The information and science around woman-specific protein requirements is emerging and evolving and frankly, might surprise you. Let's dive in and answer these questions:
What does protein do for me?
What is protein and what type is best?
How much should I be getting on a daily basis and when should I eat it?
WHAT DOES PROTEIN DO FOR ME?
Protein plays several important roles in the body, it's primary function is to repair and build body tissues and structures. That means it is essential for muscles and bones. In addition it:
is used to form enzymes - which make every chemical reaction in the body happen;
facilitates cellular transport, acting like doors that let things through our cell membranes;
helps maintain the fluid balance between what's inside and outside of the cells and;
is involved in the production of hormones and neurotransmitters which are the communicators for our endocrine and nervous systems.
WHAT IS PROTEIN?
Protein is made up of chains of amino acids. Our digestive processes break down protein into amino acids, and it is these smaller molecules that are responsible for all the real work. Amino acids can be divided into 2 groups - essential and non-essential. Essential amino acids (EAA) cannot be made by the body. We MUST get them from the foods we eat.
WHAT PROTEIN IS BEST?
Foods which have all the EAAs are called complete proteins and those which do not are called incomplete proteins. This is most important for those of you who are vegan, vegetarian or consume a mostly plant-based diet because with the exception of soy, the only sources of complete protein are animal products, like milk, eggs, chicken, and meat. If animal-free is your preferred diet, then you'll want to think about eating complementary proteins. These are foods, that when eaten together, provide all the EAAs. Examples? Rice & beans, peanut butter & wheat bread, pasta & peas or lentils & almonds.
There is one more thing to consider when deciding what protein is best for you and that is leucine content. This EAA is special as it sends the signal to promote muscle growth and recovery. Foods that are high in leucine include cottage cheese, seeds (sesame, pumpkin & hemp), eggs, lentils and spirulina.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I EAT?
First, remember that these are general guidelines. Second, remember that YOU are not general, you are unique individual with unique needs. There is not a one-size-fits-all plan and I encourage you to work with registered dietician if you have medical concerns or desire a detailed nutrition plan.
Let's start with the low end. The Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine established the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein (last revised in 2005) of 0.8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram(kg) of body weight per day.
In the middle, are guidelines from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Citing a variety of papers from 2010-2017, they recommend higher levels of proteins and make recommendations by activity level. These recommendations start at 0.8g/kg body weight per day (sedentary lifestyle) and go up to 2.2g/kg body weight per day for individuals doing moderate to vigorous strength training.
At the upper range for dietary protein, I look to Dr. Stacey Sims who is a researcher in female physiology and nutrition. She recommends protein at 2-2.6g/kg body weight per day and as high as 2.2-4g/kg body weight per day for menopausal female athletes.
To make these numbers meaningful, you'll want to calculate the total daily amount of protein in grams because grams of protein is what you'll find listed on food labels and in food databases. To do that, take your weight in pounds and divide it by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. Multiply your weight in kilograms by the recommended limit to determine how much you should consume. (I recommend creating a range rather than a single target).
Remember to consider your activity level, lifestyle and goals when choosing a range. There will be not be a "right" answer but there will be a "best for you" answer. It's okay to experiment and see what fits best now. It's good to expect it to change for phases of your life.
WHEN SHOULD I EAT PROTEIN?
Try breaking up your total recommended daily protein equally into 4 meals, with one of those being 30-40 minutes after your workouts.. This appears to be optimal for supporting muscle recovery and repair.
If you are looking to make more muscle, bring your power to your workouts, often feel hungry or fatigued or even just feel like your a bit run down, it might be worth your while to get a little curious about protein in your diet. Don't hesitate to reach out if you want to "think out loud" about your protein needs.
Take care of yourself!