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Macronutrients: Part I - Protein

By Chris Zinn

Alright, so far on this blog, we’ve talked about your body’s systems and cells, energy balance, the GI tract, yada yada yada. Now let's get into the good stuff!

The infamous macronutrients.

If you've heard anyone claiming they haven't hit their “macros” on a given day, or if you’ve heard them asking someone else what their “macronutrient split” is, what they’re referring to are the three major categories of food that we eat, called macronutrients.

Now, since this blog post would be as long as a Stephen King novel if I were to touch on everything all at once, I will split it up into 3 categories and 3 separate blog posts to spare you your sanity!

But, before I dive into each individual macronutrient's role, it might be helpful for me to first explain what the heck macronutrients really are.

What are Macronutrients?

Macronutrients - from the Greek makros or "large" - are large families of molecules that together make up all the food we eat. The 3 categories of macronutrients are:

  • Proteins,

  • Carbohydrates, and

  • Fats.

What is a Macronutrient Ratio?

A macronutrient ratio, or split, refers to how the 3 different nutrients are portioned throughout your entire diet.

The amount of each macronutrient in your diet is extremely important because each macronutrient stores and releases different amounts of energy when broken down by your body.

Here’s how it works:

  • protein contains 4 calories per gram;

  • carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram; and

  • fat contains 9 calories per gram.

The differences in calories per gram of the different macronutrients is at the root of all of the different kinds of diets out there, which are really just different percentages of macronutrients.

One diet calls for an even mix of all macronutrients, another calls for low carbohydrates, others call for low fat, etc.

The picture above gives examples of how macronutrients can be distributed differently, generating different eating styles.

So, why would it matter how macronutrients are split up?

Well, all 3 macronutrients play different roles in the body and fulfill various tasks.

What are Proteins?

Proteins might be the Kim Kardashian of the macronutrient world, aka the most famous. You hear about it and see it everywhere.

Protein shakes are advertised everywhere; foods with labels claim, "High protein! Buy me!"

And while the in-your-face marketing gets annoying, protein is one of the most essential macronutrients.

Proteins are crucial physiological molecules, involved in nearly every process that happens in your body, such as:

  • cellular metabolism;

  • sending messages within and between cells;

  • enabling important chemical reactions; and

  • creating structures.

Proteins make up much of your body's tissues (such as muscle, connective tissues, skin, nails, hair, and a significant percentage of bone), your immune system, and many of your hormones.

At any given moment, your body is breaking apart proteins and putting them back together, in a process known as “protein turnover”.

Because proteins have many important jobs, and because they're always being torn apart and built back up again (with some inevitable loss in the process), we need to eat a consistent supply of dietary protein to live and thrive.

Proteins are made up of amino acids. Amino acids are like Lego blocks that fit together in different ways.

When we eat and digest complex proteins (in a nice juicy steak, for example), we break them down into peptides (i.e., two or more amino acids joined together) and amino acids. We then use those amino acids to make new things or for other metabolic functions in our bodies.

So now the inevitable question is… how much protein should you eat?

I'm sure that if you’ve read any of my other blogs, you've picked up on one consistent theme when it comes to nutrition advice - it depends!

People have a wide variety of goals, and there is no one size fits all protein suggestion.

Protein needs can vary based on:

  • your goals,

  • your age,

  • your body size and lean mass,

  • your physical activity level,

  • your overall health status,

  • whether you're pregnant/lactating, and/or

  • whether you're injured or ill.

The good news is you probably aren't deficient in protein.

WHAT? You mean I don’t need to believe all the marketing saying that I need this high protein shake or extra-high protein cereal??

Probably not.

This is because – unless you find yourself being a highly trained and competitive athlete – most people are relatively sedentary omnivores, which means:

  • You probably don't need much protein for repair or rebuilding.

  • You probably eat animal products and dairy, both of which are familiar sources of protein.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that simply being “not deficient” in protein is quite the low bar and may not be ideal for a regularly active person.

What you need to know is that if you are active on a regular basis (e.g., exercising several days/week, working a physically challenging job, etc.), your protein needs go up a bit.

In fact, there are plenty of scenarios in which you might need to be more conscious of your protein intake and double-check that you are getting enough. Below are some examples.

Your protein needs can go up if:

  • You’re training hard frequently (e.g., as athletes do) or have a heavy-labor job.

  • Your goal is to gain lean mass and/or strength.

  • You’re injured, sick, or recovering from surgery.

  • You're older (our bodies digest protein less effectively as we age, so we need more to meet requirements).

