Protein: Quick and Dirty

As someone who’s been vegan, vegetarian and an omnivore while maintaining a rigorous exercise schedule I’ve become very intimate with the topic of protein. Whenever someone finds out that I don’t usually eat animal products they’re quick to ask me the age old question, “But, like, how do you get your protein?” My favorite question to ask back? “How much protein do you eat in a day?” Most people have no idea, nor do they know how much they should eat. That’s where I come in!

Protein intake depends on your activity level. Obviously body builders need more protein than couch potatoes. Too much protein for your activity level can make you gain weight, and too little protein for your activity level can starve your muscles. Protein is made up of amino acids, essential and non-essential, that help to build strong muscles.

In order to determine your ideal protein intake, first determine your weight in pounds. Got it? Next, multiply it by your activity level.

If you’re a body builder, looking to gain muscle multiply your weight by .6-.9, depending. This is how many grams of protein you need a day.

If you’re a cardio junkie, meaning most of your exercise is cardiovascular,  multiply your weight by .5-.7. If you’re a long distance, multiple times a week runner stick to .7, if you run a few miles a few times a week stick closer to .5.

If you’re an active adult that doesn’t fall into the two above categories, multiple your weight by .4-.6.

If you’re a lazy bum, multiple your weight by .4.

Want an example? I’m a 140 pound female. On days that I lift weights I try to consume about 80 grams of protein (about 140 x .6) and on days that I don’t, I stick to 70 grams of protein a day (about 140 x .5). I give the ranges because it really depends on each person. Some people need the higher protein, some don’t. I suggest start high and decrease as needed, simply so your muscles don’t suffer while you experiment.

There’s also a misconception that animal protein is the only way to get a lot of protein. This isn’t necessarily true, especially when you compare protein per calories.

1 large egg has 6.7g of protein in it and is about 78 calories, or 8.6 g of protein per 100 calories.

1 cup of chicken has 40.6g of protein for 211 calories, or 19.2g of protein per 100 calories.

1 cup of spinach has .9g of protein for 7 calories, or 12.8g of protein per 100 calories.

½ a cup of tofu has 10.3g of protein for 88 calories, or 11.7g of protein per 100 calories.

24oz of almonds have 6g of protein for 163 calories, or 3.16g of protein per 100 calories.

Imagine you only need 70 grams of protein a day. If you have a spinach salad of 3 cups of spinach, some almonds, a bit of tofu and 2 eggs you have 32.7g of protein in one meal! Adding chicken instead of tofu to this salad puts you at 61g of protein in one meal.

Protein is a seriously misunderstood guy. Knowing something as simple as how many grams you need a day and which foods are protein rich could steer you in the right direction for weight loss, a gain in strength, or even more energy during your run.

This post was originally featured on in October of 2011

What is protein?

What is protein?

Protein is a compound made up of chains of amino acids. In all, there are 22 amino acids. For the sake of humans, 8-9 are “essential” amino acids, meaning amino acids we must get from our diets. The rest of “non-essential,” which we create ourselves using our own sources. Protein is essential for building muscles, repairing tissues, red blood cells, and synthesizing hormones. If we have a deficiency in a certain amino acid it could prevent certain hormones from being synthesized. For example, if you have a diet lacking valine you’ll have a negative hydrogen ion balance which can manifest as insomnia and skin hypersensitivity.

Essential amino acids

This is important for the protein argument. I put 8-9 essential amino acids because tyrosine is essential in only some cases and selenocysteine is unclassified. Otherwise, the list of essential amino acids (with their recommended daily mg per kg amount) is as follows…

Isoleucine – 20mg/kg

Leucine – 39 mg/kg

*Lysine – 30 mg/kg

Methionine – 10.4 mg/kg

Cysteine – 4.1 mg/kg

Phenylalanine + Tyrosine = 25 mg/kg

Threonine – 15 mg/kg

*Tryptophan – 4 mg/kg

Valine – 26 mg/kg

NOTE: mg per kg means the amount of milligrams needed per kilogram of body weight. To figure this out, find your weight in kilograms. For every kilogram of body weight you have, you need 26mg of valine. Got it?

Cool. But how much proteins do I need?

This is a tough question. Some people will send asks saying, “I’m a 14 year old girl, how much protein do I need?” You’re asking the wrong question! What you SHOULD be asking is, “I’m a 14 year old girl who lifts heavy weight 3x a week – how much protein do I need?” This is a better question, because protein intake is more dependent on activity level than anything else.

1. Body builders

Multiply your weight by .6-.9 – that’s how many grams of protein you need a day to build muscle.

2. Cardio junkies

Multiply your weight by .5-.7 – really, though, with cardio you should focus on your carbohydrate intake more than protein, but this depends too! If you’re VERY active with cardio stick with the .7, if you’re a casual runner stick with .5.

