Whether you’re a workout class connoisseur, triathlete, or bodybuilder, you know protein is critical for making major fitness gains.
“Protein is vital for the body,” says Jonathan Valdez, R.D., owner of Genki Nutrition. “Not only does it provide the building blocks of muscle, hair, and skin, but it’s also essential for making enzymes, hormones like insulin, and antibodies for your immune system.”
However, the types of protein you eat, when you eat them, and how much you eat all influence the benefits you reap. If you’re prepping extra chicken breasts on Sundays or carrying single-serving packets of protein powder everywhere you go, here’s how to get the most bang for every bite (or sip).
How Much Protein You Need
While the government’s recommended daily value for protein is just 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (that’s 51 grams a day for a 140-pound person), many experts recommend eating more—especially if you’re active.
Georgia Rounder, R.D., recommends frequent exercisers eat anywhere from 1.2 to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. (That’s between 75 and 126 grams a day for that same 140-pound person.)
What Types Of Protein To Eat
All sorts of foods out there provide protein, but they’re not all quite the same. Every protein source contains amino acids (compounds that make up protein and perform other functions in the body), but different proteins contain different types of amino acids, and in different amounts.
Animal foods, like eggs, milk, Greek yogurt, chicken, and fish, are often described as ‘high-quality’ or ‘complete’ proteins because they contain all nine essential amino acids (the aminos our body cannot manufacture itself).
Certain plant foods, like soy, buckwheat, and quinoa, also provide all of these essential amino acids, but most plant-based proteins are limited in one or more and are known as ‘incomplete’ proteins.
While complete proteins may pack an especially potent punch of amino acids in every serving, that doesn’t mean you have to eat them. In fact, research shows you don’t need to consume all of the essential amino acids in every single meal, as long as you’re eating a variety of protein sources daily. (Great news for vegans!)
With a little strategy, even a completely plant-based meal can check off all of your essential amino acid boxes. Pair certain incomplete proteins together, and the final product can pack all of the essential aminos you need. (Incomplete proteins that fill out each other’s missing aminos are known as ‘complementary’ proteins.) “Some examples of complementary protein pairs include grains with legumes and grains with nuts or seeds,” says Rounder. That might look like a few tablespoons of hummus slathered on pita bread or almond butter on whole-grain toast.
Protein powders can also help you reach your daily protein needs, but they, too, are subject to the complete-incomplete situation that affects whole-food proteins. Dairy-based protein powders (whey, casein) contain all essential amino acids, as do most plant proteins that are made from a blend of sources. However, collagen and single-source plant protein powders (pea, hemp, or rice) lack certain essential amino acids.
Protein powders are super-convenient and helpful; just don’t let them replace whole-food proteins, which also offer a variety of other nutrients, says Valdez.
When To Eat Protein
Most Americans eat little-to-no protein with breakfast, some at lunch, and a ton at dinner.
The issue with that: According to one study published in the Journal of Nutrition, protein consumption skewed toward the evening could contribute to potential less-than-optimal muscle growth. By eating this way, we deprive our body of the building blocks it needs for muscle-building all day, and then overload it come nightfall.
The body can only utilize so much protein to repair muscle, build hormones, and fulfill other needs at a time, so (just like any other macronutrient) excess is stored as fat.
To correct this, make sure every single meal and snack you consume contains some protein, says Rounder. Aim for up to 25 to 30 grams in meals, and at least seven to 12 grams in snacks. That could look like scrambled eggs with avocado and wheat toast for breakfast, a salad loaded with leafy greens and four ounces of salmon for lunch, and a quarter-cup of almonds or a large hard-boiled egg at snack-time.
If your snack-time falls after a workout, up the protein to about 20 grams to support muscle recovery, Rounder adds. Try two hard-boiled eggs and a small handful of cashews, four ounces of tuna on Ezekiel toast, or a protein bar.