Is Your Protein Intake (or Lack Thereof) Keeping Your from Your Goals?

Protein is often talked about when it comes to the health and fitness world. For some it is easy to consume what their body needs, while others need to actively pay attention to the foods they are choosing. When we fail to meet our protein needs, we are leaving a lot on the table.

What is it?

Proteins are complex molecules made up of amino acids. When we eat protein it is broken down into amino acids. We have this “pool” of amino acids in our bloodstream that the body draws from to create the proteins that it needs. When we eat protein throughout the day it helps to replenish this pool that the body is constantly drawing from to create whatever proteins that it needs to function optimally.

What does protein do?

Proteins are crucial to the growth, repair, and maintenance of cells. Our cells are constantly overturning. This means that they are being broken down and then some pieces of the broken down cells are used to make new ones. Cellular damage occurs on a regular basis and needs to be repaired in order to maintain our health. Our red blood cells are replaced every three to four months and the cells lining our digestive tract are replaced every three to six days. When we workout we are actually creating microtears in our muscle. It is when the muscled is repaired that it becomes stronger. Amino acids from the protein that we consume are crucial to all of this.

Protein helps insure a strong immune system. Whenever a foreign substance (bacteria, virus, toxins, allergens) invades the body, it responds by making antibodies, which are proteins. Antibodies attack and destroy the invader. Sufficient protein (more does not equal better here) is required to support the increased production of antibodies whenever it is “under attack.”

Proteins act as enzymes and hormones. Enzymes speed up chemical reactions in our body without being altered. Our cells contain thousands of enzymes that facilitate specific chemical reactions, playing a pivotal role in our metabolism.

Hormones are substances that act as messengers and help to bring the body back to “normal” conditions. Some hormones are made of amino acids while others are made of lipids (fats). Insulin, glucagon, growth hormone, thyroid hormone, epinephrine, and melatonin are a few examples of hormones made from amino acids.  The listed hormones play a role in managing blood sugar, metabolism, sleep, and/or stress.

Proteins help maintain fluid and electrolyte balance. We have fluid inside and outside our cells. Protein (along with electrolytes) help to keep fluids moving in the right proportions inside and outside our cells maintaining fluid balance and blood pressure. Protein attracts fluids. If we do not get enough protein, the concentration of proteins in our bloodstream is not enough to draw fluid from our tissues across our blood vessel walls. As a result fluid builds up in the tissue causing edema.

Electrolytes are electrically charged particles that help to maintain fluid balance.  Sodium, potassium, calcium, phosphate,  magnesium, chloride are examples. There is a proper concentration of electrolytes inside and outside our cells. Maintaining this proper balance is crucial to the conduction of nerve signals and muscle contractions. Transport proteins transport electrolytes in to and out of our cells to help keep the right concentration. If we fail to consume enough protein, issues with nerve conduction and muscle contractions, including the rhythm of our heart, can arise.

Proteins help to maintain the body’s pH. The activity in our body taking place at a cellular level results in the production of acids and bases. Proteins can act as a buffer preventing our pH from becoming too acidic or basic.

Proteins assist in the transport and storage of nutrients. Proteins can act as carriers for many nutrients. From lipoproteins allowing the transport of hydrophobic (water repealing) lipids through the bloodstream, to retinol-binding protein that transports the retinol form of vitamin A, to ferritin, which stores iron in the liver.

Protein helps with satiety. When we eat a protein rich meal we will stay fuller longer than if we just at carbohydrates alone. Proteins are more complex than carbohydrates taking longer to break down than carbohydrates.

Protein helps to maintain lean muscle mass with low energy intake. Consuming adequate protein when trying to lose weight will help to insure that the weight lost is mostly fat and not lean mass when we are in a negative calorie balance.

How much do I need?

The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for protein is 0.8 grams/kg of body mass. (Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms.) This is the amount to prevent deficiency. People who are training more intensively or have low energy intake (i.e. are trying to lose weight) should aim for 1.4-2.4 grams/kilogram body mass. Also, women who are peri- and post-menopausal and aging men need more than just the 0.8 grams/ kg body mass.

For women this typically comes to 20-30 grams of protein PER MEAL and 40-60 grams for males. Some people may need more and some may need less. You can speak with a registered dietitian to find out your specific amount.

What does ~30 grams look like?*

  • 4 ounces of meat/fish (28 grams)
  • 1 can/packet of tuna (22 grams) + ¼ cup walnuts (5 grams)
  • 3 eggs (18 grams) + ½ cup cottage cheese (12 grams)
  • 2 eggs (12 grams), ¼ cup cheese (6 grams), 3 turkey sausage links(11 grams)
  • 1 cup black beans (8 grams) + single serve (5.3 oz or 125 grams) Greek yogurt (12 grams)
  • ½ cup black beans (8 grams) + 2 eggs (12 grams), + 3 turkey sausage (11 grams)
  • ¼ cup (measured uncooked) oats (6 grams) + ¼ cup walnuts (5 grams) + 3 eggs (18 grams)

*Brands/types may vary in protein content.

What does ~60 grams of protein look like?*

  • 8 ounces meat (56 grams)
  • 2 packs/cans of tuna (44 grams) + 2 hard boiled eggs (12 grams)
  • 4 eggs (24 grams)+ ¼ cup shredded cheese (6 grams) + 1 cup black beans (16 grams) + 3 turkey sausage (11 grams)
  • 1 cup cottage cheese (24 grams) + 4 ounces meat (28 grams)
  • 1 cup cottage cheese (24 grams) + 3 turkey sausage (11 grams) + 3 eggs (18 grams)
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt (21 grams) + ¼ cup walnuts (5 grams) + 4 ounces meat (28 grams)
  • 1 cup oatmeal (measured uncooked) (12 grams) + 1 serving protein powder (25 grams) + 1 cup Greek yogurt (21 grams)

*Brands/types may vary in protein content.

It’s important to spread your protein intake across your meals. This will help to keep that pool of amino acids full, allowing the body to use what it needs when it needs it. Pay attention to how you feel when you consume a meal that has adequate protein to a meal that is more carbohydrate based. Think a veggie omelet and turkey sausage verses a bowl of Rice Krispies and skim milk. Are you hungry quicker? Do you feel hungrier later in the day? Are you more snacky? Does your energy crash mid-day?

Whether your goal involves performance, fat loss, building lean muscle mass, or feeling better adequate protein intake is important. If you are thinking about adding more protein to a meal and don’t know which one to choose, breakfast will probably have the most impact!

Looking for a little more guidance? I’d love to help! Email me at to set up a consultation.

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