Let's talk about protein.
Odds are, you've heard of it.
You probably know it's "good for you."
You might even know that it has something to do with muscle growth (only bodybuilders care about that though, right?)
But do you know why protein is so important? Do you know why you need it to effectively lose fat, gain muscle... hell, you need protein to be alive, period.
Don't worry. By the end of this post, you'll be a protein professional (excuse my atrocious play on words, my mom thinks I'm funny) AND you'll have a plenty of actionable takeaways that you'll be able to implement right away, ensuring that you're on the right track towards the body you want.
Before we get into why protein is so important, let's clear something up that this intro hasn't yet already...
What exactly is protein?
Protein is one of the three macromolecules that we obtain from the food we eat (the others being carbohydrates and fats).
It's made up of little building blocks called amino acids. There are a a total of 20 different amino acids, 9 of which are essential. In this case, the term "essential" means that your body cannot produce them on its own. You must obtain these amino acids from food. The remaining would then be split into "nonessential," meaning that your body can make them on its own, and "conditionally essential," meaning that they are required from diet in specific cases (usually times of high stress).
The chart below outlines this very well (a little tip: when a molecule ends in -ine, that's usually a giveaway that it's an amino acid!)
These amino acids found in the protein we eat are involved in just about every bodily function there is. They are what your organs, muscles, bones, skin, and neurotransmitters are made of (more on this later). Proteins also make up enzymes. Enzymes are molecules inside of your body that allow crucial, chemical reactions to take place. Without these guys, we wouldn't be here today.
Without adequate protein in your diet, you're not providing the body with the building blocks it needs to perform its most basic functions and fortify it's most important structures.
Now that we've laid the groundwork of understanding, let's get into the 5 reasons why protein will enhance your fat loss, muscle growth, and quality of life!
1. Protein Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis
Protein synthesis is the process by which new proteins are made. Muscle protein synthesis is simply this process in muscle cells (shocking, I know).
This is what every bodybuilder strives to maximize at every waking (and sleeping) hour, it's what supplement companies use to market their "Nitro-Whey Max 5000" powder that promises to lay slabs of muscle onto your frame, it's what social media fitness gurus use to sell you on the newest fad diet out there...
It's also not as complex (at least, from an application perspective) as people make it out to be.
See, when it comes to muscle building, there's two opposing processes, muscle protein synthesis (MPS), as we just discussed, and muscle protein breakdown.
Again, relatively self-explanatory, muscle protein breakdown is the degrading of muscle tissue. This is actually what happens when you train. Your body goes into a more catabolic state in response to the stress of working out. This isn't a bad thing, however. It all comes down to matching that breakdown with another signal for growth.
What's a way that we can stimulate MPS while minimizing muscle protein breakdown?
You guess it... eat enough protein!
Specifically, eating protein sources that contain substantial amounts of the amino acid, leucine, is useful for spiking MPS. Leucine is what's known as a branched chain amino acid (ever heard of BCAAs?), and the scientific data upon to this point has indicated that it is likely the key player when it comes to stimulating MPS.
"But I don't give s*** about building muscle... I want to lose fat."
I hear you. Up until this point, this blog has mainly been me touting the benefits of protein for muscle growth.
What if I told you that spiking muscle protein synthesis would help you lose fat and look better as well?
See, there are two ways in which this reasoning applies. The overarching idea is that, the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn since muscle is one of the most metabolically active tissues in the body.
If you're in a muscle gaining phase of your nutrition/training program, you're setting yourself up for more pronounced fat loss down the line by increasing your body's metabolic capacity.
If you're currently in a deficit, spiking MPS will help you retain as much muscle as possible.
Usually, when people say they want to lose weight, they really mean they want to lose fat. By keeping as much muscle on as possible throughout your deficit, you're going to enhance fat loss and increase the duration of your fat loss phase without plateauing as quickly.
And did I mention you'll look awesome?
And no, ladies, putting on/retaining lean muscle will NOT make you look "bulky!" I feel like I make this disclaimer in just about every blog, but it's worth emphasizing. Hormonally, it's just not possible for women to put on as much muscle as men. Women have significantly less testosterone, which is the "male" hormone that is one of the main drivers of muscle growth.
If anything, putting on muscle will get you the lean and "toned" (I use air quotes because being toned is not a real thing, lol) that you want!
So the takeaway is, regardless of if you're male or female, you will benefit from taking advantage of MPS!
2. Protein is highly satiating and helps fight off hunger/cravings
I have a little challenge for you.
Go eat 8oz of cooked chicken breast (no sauce).
Odds are, if you took me up on that challenge, you either quit halfway through, or you're feeling pretty grossed out right about now (props to you for the commitment, though).
The reason is that protein sources are very satiating, meaning that it makes you feel full pretty quickly.
This is a good thing because it makes it less likely that you'll overeat.
