Thursday, February 20, 2014

Protein.... What, me worry?

The thing people ask me the most, as a vegan and an athlete, is where i get my protein. Actually, often they are informing me i must be deficient, but let’s put that aside for now.

Admittedly, this used to be a huge concern for me. I used to consume tons of protein powder, eat lots of eggs, cheese, vegetarian faux meat, etc. It was a huge worry for me, and i carried my little blender bottle and tupperwares full of food everywhere.

But as i cleaned up my diet and ate healthier and did more reading about health, nutrition, and protein, i got to the point where i don’t worry about protein. At all. I’m so glad; it makes my life so much simpler. How can i not care about protein? Here’s why:

Our national obsession with protein is fostered by the meat, egg and dairy industries. Athletes have an even greater obsession with protein, and that is fostered by the supplement industry. Supplement manufacturers want to sell you something, but if you think you can get plenty of protein from oatmeal and bananas, you aren’t going to want to spend ½ your paycheck on protein bars and powders. So they do studies and research trying to show you can pack on more muscle if you consume massive amounts of protein.

But here’s the thing. These studies often don’t show what they claim to. They typically look at some marker of muscle growth, and show it’s higher when someone ate a whey shake after a workout as opposed to nothing. They aren’t comparing it to a regular meal, or a post workout snack, and they’re not looking at actual long-term muscle growth. Furthermore, they’re not addressing the needs of people not looking to pack on tons of muscle quickly, which, frankly, few people not on steroids can do anyways.

Let’s suppose you’re working super hard and are managing to pack on 1 pound of muscle a week. This is borderline miraculous for a non-beginner who is not injecting extra testosterone, but, ok, let’s assume it. A pound of muscle is 72% water and has about 100 grams of protein( ) . So over the course of a week, that’s 14.25g of protein per day. Here’s some foods that have 14.25 g of protein:

* less than one cup of cooked lentils
* one bunch of broccoli
* 2 slices of sprouted grain bread and a smear of almond butter

That’s it. That’s all you would need to add to your diet, protein-wise, if you’re trying to add a pound of muscle per week. Suppose you’re putting on a superhuman 3 pounds of muscle per week, which you won’t be? 32.75 grams of extra protein would be needed. Three extra almond butter sandwiches. Or one sandwich and a nice bowl of lentil soup.

So, what about our baseline protein needs? What does the actual research show? The world health organization and FDA have done a lot of research on this. The WHO’s old number is .66 grams of protein per kilogram of lean body weight. They later revised this to .88 g/kg ( ). The latter figure is meant to cover 97.5% of the population, people who are sick, injured, or have special conditions or situations that require more protein.

The United States RDA for protein is .8 g/KG, and again, this is a high number meant to account for those who are exercising a lot, have injuries, have special conditions, or are eating unbalanced amino acid profiles.

So, ok, maybe i’m a super athlete who needs more protein than most people. I work my ass off. Even though i’d be lucky to put a pound of muscle on per month, let’s say i need 1 g per kg of lean body mass. I’m 175 and have 14% bodyfat, so my lean body mass is 150lbs. Convert to kilograms and i’m 68.4 kg LBM. So being very active, and aiming high, i need less than 70 grams of protein.

Now, i eat pretty clean, largely unprocessed, and try to avoid oils and refined foods in general. 1tbsp of oil has 120 calories and no protein. ¼ cup of sugar has 180 calories and no protein. If you replace those with whole foods, you will be getting some protein along with that along with a lot more volume and other nutrients. Let’s look at a typical day of clean eating + light workout for me:

So with no special attempt to consume protein, i’ve exceeded how much i need to eat by almost 50 grams. Enough, based on our earlier math, to put on about 3.5 pounds of muscle a week. Without trying to eat any specific protein source. This is also while having a 400+ calorie deficit, because i’m aiming for a little weight loss.

This is also a lot of food.. It’s honestly hard for me to eat all that. Part of that is the 109g of fiber i put down. What kind of a problem is that in today’s world, to have a hard time getting to maintenance calories. If i am losing weight when i don’t want to, i can have a little dark chocolate, boo hoo.

So, in short, you’re much better off simply forgetting about protein and eating lots of healthy, unprocessed, nutrient dense food. Unless something very weird is happening, you will get plenty of protein, and you’ll be much better off getting all the OTHER things you’re getting in your unprocessed plant foods aside from just protein. After awhile, those protein shakes start to look like excess protein tundra, devoid of nutrients.

So how does this looks for me on an ongoing basis? I don’t really try to hold myself to any specific macronutrient ratios, but i try to keep fat down, as it’s easy to get a lot of calories with little nutrition or volume. What fats i do eat are super high quality.

If i’m eating at maintenance calories ( for me, 2500 ) i try to keep my protein and fat no lower than 10%, though i think those are good targets for each. That means my carbohydrates can be 80% of my calories, which i’m also fine with. In reality, my protein and fats are often higher, and sometimes my macro nutrient ratios are more like 60/20/20 though i try not to go higher in fat and protein than 20%.

So, if i’m eating my 2500 calories per day ( not exercising ) here are my ratios under 80/10/10:

           calories grams:
carbs    2000    500
protein 250      62.5
fat       250      27.77

Note that that the protein is almost exactly in line with what the research recommends my needs are. And it’s tricky to get my protein that low unless i’m eating tons of processed food, or all fruit. Since 10% protein is fine, any food that has 10% or more is fine, and you can have some that is lower if you are eating some that is higher. Your intake of greens and broccoli ( 35% ) is more than balancing out that grapefruit ( 5% ). Even if you think you need much more than 10%, there is no reason to have to look beyond health-building plant foods:

If i work out a lot, my calorie needs increase, and my protein goes up, just because i am eating more. If i burn & eat 1000 extra calories, i'll be getting at least 100 extra calories of protein, or 25g, which would be enough to support 1.6 pounds of muscle gain per week.

If i’m trying to cut calories, i do it by lowering my carb intake, and don’t lower my fat and protein. So, let’s say i’m trying to drop a pound a week. That means a 500 calorie deficit per day. I also do 800 calories of exercise for the day, so my BMR + exercise gives me a 3300 calorie budget. My non-diet macros would look like this:

            calories grams
carbs       2640    660
protein     330     82.5
fat           330     36.66

I’d aim to get my 500 calorie deficit by cutting out 125 grams of carbohydrate. That still leaves 535g of carbs, and my full compliment of protein and fat. And, as i said, often my macros creep towards 60/20/20, so my protein and fat could be double this, though i don’t want to get my carbs too low if i am expecting to get a good intense workout in.

So that’s it. I don’t worry about protein, which lets me focus on getting in vitamin-rich, nutrient-dense, high-energy food which will lower my odds of getting cancer or heart disease. And the food tastes great, and i get to eat a lot more of it.

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