opinions on how much protein we actually need.

Most official nutrition organizations recommend a fairly modest protein intake. Food and Nutrition Board of Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in their Dietary Reference Intakes (DRI) reference manual recommends 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. This amounts to:

  • 56 grams per day for the average sedentary man.
  • 46 grams per day for the average sedentary woman.

These are clearly amounts below which nutritional deficiency will result. Interestingly, DRI reference manual does not specify any upper limit at which protein might be harmful, although there is quite a bit of discussion about adverse effects of taking too much of a specific amino acid.

Most experts agrees that protein needs depends upon a number of factors that include activity level, age, muscle (or lean) mass and current state of health. 

But still, how much?

The range seems to be from 0.5 gram to 1.0 grams per pound of body weight. In case one is overweight, it is recommended to use lean mass weight to calculate the protein need.

Most optimal health experts, such as Joe Dillon (The Joe Dillon Difference), Dr. Life (Life Plan), Bill Phillips (Body for Life) whose focus is on building optimal muscle mass, recommend amounts on the higher end of the range. That is, 1.0 or 1.2 grams per pound of body weight per day.

What are the best sources of protein?

The factors often discussed in terms of quality of protein are efficiency of absorption, and how “complete” the protein is, i.e., does it contain all indispensable  amino acids. Another important factor I believe is whether eating enough protein will bust your carbs, fats or calories budget.

Eating lots of breads may give you sufficient proteins but it will probably bust the carbs and calories budgets.  Also, eating lots of rich or fatty meats for sufficient protein will most likely bust your fats budget.

Joe Dillon offers the following hierarchy for selecting optimal sources of lean, quality protein (from highest to lowest):

  • 100% Whey protein isolate powder
  • Egg whites
  • Wild Game (venison, buffalo, elk, moose, etc.)
  • Salmon, Ahi Tuna
  • Turkey (white meat, dark meat, no skin)
  • Fish (all kinds)
  • Chicken (white meat only, no skin)
  • Shellfish (oysters, mussels, clams, lobster, shrimp, crab)
  • Nonfat Dairy (nonfat milk, nonfat cheese, nonfat cottage cheese, nonfat plain yogurt)

But how much of these foods should I eat?

Here is a quick guide:

  • 3 ounces of lean meat or poultry contain about 25 g of protein,
  • 3 ounces of fish contain about 20 g of protein
  • 1 cup of soybeans supplies about 20 g of protein.
  • 1 cup of yogurt is approximately 8 g,
  • 1 cup of milk is 8 g
  • 1 egg or 1 ounce of cheese contains about 6 g
  • One cup of legumes has approximately 15 g of protein
  • Cereals, grains, nuts, and vegetables contain about 2 g of protein per serving.

Bottom Line:

Still confused? May be this will help. Looking for optimal nutrition, this is what I am doing:

  1. Since I am interested in continuing to build my lean mass reserves, I decided to budget protein in the upper end of the range, about 1 gram per pound of my body weight. I weigh 161 plus minus 2 pounds these days, so 160 grams of protein per day is my target.
  2. I am a vegetarian, I assume I get about 10 to 20 grams from vegetables, legumes and eggs and egg whites.
  3. I supplement the remaining using shakes of whey isolates or whey concentrates and isolates mixed. That makes for shakes 4 to 5 times a day: breakfast, lunch, while going home from work, post-exercise and sometime before going to bed. If I ate meat, I will do just one or two shakes a day.

What do you think of this approach?

Do you feel that this simplifies the confusion about proteins?

Do you see a hole in this approach? What would you do differently?