As a former vegan, protein is an area where I’ve made many changes. Like dietary fat, we have to get sufficient protein from our diet to optimize health, and quality matters. I no longer believe that I can reach my best health potential without consuming animal products. Thus, high-quality and ethically-sourced protein is where I spend the most on investing in my health. If cost or animal ethics are a concern for you, I’ll also discuss some alternatives.
Rule 1: I eat about 100 grams of protein each day for maintenance or 140 grams for growth (for my current body weight, 140lbs or 63.5kg).
Muscle is critical for health. It allows you to engage in everyday activities without strain or injury. It protects your joints and gives you stability. It regulates various hormones throughout your body. It helps the body clear toxins that accumulate through normal functioning. It is generally protective for all body systems, and many age-related declines stem from lost muscle mass. However, muscle is also an energy-hungry tissue, and your body is constantly monitoring whether you’re consuming enough to maintain it.
To maintain muscle mass, you need to eat enough protein. At the bottom end of the range is 0.7g of protein per lb or 1.6g/kg of body weight. When I’m trying to build muscle, I aim for 1g/lb or 2.2g/kg of body weight and get a minimum of 1g/lb of lean body mass (i.e., total body weight minus body fat weight). If you have over 30% body fat, lean body mass is a better target for protein goals than total body weight. Body fat percentage can be tricky to calculate, but the Navy Body Fat Calculator is relatively accurate for using only a tape measure.
This range is generally agreed upon, but there are advocates for the extremes on either end. Some people, especially vegetarian and vegan advocates, say you need only 40-50g of protein a day. This is true as a minimum for maintaining minimal muscle, but I’m convinced it’s better to have more muscle. On the other side of the spectrum, some people, especially bodybuilding aficionados, recommend eating 2g/lb or 4.4g/kg. However, this much protein can be hard on your digestion and, potentially, your kidneys, and there’s little evidence that it promotes muscle growth more than 1g/lb or 2.2g/kg.
Rule 2: I eat at least one animal-sourced protein per day (40-50g of protein)
This is a controversial topic, but not from an evidence-based, nutrition perspective. I was vegan for 18 months after learning about the horrors of factory farming, so the standard of proof necessary to get me eating meat again was high. While I believe you can be healthy on a vegan diet with enough planning and balancing of foods, meat is the most nutrient-dense food that you can eat. Other animal-sourced foods, like dairy and eggs, are a close second, and plants are a distant third. I’ve fallen for plenty of arguments that say otherwise, but the evidence doesn’t back it up.
Because animal-sourced foods are so nutrient-dense, a little bit goes a long way. There’s also a wide range of standards for animal welfare that you can use to evaluate the ethics of eating meat. Higher standards correspond to a higher price tag, but they also correspond to less environmental damage and higher-quality food. For example, grass-fed cows raised with regenerative farming practices can sequester carbon dioxide into the soil, and they have a higher ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids compared to grain-fed cows.
If you are concerned with animal products’ environmental or ethical impacts, look for farms that use regenerative farming practices, like White Oak Pastures, and learn to read animal welfare labels. Further, wild-caught sardines (bone-in, skin-on) are an excellent option for environment-friendly, high-quality nutrition. The taste is not as fishy as the smell, and you get the benefits of eating all parts of the animal and a healthy dose of omega 3s. I’ll also often supplement meat with plant-based protein sources, like beans, to make a full meal and decrease the cost per meal. If cost is a limiting factor, whey protein powders can be a good option because whey is a by-product of making cheese and, thus, is cheap.
Rule 3: I use protein shakes only if I’m significantly under my target.
While whey protein powders are a cheap and easy way to get animal-sourced protein, they are also ultra-processed. As a result, they can have tons of additives and often are loaded with sugar or alternative sweeteners, which I try to avoid. One scoop of whey protein is about 25g of protein, so if I’m at least 25g short at the end of the day, I’ll have a shake. The brand I use is Isopure because it has high-quality ingredients, uses whey protein isolate, and has zero sugar options.
Shakes are popular with people who fuss about getting at least 40g of protein at every meal or 30g of protein every few hours to optimize muscle synthesis. Technically, they’re right, but it has such little benefit that I don’t bother with it. Exercise is a much better catalyst for muscle synthesis, and it lasts for 24-48 hours. Some people also say we can’t digest more than 30g of protein per meal, but that’s not true and doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective. Like anything, we have stores for extra nutrients, including protein, or our ancestors would have needed to successfully hunt every day.
For more information about protein sources, see this episode of What I’ve Learned. What I’ve Learned is a great YouTube channel that also discusses the relationship between eating meat the environmental issues. It does a good job of discussing topics that can be counter-intuitive.