  • You're losing protein for some other reason (e.g., chronic physical stress).

In these cases, eating higher amounts of protein will be beneficial.

Protein in Practice

The best way to meet your daily protein needs is through minimally processed whole foods.

There are a lot of ways to work healthy protein into your diet, including:

  • lean cuts of meat such as beef,

  • lean cuts of pork,

  • wild game,

  • poultry,

  • fish,

  • eggs and egg whites, or

  • dairy such as cottage cheese and strained Greek yogurt.

If you are a plant-based eater, it can be more challenging to hit your protein needs. In this case, some good options are:

  • beans, lentils, and legumes;

  • tempeh, tofu, or edamame; and

  • seitan.

Now, if you're like anyone else, sometimes life gets busy. It can get difficult to have protein on hand and ready to eat at all times.

In this case – when you literally don’t have time to eat quality whole-food sources of protein -those in-your-face protein powder supplementation products may actually come in handy.

Protein supplementation isn't the method you should be using to get all of your protein. Still, it would be naive to think that it's possible to hit your goals every day without fail.

A protein supplement should be a… wait for it… supplement! That’s right – not the main part of your diet!

An excellent way to think about it is to eat real food first if it's available. If it isn't available, you can then reach for one of these protein supplement options:

  • whey powder,

  • casein powder,

  • milk protein blend,

  • egg white powder, or

  • bone broth powder.

Achieving Your Goals

Whether you trying to gain weight or lose weight, protein can help you achieve your goals.

Weight Loss

Maintaining an adequate protein intake while trying to lose weight is essential for a few reasons.

When your goal is to lose weight, the weight you probably want to be losing is fat. To ensure that you are indeed shaving off pounds of fat instead of other lean tissue like muscle, it's crucial to keep your protein intake high.

As you go into a negative energy balance (i.e., burning more calories than you consume) to lose weight, your body will need to use stored sources of fuel to fulfill its energy needs.

Suppose your body doesn't have an adequate supply of amino acids available to maintain all the cellular functions powered by protein and to maintain lean tissue. In that case, it will start to consume lean muscle tissue for its energy and to maintain these essential functions.

On the other hand, when you maintain your regular protein intake, you keep a surplus of muscle building blocks around, keep lean tissue fed, and allow your body to maintain essential cellular functions without breaking down lean tissue. This enables your body to burn fat as a fuel source, rather than breaking down lean tissue.

Other factors play into weight loss portioning, but this is a surefire way to make sure you're doing what you can when it comes to protein.

Secondly, the protein itself is extremely satiating. So, keeping a high protein intake can help you feel full for longer.

Weight Gain

One of the most critical pieces of building muscle is recovery from the stress of a strength-training workout. For your muscles to recover properly, you need to consume the right amounts of protein. Ensuring you eat the correct amount of protein will help rebuild muscle tissue and prepare you for your next workout.

The correct amount depends on many different factors. Still, an excellent place to start is about 0.8 grams per kg of bodyweight. This works out to be about:

  • 55g of protein per day for a 150 lbs. person

  • 72g of protein per day for a 200 lbs. person

Recent studies suggest this number should really be higher (1.2g per kg of body weight), especially when your goal is to gain weight, or if you are older.

If you can easily hit the goal of 0.8g per kg of body weight, use the suggestions below by determining what category you fit into, and try to hit the corresponding amount of protein.

  • Sedentary - 0.8 - 1.2 g of protein per kg of bodyweight

  • Active but overweight - 1.2 - 1.6 g of protein per kg of bodyweight

  • Active with healthy weight - 1.6 - 2.2 g of protein per kg of bodyweight

  • Healthy and looking to change weight or body composition - 1.6 - 3.3 g of protein per kg of bodyweight

Ensuring protein intake is at a suitable level for your activity is vital for your goals and daily bodily functions. As you now know, It is so essential to your diet for many different reasons, and that’s why we tackled it as the first of our three macronutrients in this week’s post.

Now that we’ve talked enough about protein, be on the lookout for next week’s blog post in which we’ll tackle the carb controversy!

Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to go make a protein shake…


Want to find out more about how to craft an approach to eating that will fit in with your needs, goals, and lifestyle? You can get started today working with Med Gym's own Certified Nutrition Coach, Chris Zinn, in our Nutrition Coaching Program!

If you've tried diet after diet and struggled to reach your goals, nutrition coaching may be the answer you need. Working with a qualified nutrition coach to craft and stick to the plan that is the right fit for you can be game-changing!

Contact us here to learn more about the nutrition coaching program and how you can get started.

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