5 Protein Mistakes You Might Be MakingOct 02, 2023
Eating too much protein can lead to weight gain just like eating too much in general.
And eating too little protein can lead to fatigue, muscle loss, hunger, and brittle nails (and I can't image you want that!).
If you struggle with energy and lean on caffeine, sugar or food in general to get through the day, this episode is for you. If you work out regularly but feel like your muscles aren’t getting tighter or leaner, stay with me. Or, if you’re interested in getting your protein right, I’ve got 5 Protein Mistakes You Might Be Making.
Be sure to click above and listen in because you’re going to learn 5 mistakes I see women make that keep them from optimizing their nutrition. If you want to feel fabulous, protein matters. If you want to protect your health against future issues, protein is critical. And if you just want your muscles to demonstrate your hard work in the gym, you'll definitely want to listen to this episode.
If you’re new to my community, welcome! I’m Holly Perkins. I have a degree in exercise physiology and 30 years of experience in practice, and I’m the author of the Women’s Health book Lift to Get Lean. I love helping women navigate their tricky physiology so you can create a strong and resilient body that keeps up with your demanding life.
Earlier this year I wasn’t feeling so great. If you know me, you know that’s a common theme. If you don’t know me, I’m navigating the symptoms related to an autoimmune disorder. I’ve found that nutrition is everything when dealing with auto-immune issues.
I suspected that I needed to assess my macronutrient distribution and wondered if I was getting enough protein to support my workouts. As an experiment, I simply started eating more protein throughout the day, somewhat arbitrary. I’m pretty good at estimating how much protein, fat, and carbs I’m getting each day. It certainly wasn’t precise, but I went with it.
Off I went for a few weeks. Now, listen, this wasn’t a double-blind, well-designed university-backed research study. This was me relying on an acute sense of my body’s needs to see what would happen. After two weeks I noticed I felt fluffier than before and my jeans were tight. I felt better in general and had more energy, but it seemed to be more than I needed, and I seemed to gain some body fat. (I say “seemed” because 1) I don’t weigh myself and 2) you never really know where your body fat is without a proper body composition test).
I knew I needed to get more scientific, so I sat down with my notebook. Looking back at my food entries, I realized that I had been eating about 1 gram of protein per pound of my body weight. This is the important part: 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight is just too much! And yet, it’s commonly referenced out there by fitness influencers. And this is what prompted today’s episode!
Just for your reference, I currently weigh 130 pounds. I was eating around 2000 calories and I believe in and teach a 50/25/25 macronutrient distribution. This means that 50% of calories come from carbohydrates, 25% of your calories are coming from protein, and 25% are coming from fat.
The truth is, while you might be hearing a lot of emphasis on protein these days, it’s important to ensure you’re getting the right amount for your body, instead of blindly “eating more protein”.
So let’s jump in to 5 mistakes you might be making...
Mistake #1: Eating too little protein
- If you’re not keeping an eye on your macronutrient distribution (otherwise known as “macros” or “counting macros”) then there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough protein each day, especially if you’re not someone who naturally craves or desires the foods that are protein-dominant. If - right now - as you’re listening - if you don’t know what your target is for protein today, then there’s a good chance you’re not getting enough.
- Wouldn’t it be awesome to know you’re eating right and proactively taking care of your health? Listen, it feels so good to be confident in your management when you’re getting bombarded with news and headlines and social media posts that are designed to make you feel uncertain about yourself. This is why I say, you’re going to feel so much better if you know you’re eating right. You can take away some of the uncertainty you feel at times by getting strategic about your nutrition. It’s important to have a target and know how much you’re eating.
Mistake #2: Eating too much protein
- On the flip side, you may have seen a headline or heard an expert saying that “most people” don’t get enough protein. And therefore, you’ve started eating more protein at each meal. In the fitness community there is a lot of emphasis on eating protein to build muscle, and eating protein to promote recovery. While this is all true, “more protein” as a generic statement doesn’t mean you’ll lose weight, get lean, or build muscle faster or better. Yes, you need protein. But you also don’t need more than you need! If you eat more protein than your body actually needs, the surplus gets treated just like other calories. At the end of the day, if you eat more calories than you expend, those calories will be stored as body fat. Now don’t worry, one day of too much protein isn't a problem. It’s what you do day in and day out, over time.
- The best way to get your protein right is to take 10 minutes and do some quick calculations. It’s not hard and I’ll give you the simplest way. I always say, “you don’t know where you are if you don’t know where you are”. In other words, if you don’t objectively assess 1) how much protein you need and 2) how much you’re actually eating, you can’t be disappointed by the outcome. So how much DO you need? I’m going to tell you my general rule of thumb that works for 80% of people. And if you’re one of the 20%, you’ll learn a more specific approach in just a minute. If I have limited information about a person, a good place to start is by getting 25% of your daily calories from protein. This is as simple as going about your day and eating your normal diet. Then, log it in a food tracking app to see where you land. If your protein is around 25% you’re good to go!
Mistake #3: Neglecting protein at some meals and then loading up at others
- A mistake I help my clients fix is the tendency to skip protein at some meals and then load up later to make up for it. I see this most when a client has certain foods they like to eat at specific meals. For example, they like to eat fruit and vegan yogurt for breakfast and then make up for low protein in that meal by eating a large portion of grilled chicken at lunch. Now, this isn’t a huge problem, but you’ll feel better and get better results if you’re spacing out your protein as evenly as possible between your meals and snacks.
