I get all kinds of questions around wellness and peak performance:
- Is keto the best diet?
- Any OMAD weight loss tips?
- Which intermittent fasting protocol makes sense for me?
- Can you tell me what supplements I should use? What products does Nick Urban love?
- How do I choose the best exogenous ketones?
- Do you supplement Nicotinamide Riboside (NR) or Nicotinamide Mononucleotide (NMN)?
- Should I take molecular hydrogen tablets every day?
I love them all, and I enjoy talking about all things health. Here’s the thing…
There’s one baseline recommendation I give to virtually everyone that wants to improve their health.
Whether you’re looking to lose weight, build muscle, boost brain function, or to live optimally — it’s all the same.
Something simple that doesn’t require any fancy calculus or fringe technologies. Something that our ancestors did without any thought. Something that modern humans have veered away from. And that choice costs our healthcare system billions.
Without it, you’re destined to age prematurely and live below your means. What is that one thing?
Life requires lots of it.Do nothing else but eat adequate protein and your health will improve. Click To Tweet
Yet most of us don’t eat enough. Guidelines set by the WHO and FDA are woefully lacking. If you want to look, feel, and perform your best, you need more. This guide explains why protein consumption determines your overall health and tips to get plenty.
On the go? This podcast interview with Dr. Gabrielle Lyon sums up the vitality of protein:
Protein Explained Simply
Protein is one of the three primary macronutrients that makes up the food we eat (fat and carbohydrate are the others). Protein itself is made up of a string of simple “building blocks” called amino acids.
Unlike carbs, protein is an essential nutrient (we’d die without it). Different combinations of just 23 amino acids build 280,000 different proteins. While the body can produce certain aminos, nine “essential amino acids” must come from the diet.
Where do amino acids come from?
Fungi in plants (produced primarily through the Shikimate pathway).
Every amino acid has unique characteristics, functions, and benefits.
Form a protein by combining amino acids.
Protein is the umbrella term for foods high in multiple amino acids.
Why Humans Need Protein
Protein is perfect.
I’ve been obsessed with it since age 15.
Back then, as a competitive Football player, I wanted to build muscle to excel at my sports. As competitive athletes will testify, protein is the backbone of sports science. Depending on your lifestyle and goals, optimal protein accelerates bulking up or slimming down. It’s not all about aesthetics either.
Successful scientists question the underlying assumptions of life. But even the greatest minds recognize that to thrive, life requires ample protein. From the toenails to the brain and everything in between.
Human organs and systems that require dietary protein include:
- All enzymes
- Cell transporters
- All blood transporters
- All cells’ scaffolding and structures
- 100 percent of your hair and fingernails
- Internal organs
- Hormones are made of mostly protein
Getting enough also makes everyday life easier. This is best described by what’s called the “optimal foraging theory”,Optimal foraging theory: organisms continue to eat until they get enough protein. Click To Tweet
Thus, protein helps keep your motivation high and protects against the magnetic pull of pizza, ice cream and progress-derailing binges.
You’ll also maximize your healthspan—the maximum age in which you’re fully capable and functional—by preventing the typical frailty that comes with age.
Benefits of Protein
Protein is not a villain.
This is what happens when your body gets all the amino acids it needs.
Protein Sculpts Your Dream Body (Weight Loss & Muscle Gain)
Trying to bulk up and pack on slabs of muscle? Want to shed unwanted body fat?
Whether or not you want muscle long-term, focus on putting it on first. Then the extra weight will melt right off. Muscle has key health and fat loss advantages:
- Muscle burns more calories than fat. Meaning that you can eat more calories without gaining weight. Or lose weight without cutting calories.
- Muscle shuttles nutrients where they belong. Your body handles sugar and starch better if you have muscle. Technically, the more muscle you have, the more you get away with “cheat” meals. Those calories refuel your muscle before wreaking havoc in your bloodstream.
- Protein spares muscle tissue. Without enough, your body will break down your muscle for fuel.
- Protein is more filling and for longer. Your ravenous appetite will subside and you’ll free your mind to ponder things other than food.