3. Active adult

You lift occasionally but aren’t looking to build muscle mass, or you’re more interested in maintaining/toning/etc. Multiply your weight by .4-.6

4. Lazy Bum

Don’t exercise? The idea of exercise makes you want to puke? Multiply your weight by .4.

I hate math – give me an example!

I’m a 140 lb 22 year old female. On days that I lift weights I try to consume about 80 grams of protein a day. On days I don’t lift weights, I stick to 70 grams of protein a day.

That’s a ton of protein! Or is it? I’m confused.

A lot of vegetarians complain that people always ask them how they get their protein. However, if you ever return the question: “How much protein do you eat in a day?” 9 times out of 10 they couldn’t tell you. Hell, most people couldn’t tell you what protein is beyond a superficial understanding of the word. Let’s break down some food choices.

1 large egg has 6.7 g of protein in it

1 cup of spinach has .9 g of protein

1 cup of kidney beans has 13 g of protein

1 cup of apples has 0g of protein

So if in one meal you had 2 eggs, a cup of spinach, a cup of kidney beans and a small apple (weird meal, I know, but hang with me!) you’d have consumed 27.3g of protein. Depending on who you are, that can be up to half a days worth of protein. Protein is dependent on the TYPE and AMOUNT of food you eat.Obviously, if you eat steak 3 times a day you’re going to get more protein than if you ate one apple 3 times a day. However, if you ate 5 cups of spinach 3 times a day you may get more protein than someone who had a 3oz portion of steak. You with me?

But what about that amino acid stuff – I see a lot of “protein” but not a lot of “amino acid.” They’re the same…but why are they labeled differently?

This is a HUGE part of the argument between meat eaters and non-meat eaters about protein! And, sad (happy?) for you this requires its own special post – so tune in next time for “Complete vs. Incomplete Sources of Protein.”

Incomplete vs. Complete Proteins and the Daily Diet

So, previously we talked about protein. What it is, what it does, how it’s made up of amino acids. I kind of left you guys hanging on the whole amino acid thing. I pointed out that protein is made up of many different types of amino acids, and that each amino acid has its own daily requirements for intake. This leads me to a qualifying name for protein sources that has generated a lot of debate between meat eaters and non meat eaters.

Complete vs. incomplete protein sources

A complete source of protein has ALL of the 8 essential amino acids. An incomplete source of protein does not have all of the 8 essential amino acids in it. Makes sense, if you’re eating food for protein purposes you’re going to want to eat something that has all the essential amino acids in it, right? The debate comes from the following fact: animal products are the only products with all 8 essential amino acids. Meat eaters use this as proof that you should eat meat, because only animal products (eggs, chicken, milk, etc.) has all 8 essential amino acids in it. Non-meat eaters aren’t helped out by the fact that their major food stuff is labeled as “incomplete.” So let me delve back into some scenarios that will make this little part of the article a little easier to understand for everyone.

Animal product meal day!

So, we said yesterday that protein intake should depend on your activity level. Let’s have a scenario. Let’s say I’m an 130 lb high school girl that lives a sedentary life style. I spend most of my time in class, after class I go home and watch TV, and occasionally my friends and I are semi-active. 130 x .4 = 52. I should have 52 grams of protein a day. So let’s go through my daily food choices, based off what I personally used to eat in high school.

Breakfast: cereal with milk (let’s say it’s cinnamon toast crunch) – 210 calories, 9.6g protein

Lunch: Chick-Fil-A chicken nuggets with sauce, a diet coke and a sugar cookie – 383 calories, 28.9 g protein

After school snack: Apple, Uncrustable PB&J – 275 calories, 6g protein

Dinner: Steak with mashed potatoes, a side of green beans and a glass of milk – 562 calories, 36.8 g of protein

Calorie total: 1,430 calories

Protein total: 81.3g protein

So, for 1,430 calories she received about 1.5x her needed protein intake for the day. Protein that isn’t broken down is turned to fats and sugars. Now, in no way am I saying every girl eats like this, they don’t. I totally ate like this in high school. I am using myself as an example, so if you’re going to hate, hate on my unhealthy life style. What if an athlete ate like this? They would be receiving adequate protein for a high activity level, correct? Moral of the story is that this girl received more protein in a day than was required.

A day in the life of a non-meat eater – for this sake, she’s a vegetarian. I’m going to make her diet the same, but replace Girl #1’s meat with vegetarian options.

Breakfast: cereal with milk (let’s say it’s cinnamon toast crunch) – 210 calories, 9.6g protein

Lunch: A large salad with ranch and cheese, a diet coke and a sugar cookie – 371 calories, 7.9g protein

After school snack: Apple, Uncrustable PB&J – 275 calories, 6g protein

Dinner: Tofu with mashed potatoes, a side of green beans and a glass of milk – 226 calories, 24g of protein

Calorie total: 1,082 calories

Protein total: 47.5g protein

See where the argument becomes blurred? There’s the “meat eaters eat too much protein!” clashing with the “vegetarians don’t get enough!” It’s a constant battle. Let me introduce something much, much more important than either of these: using your brain.