- Beyond the idea of how much protein you need each day, there’s another consideration about protein in general, and that is blood sugar regulation. See, protein and carbohydrates counterbalance each other in a way that stabilizes blood sugar regulation. When you eat carbohydrates, your blood sugar rises, and insulin is released to bring your blood sugar down. When you eat protein it causes the hormone glucagon to be released. Glucagon has the opposite effect of insulin, as it causes your blood sugar to go up. Therefore, insulin and glucagon counterbalance each other, and eating protein with carbs at meals helps to regulate blood sugar. This is why it’s better overall to space out your day’s protein across all meals and snacks. When you space out y our protein (paired with carbs) your body is better able to keep your blood sugar levels stable.
Mistake #4: Not calculating your protein needs based on your current activities and health circumstances
- If you have calculated your protein target for the day, I’m curious if you based that on your current activities and health considerations? It’s so easy to hear that you should be eating 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight - for example - and apply that to yourself. Look, I’m highly educated. I have a degree in exercise physiology and nutrition and have been in business for 30 years, and even I get tired and mentally lazy sometimes, and adopt something I heard on a podcast. In this busy day and age that’s filled with information overload, it’s normal to hear something and automatically apply it to your life without first asking if that information is accurate for your life. Health factors like age, illness, and injury are factors as well.
- When it comes to protein, you want to assess the type, frequency, and duration of your current activities. Your protein needs are different if you exercise moderately, or aggressively. Further, you’ll need more protein if you’re in a weight loss phase, or if you’re strength training hard each week and are over the age of 45. You may need less protein if you’re in a season of less activity, where most of your time is spent walking the dog or doing light stretching. In my experience, I find that A blood types do great with less protein, and O blood types do better with more. You may hear that athletes should consume 2.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight and think “Oh, well if that’s what athletes do, I should do that too”. But similar to what I shared earlier in this episode, it’s easy to think you’re doing more than you actually are. Right now my workouts are a bit gentler and less frequent, and I’m doing very little cardio and in a weight maintenance phase. I don’t need as much protein as I did last year when I was lifting more aggressively 3-4 times each week.
Mistake #5: Not calculating your protein needs based on your goals
- Right now, what’s your primary goal in this phase? As you think about that, think also about what was a goal you had earlier this year? It’s easy to think your goal is to “lose weight” - largely because the world is constantly subtly and overtly brainwashing you with that message when it may or may not truly be relevant for you! If your goal is to feel good and have lots of energy, your protein intake should reflect that. And if your goal is to get ripped and lean, your protein intake will be different. There is never a one-size fits all when it comes to protein.
- If your health is important enough to you to listen to this episode, it’s important enough for you to take 10 minutes on a weekend and get smart about your protein intake. More often than not, a new client will come to me eating a certain way for someone else’s goal! If you are in a weight loss phase and are restricting calories, you may not realize that your body needs more protein during weight loss. Your goals dictate your overarching strategy, and your actual weekly activities dictate how much protein you want to aim for each day.
So…with all of this being said, you might be wondering how much protein you need. I think I’ve made the case that the answer is as unique as you are, and I encourage you to do some research or work with a qualified or certified professional.
One thing to keep in mind is that the suggestion for the general public is less than what we advise for you if you’re working out or training hard. It is a sliding scale as I’ve demonstrated. In the U.S. the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you’re in the US that’s .36 grams per pound. The government has established that as the amount you need to meet your basic nutrition needs. It’s the minimum you need each day to stay healthy. If you’re here, you’re probably more active than the majority of people, and therefore you need more protein.
The American College of Sports Medicine and 7 different studies I reviewed suggest 1.2 - 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, depending on the factors that I’ve covered already, and can be as high as 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram for athletes with high demand on their bodies. But a meta analysis from 49 studies (and 1863 participants) showed that while protein does impact body composition and performance to a significant degree, protein intake above 1.6 grams per kilogram shows no benefit. Therefore, more isn’t necessarily better.
But if you want some basic guidance, here you go. Grab your notebook! Since most of my community is in the U.S. I’ll start with calculations that reflect your body weight in pounds. To calculate how much protein you need each day...
Multiply your body weight in pounds by .36 to determine the minimum amount of protein you need each day. Or, multiply your weight in kilograms by .8.
If you’re active - which you should be - multiply your body weight in pounds by .55 and .73 to determine the range of protein you need each day. Or, multiply your weight in kilograms by 1.2 and 1.6.
Since this is a range of protein, I suggest you start on the lower end (.55 of your body weight in pounds) and incrementally increase your intake for each of the following factors:
For each decade after 40 you need incrementally more
If you train hard
If you train frequently
If you’re injured
If you’re in a weight loss phase
If you have any other health conditions where increased protein can help
*Please consult your trusted health care provider, as much as I'd love to be, I’m not your doctor*
And these are the 5 protein mistakes you might be making, based on what I see with my clients. I know this may seem like a lot of math, but truly it’s not. Just grab a notebook and follow those last few steps. It’s worth it! Your future health depends on your actions today. Give your future self the gift of taking the time now to create the body you need to keep up with the life you love.
If you want to learn even more and get your nutrition dialed in so that you reduce hunger, eliminate cravings, and have more energy than you know what to do with...Click here to download my totally free Macros 101 Guidebook
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