top of page

Protein – Top 3 Misconceptions & What You Need Each Day

Amanda Pasko, MS, MPH, RD, is an entrepreneur and leader in the field of nutrition. She is the founder and owner of Athletic Peak Nutrition & Performance, LLC, providing nutrition to support athletic performance, energy, and overall health.

 
Executive Contributor Amanda Pasko, MS, MPH, RD

With protein’s known connections to building muscle mass and other tissues in the body, one common question from athletes or anyone looking to get stronger or improve upon some aspect of their health is, how much protein do I need to eat? When it comes to protein, several misconceptions exist about where protein is found, what different types of protein offer, and how timing of consumption can help. Each of these factors plays into what your protein needs can look like on your plate.


Cropped photo of a woman at gym with a glass of protein shake

Misconception 1: More protein leads to more muscle mass

Many people look to sharply increase their protein intake when aiming to get as strong as they can. However, in one sitting, the body can use only so much protein towards building and repairing. While different studies show slightly different ceilings for protein use at a single time, this ceiling is around 30 grams or up to 40 grams for a more muscular individual. The below image shows how muscle protein synthesis increases with additional protein intake early on but plateaus once the protein dose is around 30-40 grams. The body can use this dose up to 6 times per day, making spacing out protein intake useful. This often equates to slightly over the benchmark of 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for heavier strength training and speed-power athletes.

 

protein intake graph

This biological ceiling of protein synthesis in one sitting points to the importance of spacing out protein intake around the clock. Image link.


Misconception 2: When you have the protein doesn’t matter (as long as you have it)

While protein needs intake can be translated into general guidelines for meals and snacks, the body is especially inclined to use dietary protein to synthesize new muscle tissue at certain times. Accordingly, planning protein around these windows can be very helpful, especially for highly active or injured individuals.


Before sleep

While protein is used to build and repair around the clock, this building and repairing actually occurs at accelerated rates at night, due to the hormones that the body naturally releases. As a result, protein consumption within 1-2 hours of falling asleep, although not the most common snack time, is especially potent in increasing muscle strength. This graph demonstrates the potential for a lot of extra protein synthesis with a snack shortly before sleep.


Protein benefits

Points to benefits of protein shortly before sleep. Image link.


The following exercise

Especially after strength training heavy enough to elicit muscle soreness, the body looks to build and repair and is especially sensitive to nutrients helping it to do so. Accordingly, protein, preferably a minimum of 20 grams, within an approximately 30-minute window can be especially helpful.


During injury

Not unlike after a challenging workout, the body looks to build and repair in a time of injury, and, as result, elevated protein intake can be helpful, and the body is especially adept at using protein with major healing.

 

Misconception 3: All protein sources are guaranteed to help equally

Anything with protein is made up of smaller molecules called amino acids. These are significant, because everything in the body is built with them, including new muscle mass. In order for your body to make any new tissues, all amino acids must be present and in the right amount, but there are 9 that it cannot make on its own. A source of protein is either:


  1. Complete: Complete proteins include anything from an animal (including meat, fish, dairy, and eggs), any protein shake, powder, or bar that is labeled as a complete protein (this is usually advertised on the front of the package, Core Power is an example). These already have all of the amino acids building blocks, so you automatically know your body is getting what it needs to build.

  2. Incomplete: Most protein from a plant (including beans, tofu, nuts, grains, along with fruits and vegetables) and most shakes, powders, and bars that are not advertised as complete proteins are incomplete proteins. This means that the food does not have one of the amino acids that the body cannot make on its own. Fortunately, pairing two foods with incomplete protein together can create a complete protein.

 

These are common examples of incomplete proteins that together make a complete protein:


  • Nuts (or nut butters) + a whole grain (for example, a peanut butter sandwich)

  • Nuts or seeds + beans (for example, a sunflower seed + chickpea salad)

  • Legumes + a whole grain (for example, lentil + quinoa salad)

  • Whole grains + beans (for example, beans on a tortilla, rice + beans, or hummus (which comes from garbanzo beans) + pita bread)

 

Animal products guarantee that the proteins will be complete. Looking for combinations like these can guarantee that plant proteins will also be complete. If you prefer a plant-based diet and eat a variety of foods containing protein, your daily intake together should form complete proteins. However, these combinations are a guaranteed way to make sure your protein sources are complete.

 

Protein needs each day

Because protein’s primary goal in the body is to build and repair the body’s tissues, protein needs are directly related to someone’s overall size. Protein needs go up with exercise and particularly heavier strength training, following injury, illness, or another time when tissue breakdown as more likely, and in times of life when the body is looking to grow (childhood, especially infancy and during growth) and maintain (later adulthood).

 

Scenario

Protein Needs

Can Often Look Like

Baseline Adult Needs

~0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day

Often just under 1/4 plate of a major protein source at each meal

Endurance exercise, lighter strength training (not eliciting soreness the next day)

~1.4-1.6 grams per kilogram of body weight per day

Often 1/4-1/3 plate of a major protein source at each meal, with 1 snack with a major protein source

Heavier strength training (eliciting soreness the next

day)

~2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day

Still often 1/4-1/3 plate of a major protein source at each meal, with 1-3 snacks with a

major protein source

Maintaining muscle while injured; gaining/maintaining muscle while losing fat

~2.5+ grams per kilogram of body weight per day

Still often 1/3 plate of major protein source at each meal, with 2-3 snacks with a major protein source

Age >70

+30-50% of needs by activity level

Ensure at least 1/4 plate at each meal has a major protein source and a minimum of 1 snack with a major protein source

Age 4-18

+50-100% of needs by activity level

Highly dependent upon individual size

Age <3

+100-200% of needs by activity level

Highly dependent upon individual size

Pregnancy/Lactation

Same-+50% of needs by activity level

Ensure at least 1/4 plate at each meal has a major protein source, and often 1 snack with a major protein source

 

In summary

Protein’s primary role is to build and repair tissues. Additional protein intake is most effective when spaced out, rather than in large quantities at once. Muscle protein synthesis occurs throughout the day and is accelerated at night, following challenging workouts, and with injury, and these trends have implications for intake timing. The highest sources are meat, fish, and dairy, along with protein-based bar and shake products.


 

Amanda Pasko, MS, MPH, RD, Nutrition Entrepreneur

Amanda Pasko, MS, MPH, RD, is an entrepreneur and leader in the field of nutrition. She is the founder and owner of Athletic Peak Nutrition & Performance, LLC, providing nutrition to support athletic performance, energy, and overall health. She has worked with professional athletes and individuals with a broad range of health goals across the US. She also trains for and competes nationally and internationally in track and field, including 2 World Championships and 3 international wins in the ultra multi-events, involving all track and field events over the course of two days. She holds a Bachelor's in Kinesiology & Sports Medicine from Rice University, a Master's in Nutritional Epidemiology from Harvard School.

Comments


CURRENT ISSUE

  • linkedin-brainz
  • facebook-brainz
  • instagram-04

CHANNELS

bottom of page