Think of the term, "protein" in regards to your health, and I almost guarantee you're picturing some gym bro with massive cannons shaking a protein smoothie like it has accused him of skipping leg day. But there is so much more to protein and its impact on your health than a big scoop of questionably beneficial powder after a gym session. In fact, getting your daily protein intake wrong could be the reason you're struggling with brainpower, energy, or weight.
When protein is not "just protein"
When you squint hard and read the nutritional breakdown on the back of a label you will generally find fat broken down into saturated fat and polyunsaturated fat. Carbs will be broken down into sugars and fibre. But when we look at protein it's just "protein". There's no further breakdown of what you're eating.
Protein is a macronutrient. It's complex, and one type of protein is not the same as another. There are 20 amino acids in protein, and you need nine of them in your diet as a minimum. Amino acids are not created equal, and the protein you consume when eating quinoa or broccoli or mushrooms, provides your body with different amino acids to when you eat chicken or beef. Understanding what your body needs, and where you're going to get it--irrespective of if you're an omnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan--is key to your ongoing health.
How protein helps the normal person
Increasing your protein can improve your life across a range of health factors, including energy and your ability to change your body. In our article, Are you Eating Enough Protein to be Healthy we discuss some of the key impacts of getting your protein right, such as helping manage:
Chronic pain and stiffness
Lack of muscle growth
Low body temperature
Stress and anxiety
Those people who optimise protein always do better. They have better body composition, leaner muscle mass, better insulin and glucose control, it improves satiation, and protects tissue.
Dr. Gabrielle Lyon takes it one step further and states that muscle is the marker for longevity (where obesity is linked to shorter lifespans).
We are not over-fat but we are under-muscled. Obesity is so hard to treat because fundamentally we are looking at the wrong tissue.
You can see this most clearly when you see the difference in people's bodies when they focus on muscle growth and repair versus fat loss in their health journeys.
How much protein should I be eating?
Much like with Vitamin C, the recommended daily intake is very low, and we have no problem taking much much more Vitamin C when we're sick, yet no one tells us that the minimum requirement for protein is no where near enough for vitality and healthy tissues (recommended daily intake is what we need just to avoid sickness). Where you generally need to be wary is what you're eating with the protein. For example, chicken is an excellent source of protein, but if you go berserk eating trays of thighs like a carnivorous Cookie Monster, you are also going to be consuming an incredible amount of fat, and while fat can be good for you, in excess, it's not doing your pants any favours.
The recommended daily intake (RDI) for protein is calculated as follows:
0.8g/kg. For a 60 - 100kg = 48 - 80g of protein a day
However, that is based on your average person not wanting to fall into deficiency. Optimal protein intake should be calculated as follows:
1.8-2.0g/kg. For a 60-100kg = 108 - 200g of protein a day
Keep in mind what your healthy weight would be, and how much activity you do each week. So figure out your needs, and start looking into where you're going to get those needs from.
I harp on about the free Chronometer app a lot--it's perfect for helping you understand your protein intake. It's not because I get any form of commission for it; it's because it removes the guesswork and creates accountability.
Understanding and owning what you put in to your body is important. Seeing the protein, fats, sugar, and carbs (and in their broken down forms) can help you start to mentally measure the way your body reacts to what you eat in the moment, daily, weekly, monthly, and ongoing.