All About Protein – How Much You Need + Protein Powder Options
Written by: Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN
Protein gets a lot of attention in the nutrition world for its benefits to body composition and muscle growth. But protein has many other functions in the body and is often the macronutrient that is challenging to eat enough of, especially when pregnant or working to build muscle.
This article will answer the most asked questions about protein, including:
- What is protein?
- How much protein do I need to eat in a day?
- Why is protein essential in pregnancy?
- How do I increase protein through food?
- Do I need to include protein drinks or shakes? And what is the best choice for me with clean, quality ingredients?
Let’s dive into this delicious topic!
Protein is made from building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 different amino acids. The essential amino acids we must obtain from the diet, while the body has some capacity to make the others, called non-essential. During times of growth like childhood and pregnancy, we need more of the non-essential amino acids from the diet to meet the body’s demands.
We eat protein, and that protein breaks down into amino acids that are absorbed into the body. Then, the body uses the amino acids to build new proteins.
Having enough protein in the diet is essential for a healthy, well-functioning body. Protein is critical for:
- Building the structure of cells, muscles, bones, and connective tissues
- Growth and development
- Enzymes that govern all the chemical reactions in the body
- Immune function
- Fluid balance
- Energy and body composition
If you are deficient in protein, you may notice poor immunity, fluid retention, weakness, or stunted growth. While we typically think of protein deficiency related to famine in developing countries, the standard American diet is not always optimal in terms of meeting protein needs either.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
The RDA (recommended dietary allowance) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) of body weight for adults. For a 150-pound adult, this translates to 54 grams of protein per day.
The RDA for protein suggests the minimum requirement to avoid deficiency, which is much lower than the optimal amount of protein needed for health and fitness.
The optimal amount of protein you need each day depends on various factors including your age, activity level, health status, and nutrition goals. Most people will need a minimum of 1 to 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram (0.45 to 0.6 grams per pound) body weight. Athletes may need up to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram (0.8 grams per pound) body weight.
If you are interested in improving body composition, building muscle, are in the postpartum period, or recovering from an injury or surgery, you might need more protein. For our 150-pound adult, this might look like 100 grams of protein per day, or almost double what the RDA recommends.
Protein is satiating, filling, and supports more balanced blood sugar. Protein-rich foods like meat and eggs are hard to overeat. In truth, many people I work with as a nutritionist have a challenging time eating enough protein.
Protein Needs During Pregnancy
As early as the first few weeks of pregnancy, protein requirements increase to support growth and development and then accelerate as the pregnancy progresses. The current RDA for protein during pregnancy is 0.8 grams per kilogram (0.36 grams per pound) during the first trimester, the same as a non-pregnant person. The RDA increases to 1.1 grams per kilogram (0.5 grams per pound) in the second and third trimesters. Remember that the RDA is the minimum amount needed to avoid deficiency.
Recent research suggests these recommendations are sub-optimal for mamas and babies. Actual needs are 40% higher during the first trimester and 73% higher in late pregnancy!
During pregnancy, protein is required as building blocks for the baby, and supports the growth of the placenta, hormones, immunity, and so much more. It’s no wonder that protein needs are increased during this life phase.
While the protein benefits are apparent, it can be challenging to meet protein needs because of food aversions and morning sickness. Interestingly, finding creative ways to increase protein can help ease some of these pregnancy symptoms.
Real Food Sources of Protein
Here are some of the most nutrient-dense options for protein:
- Meat – beef, bison, pork (choose grass-fed or pasture-raised if possible)
- Wild game – venison, elk
- Poultry – chicken, turkey, duck (choose organic or pastured if possible)
- Eggs (choose pastured if possible)
- Dairy – milk, cheese, yogurt (choose grass-fed or organic as possible)
- Soy – tofu, tempeh, edamame (choose organic and non-GMO)
- Beans – lentils, pinto beans, garbanzo beans
- Fish and seafood – wild salmon, sardines, cod, shrimp
- Nuts and seeds – hemp seeds, almonds, walnuts
- Protein powders – whey, collagen, plant-based (source from a quality, transparent company)
Note: If choosing organic and grass-fed animal products is cost-prohibitive, or you don’t have access where you live, don’t let that deter you from eating protein-rich foods. These options are still incredibly nutrient-dense and offer much more benefit than not including them.
How To Eat More Protein
If you are curious about increasing protein, here are some ideas:
- Tune in to your body’s cues. For some, it might be interesting to track your diet using an online app for a few days to see how much protein you are eating. But this is not required, especially if tracking is stressful or triggering. You have permission to skip the numbers if that is best for you.
Whether you track or not, tune into how you feel at baseline and then experiment with increasing protein. Notice any changes in terms of energy, hunger, cravings, mood, and performance.
- Eat protein throughout the day. As a goal, include a protein source with each meal. This can look like filling a quarter of your plate or choosing at least a palm-size serving with meals. In addition, build snacks around protein to keep you grounded and last you until your next meal.
- Eat protein after exercise. Eat protein within one hour of exercise to help the body build and repair. This protein can be in the form of a meal if the timing is right, otherwise be sure to have a protein-centered snack on hand.
- Use protein powder. Protein powder offers a convenient way to add protein to meals, snacks, and post-workout.
Protein Powder Options
With so many protein powders on the market, knowing what is best for your unique needs and body is hard. Here are some options to consider.
Whey protein is an excellent option for building lean muscle mass, muscle maintenance, and exercise recovery. Whey is naturally a complete protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids.
Twenty2 Nutrition Grass-Fed Whey Protein is made from grass-fed cow’s milk and is growth hormone free. Unlike other whey proteins that can be difficult to digest, Twenty2 Grass-Fed Whey contains added enzymes for easier digestion.
Learn more about the benefits of grass-fed whey and how to use it in the kitchen here.
Collagen is the main structural protein found in the body’s connective tissues and benefits hair, skin, joints, and bone health. Collagen helps hydrate and provide structure throughout the body. In addition, the amino acids found in collagen are critical during pregnancy and for postpartum healing. It’s essential for internal health as well as external health.
Collagen production declines with age but can be maintained and improved by eating collagen-rich food and supplementing with collagen peptides.
On its own, collagen isn’t a complete protein, but with the addition of egg protein, Twenty2 Nutrition Collagen Egg-Protein offers a complete amino acid profile. In addition to the skin and joint benefits, this combination supports muscle maintenance and recovery.
Vegan proteins offer an alternative for those who prefer a plant-based blend. Twenty2 Nutrition Vegan Protein combines pea protein and almond protein to include all nine essential amino acids. It is easy to mix and has a creamy texture.
In addition, it contains an organic greens blend, providing a full serving of vegetables, along with prebiotics, probiotics, and digestive enzymes to support a healthy gut microbiome.
Protein is necessary for life. To meet your body’s demands, you must eat it several times per day. Eating whole protein-rich foods with meals and including protein powders is an effective way to meet your daily nutrition needs. When you increase protein, you’ll notice a positive effect on body composition, mood, energy, cravings, and appearance.
Ryah Nabielski, MS, RDN is a functional nutritionist, writer, and recipe creator. Through her private practice, Ryah helps women use a natural, food-as-medicine approach to improve fertility, hormone balance, autoimmunity, and discover a healthy relationship with food and body. Learn more about Ryah at econutrition.co.