Protein. We all know it’s important for our health, but beyond that, things can get a little murky. How much protein do I really need? What kind? What are good food sources of protein? What about protein powders? As an athlete and a physician who works with athletes, I’ve spent a lot of time researching this topic. Here’s a simple explanation of protein intake.
What is protein?
It’s impossible to overstate the vital role protein plays in your body’s functions. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, protein—found in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and much more—helps power many chemical reactions and carries oxygen in your blood.
How much do I need?
To figure out how much protein you should be getting every day, you may need to do some math. LIVESTRONG explains that the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is contingent on your age and gender, although in general the suggested intake for men is 56 grams per day. An individual amount can be calculated based on your body weight, and you can find step-by-step instructions here.
When it comes to protein, it seems that quality is more important than quantity. For example, while red meat is an excellent source of protein, it’s also high in saturated fat and has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and cancer (I include red meat on my list of top foods that cause cancer). Researchers followed 120,000 men subjects in the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study for more than two decades and found that their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease went up 13 percent for every additional three ounces of unprocessed red meat they ate each day. And every additional 1.5 ounce serving of processed red meat consumed each day—equivalent to two strips of bacon or one hot dog—was linked to a 20 percent increase in the risk of death from cardiovascular disease.
Healthy protein like the kind found in fish and plant sources, on the other hand, has been shown to lower disease risk. In a study called the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health (OmniHeart), a diet that subbed healthy protein or fat for some carbohydrates more effectively lowered blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol than a diet that was similarly healthy but higher in carbs. And research suggests eating just one serving per day of plant-based protein like the kind found in beans and lentils may help with weight loss, likely thanks to the feeling of fullness these foods provide. Not a big bean guy? Here are three other foods that are good sources of plant-based protein.
- Spirulina: In addition to being packed with energy-boosting amino acids, this blue-green algae powder contains an amazing amount of protein—around 25 grams per ¼ cup! Try adding a scoop of spirulina powder to your morning smoothie.
- Quinoa: Considered an “ancient grain” due its long history of nutritional use dating back to the Incas, quinoa contains 8 grams of high-quality protein per cup. It can be subbed for rice in any recipe.
- Pumpkin Seeds: A single cup of these seeds, sometimes called pepitas, contains a whopping 12 grams of protein. Pumpkin seeds are also one of the few plant-based sources of zinc, an essential nutrient that has been linked to prostate health.
What about protein powder?
Although you’ll ideally get enough protein from your diet, protein powders are a convenient way to give yourself a boost. But, as I write about here, there are a lot of choices on the market. How do you know which one will work for you? CrossFit website The Box advises reading the label carefully. Amino acids like taurine and glycine might sound good, but they’re often added by companies in an effort to falsely inflate a product’s protein content. The Box suggests looking for leucine, an amino acid that appears to trigger muscle-protein-manufacturing systems. Personally, I prefer a “clean” product like the grass fed, organic protein powders from Tera’s Whey. They’re all natural, high quality, and they taste amazing—especially the Bourbon Vanilla flavor. For a vegan protein source, I recommend Vega Sport protein powder with pea and pumpkin seed protein.
Are you getting the nutrients you need for long-term health? Download my Top 10 Supplements For Men PDF to learn about the most critical supplements you need.
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Officer of Vault Health, a national medical practice specializing in care for men, and Is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.