- 30% of the calories in protein get “wasted”. The thermic effect of protein results in your body only extracting about 70% of the total energy in protein. Fat provides 9 calories per gram. Carbs provide 4 calories per gram. At 2.8 net calories per gram, protein is the lowest-calory fuel.
Eat protein to burn fat, build muscle, and shift your body composition.
Protein Slows Aging
“If you want to live longer eat more protein and lift more weights.”Robb Wolf
The role of protein and aging is more controversial.
Protein is sometimes blamed for cancer and degenerative disease. While it does activate the anabolic mTOR pathway, according to Dr. Gabby Leons, so do other things like consuming excess calories and carbohydrates. Some of the top longevity drugs and supplements work by suppressing mTOR.
Yet activating mTOR is entirely necessary for the body to rebuild and grow. Stimulating it through dietary protein combats the natural anabolic resistance and frailty that come with aging. Sometimes, deficiency causes seemingly serious symptoms of aging like hair loss.
Eating enough protein also helps combat insulin resistance. As I’ve pointed out in previous articles, muscle mass is one of the top predictors of longevity.
Protein Builds a Strong Brain & Body
Protein isn’t just for beauty or living a long time. Organ systems, enzymes, and metabolic processes throughout the body rely on it to operate. Over the long-term, shortchange these systems and disease results.
Other health benefits of dietary protein include:
- Increasing BDNF, a neurochemical dubbed “miracle-grow” for the brain
- Satisfying the amino acid needs of the gut
- Lowering blood pressure
- Enhancing glucose regulation
- Improving blood cholesterol
- Increasing cardiometabolic health
- Improving kidney function and GFR (protein does not harm the kidneys in healthy adults)
- Strengthens bone density
How to Properly Use Dietary Protein
If you’ve made it this far, you might wonder if you’re eating enough in your diet already.
While I firmly believe virtually everyone needs more, it’s especially critical for certain populations:
- Physically active, either through workouts or your job
- Injured or sick
- Not absorbing protein normally
- Pregnant / breastfeeding
- Younger (and growing)
- Older (and potentially losing lean mass)
Basically, whenever the body needs to build, rebuild, and grow. Since you probably exercise regularly, this includes you 🙂.
So how much exactly?
How Much Protein
Unfortunately, most protein research focuses on pathology. Follow the RDA and you won’t thrive. If you want to live optimally, you’ll need more. The factors that increase your protein requirements include:
- Your biological sex
- Your age
- Your activity level
- Your stress level
- Your types of activities
- Which amino acids you’re already getting
- The protein quality (more on this soon)
- How many total calories you consume
- When you eat
To make things easy, shoot for 1 gram of protein per pound of your ideal weight.
So a 200 pound person look to drop to 150 should eat 150 grams of protein per day. On the other-hand, a 100 pound athlete looking to bulk up to 130 pounds should consume 130 grams of protein per day. These numbers aren’t strict, but a loose (and easy to remember) guideline.
Don’t worry about going a little over. Surpassing the RDA is associated with increased lean mass.
Protein Quality: Don’t Get Fooled
Protein inside heavily processed junk food isn’t the same as pasture-raised eggs.
You may have heard that there’s protein in all kinds of foods. While technically true, the quality varies dramatically. It boils down to amino acid content.
Your body needs specific amounts of certain aminos to build bodily protein.
Three factors determine protein quality:
- Digestability: some proteins are bound-up and rendered unusable by other chemicals. If you can’t digest it, you can’t use it.
- Absorption: the classic marker of quality, some sources are highly absorbed while others mostly get excreted.
- Composition: plant and animal sources have very different ratios of the amino acids. Your body naturally needs more of the aminos abundant in animal protein.
In other words…
Reading food labels isn’t enough. If you eat 50 grams of protein and only absorb 5 grams, you’ll eventually develop nasty deficiencies. Some foods are more valuable than others.
Two primary scores have emerged to quantify quality of protein:
- Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS): higher is better
- Indicator amino acid oxidation (IAAO): lower is better
Using either scale, you’ll notice that animal protein virtually always beats plant sources.
