I hear the questions often. "How much protein do I need to eat?" "Should I drink a protein shake on the days I work out?" It's very difficult to make generalized diet recommendations for everyone, but let's investigate.
(Before I go on, I want to stress that the advice I give here is for active people who exercise frequently but don't do it as a profession. If you need professional sports nutrition advice, talk to an RDN.)
What Is Protein?
Protein is the building block of muscles and organs. It's found in your muscles, skin, bones, hair, nails and basically every organ in your body. Many people associate dietary protein with consumption of meat, but it also can be found in dairy, eggs, beans, nuts and many whole grains.
How Much Protein Does a Body Need?
For the standard adult diet, the recommended daily allowance of protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. For the average gym-goer or recreational athlete, the most protein needed is about 1 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight. Basically, to figure out how many grams protein a physically active person should be consuming, divide your weight by 2 — for instance, a 160-pound person who exercises regularly needs somewhere around 80 grams of protein per day. It's not an exact science, but no one eats an exact number of grams of protein per day either.
In general, carbohydrates consumed before a workout give you energy, while protein consumed after a workout helps rebuild muscles. However, many people tell me they have a protein shake in the morning before going to the gym. That's not an ideal strategy because protein takes a long time to digest — meaning it sits in your stomach for an extended period of time and cause discomfort during exercise.
Food Alternatives to Protein Shakes
Rather than relying on supplements, I prefer that people adopt healthy eating habits. For instance, if you drink a glass of milk, you get protein, vitamins and minerals; whereas, a protein shake provides protein … and artificial ingredients. Instead of a protein shake, try these alternate, real-food options:
- 16 Ounces of Milk
16 grams protein and nine essential vitamins and minerals
Did you know that the whey in some protein powders comes from milk? Yup, whey is the main protein in milk, so why not just drink the real thing?
- Smoothie (8 Ounces Milk + 3½ Ounces Greek Yogurt + Fruit)
17 grams protein and vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
Fruits have natural anti-inflammatory properties to fight post-workout inflammation!
- Plain Greek Yogurt
12 grams protein and calcium
Greek yogurt is a great source of vegetarian protein. If you don't like it on its own, add honey or fruit, or use it as a substitute for sour cream in savory dishes.
- Three-Egg Omelet with Sautéed Vegetables
Provides 18 grams protein and antioxidants
Eggs are full of protein and, unless you have diagnosed issues with cholesterol, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines no longer place a specific limit on daily dietary cholesterol intake.
- Three Ounces Turkey, Chicken or Fish
Provides 24 grams protein plus healthy fats
Do you see my point? Food has more benefits than supplements, so just eat food instead!
Of course there are always exceptions to the rule. I recently counseled a 6-foot-4-inch man who is a vegan and a triathlete. He needs about 4,000 calories per day because of his activity level, and his diet consists mostly of vegetables, potatoes, rice, nuts and peanut butter … and protein shakes. I told him it's fine to continue to drink those shakes. Based on his personal diet and activity level, without the protein from those shakes, his body would likely be slower to recover from workouts. If you don't know if you should drink a protein shake or not, talk to an RDN.