For those who live active lifestyles or are working on getting and staying fit, eating more protein goes hand-in-hand with advice to get more reps in, especially if you are trying to build muscle and lose fat. With the popularity of diets like Atkins and the latest craze sweeping across social media feeds, The Ketogenic Diet or “keto,” which emphasize high fat, moderate protein and few-to-no carbs, it would be easy to assume that this adage is indeed the rule: to be strong and lean, eat more protein.
But will eating steak and bacon at every meal really help you get fit? Protein is essential to a healthy, balanced diet. It helps build and repair muscle. But not all proteins are created equal. The trick is in knowing how much of which kinds of protein you should consume on a daily basis.
We asked Suzanne Smith, RD, sports dietitian at UC San Diego Health, to help us solve this math problem, give us the scoop on whether “going keto” is worth it and to share a favorite recipe.
First, why is protein important?
Protein–rich foods provide us with essential amino acids that play a role in supporting our immune system, cellular function and maintaining and repairing skeletal muscle. They also contain important minerals, such as iron and calcium.
The amino acids act as building blocks, repairing and supporting growth of lean muscle mass. This is important for athletes and active individuals to improve recovery, strength and endurance after workouts.
Including protein–rich foods (animal or plant based) at meals not only supports our health but also helps us feel more satisfied at a meal. Because most proteins are digested at a slower rate, having a serving at meals and snacks can minimize overeating or snacking later.
Is there an ideal amount of protein you should be eating if you are following an exercise regimen?
The exact amount an active person should consume will depend on a few factors, like body composition, exercise type, intensity and training goal. If someone is participating in moderate to high intensity exercise more than three times per week, then they likely need more than the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.8 gram per kilogram of protein per day to support muscle repair and recovery.
A good place to start is aiming for 10 to 20 percent of total energy intake to come from protein or about 0.25 g/kg of protein at each meal. (Protein recommendations can come in grams per body weight, so kilograms or pounds.) To maximize muscle repair and growth, it’s ideal to spread this evenly throughout the day versus having one to two big meals. For someone who weighs 130 pounds, it’s as simple as having 15 grams of protein at each meal and one to two snacks a day.
Example: Six ounces of Greek yogurt at breakfast, two hard-boiled eggs as a snack, three ounces of lean meat at lunch, a half-cup of cottage cheese as a post-workout snack and vegetarian bean chili over quinoa at dinner.
A quick note on dairy: For the typical, healthy adult, low-fat dairy is fine. If one needs to put on weight, consuming whole-fat dairy can be useful.
Is protein advice the same for someone who mostly does yoga compared to someone who lifts weights?
The amount of protein will vary because some exercise causes more breakdown of the muscle tissue than others or the activity demands more overall energy (calories). Someone who is wanting to maintain their weight and participates in low-impact activity will require less protein than an individual wanting to put on lean muscle mass.
In general, when people eat balanced meals that support their specific activity and lifestyle, they naturally meet their protein requirements. Consulting with a sports dietitian can be useful when trying to figure how best to fuel your body for your specific activity or sport.
Can you eat too much protein?
If you have a health condition, like kidney disease, you should always check with your doctor to see if you need to monitor your protein intake.
For healthy adults, eating too much protein can become a problem when it replaces other healthy food groups. Nutrient deficiencies can occur when we put too much emphasis on one type of food and miss out on all the other important vitamins and minerals that come from eating a variety of foods.
Research also shows that eating more than 3 g/kg of protein at one meal has no additional benefit to muscle growth and repair. More is not better. The extra protein just gets used as calories or energy; it’s not put toward muscle growth. Just another reason to have a variety of protein–rich foods from animal- and plant-based sources spread evenly throughout the day.
Is keto worth trying?
For most healthy, active adults, the ketogenic diet is not necessary to improve health and it can be a very restrictive way of eating that is hard to maintain. Also, currently there is no data to show that it improves or enhances sport performance if that’s a goal for someone.
How does age or gender affect how much protein you should consume?
As we get older, we stop building muscle and start losing it unless we are active and consuming a balanced diet that contains adequate amounts of protein. Older adults who are active may need a little more protein to help them maintain lean muscle mass. One way they can do this is by having a small, protein–rich snack right before bed.
Differences in protein requirements for active males and females aren’t that different — recommendations should be based on type of activity and body weight.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 red bell pepper, diced
- 1/2 green bell pepper, diced
- 1 jalapeno, seeded and diced
- 1/2 cup scallions, diced
- 3 cloves of garlic, minced
- 2 medium tomatoes, diced
- 1 tablespoon ground cumin
- 1 cup tomato sauce
- 3 cups canned black beans, rinsed and drained
- 1 cup quinoa, cooked according to package instructions
- Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
- Add olive oil to a soup pot over medium heat and sauté bell peppers, jalapeño, scallions, garlic, tomatoes and cumin. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add tomato sauce, black beans and cooked quinoa. Turn heat to low-medium and cook for 15 minutes.
- Add salt and cayenne pepper to taste.
- Serve with avocado and fresh cilantro.
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