What I eat on days that I lift weight.

I am a 140 lb 22 year old female. On days that I lift weights, this is what my meals look like.

Breakfast: Two pieces of toast with almond butter, 2 eggs: 477 calories, 25g of protein

Lunch: Protein smoothie of almond milk, spinach and bananas, a bagel thin with almond butter: 317 calories, 10g of protein

Dinner: Zaxby’s Chicken Fingers: 323 calories, 35g protein

Snacks: Mountain Dew and almonds – 450 calories, 6g protein

Calories: 1,567 calories

Protein: 76g protein

I consider this a “bad food day” because I ate a lot of stuff I probably shouldn’t have. But this is on a day that I lift. On days I don’t lift?

Breakfast: Bagel thin with sugar free jelly and 2 scrambled egg whites: 142 calories, 9g protein

Lunch: Quinoa “surprise” (quinoa, onions, yellow squash, zucchini, lentils) – 163 calories, 10g protein

Dinner: Boneless, skinless chicken breast, Quaker life cinnamon cereal with almond milk – 240 calories, 31g protein

Snacks: Pistachios – 170 calories, 6g protein

Total calories: 715 calories

Protein: 56g protein

This is fairly typical for me on lazy days where I don’t do anything. Replace the chicken with tofu and you have a 100% vegetarian diet that gets adequate protein with less than adequate calories for daily life. I should be eating 1,200 calories a day MINIMUM, but on this day I literally laid in bed all day and watched movies. I required like no energy.

I’m sick of your stupid meal plans. Teach me something!

It’s possible to get adequate protein as a vegan or vegetarian. It’s possible to get too much protein as a vegan or vegetarian. It’s possible to do this as a meat eater too. This is a long winded approach to what I’d like to call my “take home message of complete vs. incomplete nutrition” – Use your fucking brain. That’s all!

That was rude and useless.

I know, but let’s think of other scenarios where this argument is valid.

“I am allergic to honey. How can I get my daily sugar intake?” Eat other foods with sugar.

“I am allergic to dairy, how can I get my calcium?” Eat other foods with calcium, or take supplements.

There’s nothing wrong with taking supplements. It doesn’t invalidate your life style choice, nor your diet choice. I personally hate certain types of food that are high in vitamin C, so I take vitamin C supplements. Does that mean my taste buds are wrong and I should force vitamin C laden food down my throat? No, it means I should make smart choices. I should use my fucking brain.

Applying this logic to vegetarian and vegan diets using the “incomplete protein source” idea.

Here’s a list of some vegetarian foods that are high in protein –

Tempeh – 1 cup has 41g protein

Seitan – 3 ounces has 31g protein

Soybeans – 1 cup has 29g of protein

Lentils – 1 cup has 18g protein

Black beans – 1 cup has 15g protein

Almonds – 1/4c. has 8g protein

Spinach – 1 cup has 5g protein

So, if you’re getting adequate protein numerically, you should just figure out which amino acid is typically lacking in vegetarian diets. Do you know how to find this? Google. Or  you can refer to my previous post and see that I starred two amino acids – Lysine and Tryptophan.

High in Lysine – vegetarian:

-Yogurt (706 mg/ounce)

High in Lysine – vegan:

-Avocado (186 mg/ounce)

-Potato (190mg/ounce)

-Dried peach (150mg/ounce)

-Corn (210mg/ounce)

-Asparagus (190mg/ounce)

While the non-animal products have lower levels of lysine than the animal products do, the non-animal products are lower calorie. This is where the common vegan saying, “It’s hard to be protein deficit without being calorie deficit.” This just means that people who already eat a mostly plant based diet will have to eat…more plants. Add avocados to your smoothies, or eat some more corn.

Foods high in tryptophan:

-Oat bran (285mg/ounce)

-Seaweed (736mg/ounce)

-Spinach (594mg/ounce)

-Mushrooms (415mg/ounce)

I’m sick of making lists. But this is the same as the one before – eat more plants. Now, if you’re a non-meat eater and you hate vegetables, I’d suggest supplements. Otherwise? Eat more plants.

So…use your fucking brain?

Yes! Just because animal protein is a complete source of protein doesn’t mean it’s the ONLY option! In fact, Part 4 will be all about the pros and cons of different types of protein. That is, which proteins give you the most bang for your buck (most protein per calories). I hope that meat eaters have learned that vegans and vegetarians do, indeed, get adequate protein and that it’s possible to get too much protein on a no animal product diet. Likewise, I hope vegans and vegetarians learned some of the limitations their diet imposes on them, so they need to make smart choices to complement that. Just like not active animal product eaters need to make smart choices about their protein intake.