You already know to eat a protein-rich meal or snack post-workout, but you may not be entirely sure what it does for your body. Getting enough protein daily provides you with a slew of vital benefits, from building antibodies to restoring muscle tissue. Here, experts explain more about the fitness-savvy macronutrient and how much protein you should really eat.
What is protein?
Protein is one of three macronutrients—the other two are carbohydrates and fat. It’s necessary in large amounts throughout the body in order to maintain its structure and energy. In fact, our bodies are made up of roughly 16 percent protein. Protein itself consists of amino acids, which carry out a bevy of bodily functions, like muscle maintenance and regeneration.
How does it affect my body?
“Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids that are absolutely essential for a number of reasons,” notes Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD, and Founder of Nutrition by Carrie. “Not only are our organs, muscles and other tissues—like skin, nails, and hair—built from amino acids, but so are our hormones, the enzymes that facilitate the zillions of chemical reactions in our cells that keep us alive, and the antibodies that help us ward off infections.”
So, it’s no surprise that the U.S. National Library of Medicine refers to protein as the building blocks of life. Not only does protein build and repair tissue and prevent us from getting infected, it also regulates metabolism, boosts energy levels, and aids in weight loss or maintenance. Most notably, it plays a hefty role in building, maintaining, and regenerating muscle.
How does it affect my workout?
In the fitness realm protein and workouts go together like peanut butter and jelly. Protein aids largely in building and retaining muscle. Without protein, we’d be unable to repair or even maintain muscle. “Protein keeps you full, steadies your blood sugar levels, and helps build lean muscle mass—all of which are super important to fuel your workouts and help with recovery post-workout,”says Brooke Alpert, registered dietician and author of The Diet Detox, She recommends having a serving of protein at every meal throughout the day.
Eating enough protein also assists in weight loss when included in a healthy diet and fitness routine. “It’s worth mentioning that of the three macronutrients—carbohydrates, protein, and fat—it’s [the] protein that can really help us feel satisfied between meals,” says Dennett. Whether you’re after muscle gain or weight loss, eating protein in every meal is key.
How much protein do I need daily?
To put it simply, the recommended daily amount for the average adult is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or 0.4-0.5 grams per pound). This puts us around 46 grams a day for the average woman and 56 grams a day the average man. If you’re highly active, recovering from an injury, or looking to build muscle, bump this number up to around 1.2-1.8 grams per kilogram (0.6-0.9 grams per pound).
Beyond fitness goals, it’s critical we consume at least the daily recommended amount of protein per day. This is because our bodies are constantly losing it. “We lose protein every day as we shed skin cells and hair, eliminate bodily wastes, and break down muscle,” Dennett mentions. “We need to replace that protein. Our body is able to manufacture some amino acids on its own, but there are others that we have to get from food because we can’t make them.” For optimal intake, spread your protein throughout the day—your body can only use so much at a time.
Where should I be getting it from?
Whether you’re a carnivore or follow a plant-based diet, it’s possible to find protein with ease. Amy Shapiro, registered dietician, and Founder of Real Nutrition NYC, actually names plant foods as some of her top protein sources. Meat-eaters should consume local, organic, grass-fed meat whenever possible. Dennett agrees, adding, “For optimal nutrition, it’s best to get protein from a variety of sources. For omnivores, that would mean getting protein from animal foods—meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs—as well as plant sources like beans, lentils, soy, and nuts and seeds.”
Those following a plant-based diet need to pay a bit more attention to protein sources. Try protein-rich foods like legumes, tofu, seeds, and vegetables. “Vegans have to be a little more thoughtful about getting enough protein, but it’s completely doable,” Dennett explains. “The nice thing about plant protein is that you also get fiber and phytonutrients with it.” Score!