Protein. It’s difficult to consult any piece of nutrition literature without reading about the importance of it. Well, there’s a reason for that: protein is really important.
What is it?
When speaking in terms of food, protein is one of the three macronutrients that we consume through our diet (its two counterparts being carbohydrates and fats). If you’re looking for a more scientific explanation, proteins in the human body are made up of complex chemical compounds called amino acids. There are two categories of amino acids in the body: essential and non-essential. Our bodies are unable to make essential amino acids, and therefore, we need to consume them through our diet. Protein plays many important roles within the body, but let’s talk about it from a nutrition standpoint (otherwise, we could be here all day).
Why is it important?
Most women I talk to have similar goals when it comes to changing their bodies: they want to lose fat and look ‘fit.’ It is important to realize that looking fit tends to come from building or maintaining lean muscle mass. There’s a stereotype often associated with the so-called ‘gym rats’. You know the picture I’m talking about: the one with a 250lb body builder drinking a watery chocolate drink from his shaker bottle. As much as this visual may make you roll your eyes a bit, there’s something to be said about it. When we complete a hard workout, we put our muscles through the ringer and tear them down. In order to prevent a loss of lean muscle (that lovely material that gives us the nice toned look), it’s important to feed them with protein so they are able to repair and rebuild themselves.
Now, ladies, please don’t worry: strength training followed by proper nutrition won’t result in a bulky, masculine physique. You really have to follow a specific diet and exercise regime in order to make that happen. Not to mention, the necessary hormones just aren’t there. It is an intentional and lofty goal to obtain—not something that can happen from a few weight sessions every week.
I know I said I would only dive into the nutrition side of protein, but just to give you a quick snapshot of its importance, we also need adequate protein intake to produce important molecules in our bodies like hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters.
Food has something called a thermic effect, which means our body heats up during the digestion process so that it can break the food down and absorb the necessary nutrients. When this thermogenesis takes place, our body burns calories (simply through the digestive process itself!). The higher the thermic effect, the harder the body works to break it down. Therefore, the more calories are burned. There is a reason why health professionals suggest protein to keep you feeling satisfied longer. Protein has the highest thermic effect of the three macronutrients, and this means it takes our bodies longer to break it down. The process leaves us satiated for longer periods of time.
The amount of protein you need depends, primarily, on your activity level. If you are an active individual, whether that’s strength training or completing endurance training several times a week, it tends to be recommended that you consume about 1.4-2g of protein per kg of body weight (so if you weigh 150lbs, you would aim for 95-135g of protein daily). Like I said, the amount of protein you should ideally consume depends on a number of factors, including your personal goals. Many athletes, for example, use the rule of 1g of protein per pound of body weight. So this is just a guideline to get your started. Depending on your specific circumstance, you may need to take in a little more or a little less. Ensuring that you hit these protein numbers will help prevent deficiency when tearing down those muscle fibers.
It’s important to spread this protein consumption out throughout your day to ensure your stores are always replenished. This has other benefits as well, including helping you to stay satisfied by your meals all day long.
Protein Sources and my Fave Protein-Rich Meals:
People often ask me what my favourite protein sources are and how I manage to incorporate them into each meal. Below are a few of my favourite sources (keep in mind there are many more. This is just what we tend to stock in our household).
I literally eat these protein sources over and over again. I find them to be the most versatile in terms of meal preparation (particularly the ground meats!). And yes: I make sure that I have protein with every meal. Below, I’ve listed two protein-rich meals that I regularly eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Generally speaking, I prefer to get my protein from lean, whole foods (they have a slower absorption rate). However, when necessary, a high-quality supplement can be useful.
**For all you vegetarians out there: don’t fret! There are a ton of protein-rich, plant-based foods readily available to you. Two of the best plant-based protein sources you can consume are beans and legumes (1/2 to 1 cup daily). This will help to ensure you are able to adequately replenish your essential amino acids. Check out one of my favourite vegan authors, Angela Liddon, and her site, Oh She Glows, for amazing meal ideas.
If you ask Dave, he will confirm that I consume an abnormal number of protein pancakes per week. I actually cannot get enough. The idea itself is not my own, but everyone has their own take on how to make these delicious flat Jack’s (and let’s be serious: I would happily eat them for lunch and dinner as well). The basis of mine is always:
Whisk all that deliciousness together and then go to town! You can add nuts, seeds, unsweetened coconut, berries, oats, coconut flour—the protein pancake world is your oyster! Pour the mixture into a greased frying pan and cook at medium heat until done (don’t forget to flip halfway through). And don’t even get me started on toppings. You can try peanut butter, PB2 (dehydrated peanut butter for reduced fat), jam, applesauce, maple syrup… whatever your heart desires! I’ve included a picture of this morning’s pancake creation below.
My second protein-rich breakfast of choice is frittata. Well… kind of. We tend to cook in bulk a lot at our house. So instead of your traditional frittata, I like to pan-fry a boatload of veggies—whatever you like… onion, broccoli, peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, sweet potatoes…. The list is endless. After seasoning the veggies, I pour them into a large greased baking dish, whip up 6-8 eggs plus 1/2 cup of egg whites, pour the mixture on top of the veggies and bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes (or until the egg is cooked through).
This is a great breakfast choice, because it’s good cold or reheated. You can portion it out and eat it for a few days. It’s a nice option for those busy weeks.
For lunch, I often choose chicken and pair it with whatever veggies I’m into that week (steamed broccoli and cauliflower are personal faves). Rice or sweet potatoes are classic starches to add to this meal.
Another favourite of mine is something I like to call a Mexican bowl. Start by stir-frying ground turkey (or beef or chicken) and season with salt, pepper, garlic and chili powder. Layer that over spinach, chopped tomatoes, avocado, and top with salsa. Feel free to add whatever you’d like to this one. Throw it in a whole-wheat tortilla if you so desire!
I really enjoy homemade turkey burgers. Try combining the following ingredients:
Form the mixture into patties and pan fry (or bake) until cooked through. Top with avocado and sautéed mushrooms. Yum!
Another favourite dinner in our household is fish tacos. Here’s what you’ll need:
Pan fry the fish in a little oil (coconut or other) or grass-fed butter and season with the Cajun spice and salt and pepper. Toss the coleslaw with chopped mango and a bit of dressing. Throw together some guacamole by mashing the avocado with fresh lime juice. Next, you can layer your ingredients in a tortilla, or over spinach if you’d prefer a salad. If you have any interest in Mexican-inspired food, this is seriously delicious. I promise.
Hopefully this provided you with a bit of info on the importance of protein. If you have any other questions around meal preparation, feel free to drop me a line!
This morning's protein pancake. I'm an addict.