If I were to give you the same challenge that I did above, except with candy (please, for the love of God, don't do it), you would probably have no issue scarfing down 8oz of Kit Kats. That's because they are not very satiating. This is typical of many processed foods. I mean, it makes sense from the perspective of the food manufacturers. They want you to eat as much of their product as possible, so of course they make it very easy to over consume.
Whole, unprocessed foods, especially protein, are the opposite of this. They tend to be much more difficult to over consume. This is extremely helpful when it comes to fat loss, since you must be in a calorie deficit to lose fat (most of the time).
Not only that, but natural protein sources tend to be relatively low in calories. Remember that 8oz piece of chicken that required some genuine effort to actually eat completely?
That only contained 240 calories.
How about the 8oz of Kit Kats?
A whopping 1108 calories, and 142 grams of sugar.
Which one do you think is more conducive to fat loss?
I know it's a very extreme example, but I think the answer is very clear.
It's not rocket science, and it's definitely not magic (despite what the social media fitness guru try to tell you).
If you feel more satisfied after a meal, then you're much less likely to over consume calories. If you stay within your desired calorie limit, you're going to be on the right track towards fat loss.
When it comes to accomplishing this, getting adequate amounts of protein in which each meal is your best friend (more on the exact amounts later).
Another great trick for taking advantage of protein's satiating effects is to eat your protein source and veggies in your meal first before you move onto the starchy carbs.
This will help ensure that you don't go overboard on the carbs, since those do tend to be easier to over consume.
3. Protein has a high thermic effect.
Funnily enough, when you eat food, your body actually uses energy (burns calories) to break down and digest the food.
This is called the thermic effect of food, and it makes up a noticeable portion of your total daily energy expenditure.
Now, don't take this advice and go pound down a chocolate cake thinking that you're enhancing fat loss... not quite how it works.
With that being said, we can take advantage of this in specific ways to provide a little boost to your fat loss.
Protein has the highest thermic effect out of the three macronutrients.
5-15% of the calories consumed from carbs are used for digestion, and the same for fat.
For protein, on the other hand, this number is somewhere in the range of 20-35%.
So, by increasing protein intake, you have provide a little boost to your metabolism.
This is why you'll often see the recommendation to bump up protein intake when entering into a calorie deficit (more on this later).
The combination of it's satiating effect paired with the thermic effect of food makes it a powerful strategy when entering into a fat loss phase.
Now, like I mentioned before, this thermic effect isn't going to make or break your fat loss phase, but it is something to consider if you're looking to optimize every bit of your plan.
One study in particular, run by Dr. Jose Antonio, examined the effects of a high protein diet on body weight and body composition.
The aspect of this study that makes it extremely relevant for what we are talking about is that the subjects where instructed to keep their carb and fat intake consistent to what it had been pre-study. This means that they where typically in a caloric surplus, or a hypercaloric diet, as the study put it.
They must have gained weight/fat, right?
The study found that consuming a high protein, hypercaloric diet had no significant effect on bodyweight or fat mass.
Now, this isn't magic.
It can likely be tied back to the thermic effect of protein that we are discussing. In theory, the higher the amount of protein, the more energy your body uses to break it down.
It's also worth noting that the study participants were all individuals that weight trained. This factor likely played a very important role in the fact that there was no significant fat mass gain.
All in all, no matter how much protein you consume, the thermic effect alone is not enough to elicit seemingly magical changes (or lack of), but the combination of both a higher protein intake and a proper resistance training program can very well help to mitigate unwanted fat gain.
4. Protein provides the building blocks for you neurotransmitters.
Remember how protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids?
When you consume protein via diet, it's broken down in your body into these various amino acids, which then go on to perform a plethora of vital functions for your survival.
One of which is the function of amino acids as precursors to neurotransmitters.
Neurotransmitters are the signaling molecules found in the brain that influence how you feel.
Examples include dopamine, serotonin, melatonin, etc...
The word precursor, simply implies that the amino acids are modified in the body to form these neurotransmitters.
Your neurotransmitter levels play an enormous role in how you feel, how you sleep, and how you perform on a day to day basis.
If you're not providing your body with the building blocks it needs to optimize these neurotransmitters, it can be safe to say that you won't be feeling your best.
Let's take the the neurotransmitter, serotonin, for example.
Serotonin is known by most as the "feel good" neurotransmitter.
It's believed to help regulate mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function.
Pretty important, right?
How does your body obtain serotonin?
Like we just mentioned, it makes it from amino acids; in this case, the amino acid of choice is tryptophan.
When protein that contains tryptophan is broken down, the tryptophan is then modified to make serotonin via a number of chemical processes which I won't bore you (and myself) with... you're welcome.
If you're not getting enough tryptophan in your diet, it can be safe to say that you won't be optimizing your serotonin levels.
In that case, you likely won't be feeling to happy throughout the day and it may be pretty difficult the calm down and fall asleep at night, both of which are crucial for fat loss and muscle gain.