There’s only one exception. As explained in my guide to a plant-based superfood called spirulina, ounce for ounce, nothing beats spirulina tablets. Best of all, it’s a complete protein source.
For example, to get the necessary aminos, you could either eat four ounces of chicken, or six cups of quinoa.
Best Sources of Protein
So what are the best sources of abundant, well-tolerated amino acids?
Unfortunately, gravity-bearing animals. By a landslide.
Fish is next. I am a huge fan of fish for the healthy omega-3 fatty acids (and a top anti-aging compound called astaxanthin in red fish). Getting the necessary 30 grams of protein per meal, however, takes about 6 ounces—or over 1/3 of a pound—of salmon. The protein density just isn’t the same.
Years ago, I preferred supplements for their convenience. I learned that high-temperature processing and compliance practices degrade supplements. But real food contains enzymes, minerals, and phytonutrients required to maximally use the protein.
If you can’t get enough through diet, essential amino acid supplements, high-quality spirulina or whey protein can help. My Protein makes a consistently high-rated whey protein that also excels in lab testing. If your budget allows, look for a grass-fed, cold-processed brand.
Processed plant proteins have three distinct disadvantages:
- Contamination: I frequently see new reports finding plant protein products are especially high in heavy metals, adultrants, and other contaminants.
- Stacking: unlike whey or other complete animal proteins, you’ll need to stack multiple plant proteins to get adequate amino acids.
- Quantity: throughout history humans couldn’t have consumed 6 cups of quinoa and 6 cups of rice protein in one meal. But that mountain of powder is necessary to get just 30 grams worth of complete aminos. Scientists don’t know the long-term effects or side effects from consuming such a vast quantity of plant-derived powders.
Common Dietary Protein Myths, Questions & Answers
Will protein make me bulky?
Protein alone will not make you bulky. Bodybuilders work extremely hard, training for years with utmost attention to their weight training, diet, sleep, recovery, and lifestyle. Even then, they often resort to taking hormones to get the bulky look.
If you begin weight training today, initially you’ll add a maximum of two pounds of muscle per month. Over time, you’ll add less and less.
How much protein should I eat per day?
To perform at your peak, leading researchers recommend eating approximately 1 gram of protein per pound of desired bodyweight. Lifestyle factors like age, physical activity, stress, and biological sex can increase protein requirements.
Don’t I need to eat carbohydrates?
Of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates are non-essential. Through a process called gluconeogenesis, the body can use protein to generate up to 66 grams of carbs per 100 grams of protein consumed. This is crucial because certain organs like the brain require carbs (glucose) to function.
Will eating protein damage my kidneys?
Contrary to popular belief, barring renal disease, high-protein actually protects the kidneys.
Does protein convert into sugar?
The formation of sugar from protein, a concept called gluconeogenesis, circulated as a concern as the ketogenic diet became popular. In reality, the process is demand-driven, meaning that the body will only convert protein into sugar when it is needed for fuel. In fact, as my recent NutriSense continuous glucose monitor experiment showed, protein can actually stabilize blood glucose. This finding has been confirmed by blood sugar research.
Dietary Protein for Optimal Living
Protein is the backbone of life.
Amino acids are the raw ingredients that the body uses to fuel countless process and power our metabolic furnaces.
Shortchange your body over the long-term, and the intricate systems will degenerate and disease will ensue.
You’ll likely survive following the commonly recommended 50 gram per day recommendations.
But is merely surviving enough?
Whether you’re looking to age slower, burn body fat, or add muscle and strength, start with protein.
Prioritizing amino acid consumption by eating foods rich in dietary protein sets your body and brain up to thrive.
The best protein sources are gravity-bearing animals. Whey, eggs, and essential amino supplements are also great. Despite their shortcomings, plant-based sources can help reach your target of ~1 gram of protein per pound of ideal bodyweight.
I’m delighted to see the controversy around protein dispelling day by day. I’m confident that paying attention to intake can help virtually everyone.
How do you feel about protein?