You've heard of it. You've eaten it. But what is it exactly, and why is it so important?
Instead of throwing slightly interesting, but mostly irrelevant, science stuff at you I want to give you a simple, easy to understand lesson on protein.
What is Protein?
Protein is one of three macronutrients along with carbohydrates and fat.
What does it do?
Protein's main job in the body is to help repair muscles and tissues.
Why is it important?
Protein is essential to survival. If your body can't repair itself, it eventually begins to break down your own protein (aka: muscle) to help with essential functions. In extreme cases, you could develop kwashiorkor, which is fancy for extreme protein deficiency, although this is very unlikely in North America.
As mentioned earlier, protein's main job is to repair muscles. If you are active (and you should be) your body will require certain amounts of protein to help repair your muscles to come back bigger and stronger.
Protein is not only helpful for building muscle, but also for helping retain muscle when burning fat. Your body has protein stored up in the form of your muscle. If you are not eating enough protein, your body will eventually start to tap into its stores leading to muscle loss. When you are eating in a calorie deficit (eating less calories than you're burning) it can be easy to under-eat on protein. Your body in an attempt to survive will find its own protein if needed. This is also why not all weight loss is good weight loss - sometimes you'll be losing muscle too. Ensuring adequate protein is important when trying to lose fat. Not only is retaining muscle important for fat loss, it also becomes more important as you age to slow muscle loss.
Next up, protein is extremely satiating, meaning that 200 calories of a protein-rich food will make you feel fuller than 200 calories of other types of food. Again, this is a positive from a fat loss perspective.
Finally, to break down protein into its usable parts (amino acids) takes a lot of energy. This means that you'll be burning more energy digesting protein. More energy burned = more calories burned.
Which foods are good sources of protein?
Meat and low-fat dairy products tend to be the best sources of protein. Foods like beef, chicken, turkey, skim milk, cottage cheese and low-fat greek yogurt are some great ideas to get started.
A big negative to protein foods is that they often require more prep. While fruit and other carb sources can often be found ready to grab-and-go, protein usually requires cooking. Having options such as protein powder or bars can be a suitable option for those times when you've got to run.
How much do I need?
For most people, the answer is probably more.
There are a few schools of thought depending on who you ask. The "best" would be to aim for around 0.6-1.0g of protein per pound of bodyweight (or lean mass if you're obese). So a 200lb man would eat between 120-200g of protein each day. Split up into 4 meals, they'd be looking to have 30-50g per meal.
I'll be the first to admit - this feels like a lot. That's why for most people, I recommend getting 1 serving (see below) at each meal. If this feels like too much, try for 1 serving at most meals.
How do I measure it?
How you measure your protein is up to you. If you are a calorie counter, you need to make sure that you're looking at the correct numbers. For example, 3oz of uncooked ground beef is around 150 calories and 17 g of protein. 3 oz of cooked ground beef is 230 calories and 23g of protein. This is a big difference. How you choose to measure it, cooked or uncooked, is up to you, but make sure you're getting the correct information.
If you're not a calorie counter, (and you certainly don't have to be), I like to use the palm-sized serving as a good benchmark. A serving of protein dense foods that is the size of your palm will contain between 15-30g of protein depending on the size of your hand. As a starting point, I'd suggest women start with trying to get 1 serving at each meal while men aim for 1.5-2.