This is just one example of this crucial function that protein influences in the body.
So, now that you know all of these cool factoids about protein and its effects on your fat loss and muscle gain goals, you might be asking "How the hell am I supposed to apply that information?"
I've got you covered.
Luckily for you, optimizing your protein intake is actually quite simple.
How much protein should you be eating? Let's break down a couple scenarios.
How much protein should you be eating for muscle gain?
The numerical value for how much protein is necessary for muscle growth is quite debated in the scientific community.
Rather than a specific number, I'll provide you with a range that is widely accepted in the space.
When it comes to muscle growth, you 100% need to consume enough protein. However, it's important to not go too high.
Why is this?
You want to be sure to leave a hefty amount of room in your calories for carbs. While carbs aren't the star of the show in today's blog, it's worth mentioning that they are hugely important for muscle gains since they fuel your workouts.
So, when it comes to protein, the appropriate range seems to be 0.8-1.0g per pound of bodyweight.
For example, I weigh roughly 200lbs.
If I were to eat at the lower end of the recommended spectrum, I would take 200 and multiply it by 0.8, giving me 160. Therefore, I would eat 160g of protein per day.
If I opted for the higher end, I'd just take 200 and multiply it by 1, giving me... 200 (math skills on point). In this case, I'd eat 200g of protein per day.
You can really opt to fall anywhere within this 0.8-1.0g/lb range and be totally fine. It comes down to how you feel, how your digestion is, and what your preference is. It's all about adherence, as you'll hear me say time and time again.
How much protein should you be eating for fat loss?
When it comes to fat loss, it is typically helpful to increase protein intake up to 1.2g per pound of body weight.
The reasoning behind this has to do with the thermic effect and the satiating properties of protein discussed above.
Essentially, by upping your protein intake you will make your body burn more calories in its effort to digest the protein and it will also keep you feeling fuller for longer (not sure if fuller is a word, but you know what I mean).
While this can be helpful, it is by no means a requirement for fat loss.
The typical 0.8-1.0g per pound guideline still fits the bill here. You won't be doing yourself or your fat loss any harm by choosing to stay down in that range.
It's all about preference in this case. If it's more likely that you'll stick to the plan if your protein requirement is a bit on the lower end of the recommended range, then by all means, do that.
As you'll hear me say time and time again, adherence is king when it comes to results.
How do you make sure you're getting the recommended amount of protein each day?
The obvious answer is to weigh out your food. If you have access to a food scale (if you don't have one, I would definitely recommended investing in one; it won't break the bank), then you probably should be weighing out your food.
But, if you don't have access to one, don't let your fat loss and muscle gain dreams go just yet.
While weighing out food is optimal, it isn't absolutely necessary.
Here's a rule of thumb that you can follow to make sure you meet your protein goals daily:
For men, eat 2 palm-sized portions of protein 3-4 times per day.
For women, eat 1 palm-sized portion of protein 3-4 times per day.
For a little more clarification on what a "palm-sized" portion should like like, I've included the image below. For most people, this typically comes out to be somewhere in the 3-4oz range, which provides ~20-25g of protein per palm-sized portion.
This little technique will definitely put you in the ballpark of what your daily protein goals should be.
While it's nice to have everything measured out, measuring your food with a scale should not be a prerequisite for achieving your fat loss goals.
Where can I get protein from in my diet?
Here's a list of some great options when it comes to protein (vegetarians/vegans, I've got you covered too!):
• Beef: 117 calories, 23g protein
• Chicken breast: 165 calories, 31 g protein
• Chicken drumstick: 140 calories, 18g protein
• Salmon: 182 calories, 26g protein
• Pork: 237 calories, 25g protein
• 1 Egg: 78 calories, 6g protein
• Turkey Breast: 135 calories, 30g protein
• Shrimp: 99 calories, 21 g protein
• Cod: 93 calories, 20g protein
• Tilapia: 100 calories: 20g protein
• Quinoa (8g protein per serving)
• Tempeh (21 g protein per 4oz serving)
• Chickpeas (15g protein per serving)
• Lentils (18g protein per serving)
• Pumpkin seeds (8g protein per servings)
• Chia seeds ( 4g per serving)
• Hemp seeds (11 g protein per serving)
• Plant based protein powder (roughly 25g protein per serving)
• Ezekiel bread (4g protein per slice)
• Nuts (5-1 Og protein per serving)
• Brown rice (4g per serving)
• Greek yogurt (6-12g per serving; not vegan, but can be eaten by some vegetarians)
Wrapping it up
With that, you should have a pretty solid understanding of why protein is so crucial and exactly how you can make sure you're getting enough each day.
As always, shoot me a DM on IG at @tclarknutrition if you have any feedback/questions. I love hearing from you!
Lastly, go ahead snd share this blog with at least one person who you think could benefit from this information. The more people that we can reach together, the more people we can help have the health that everyone deserves!
Thanks again, and talk to you next time!