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Eat Lean Protein With Every Meal

This is the sixth in North Raleigh Fitness’, 7-week journey to “Stop Dieting.” By now you are drinking more water, have an empty pantry, are documenting what you eat, measuring your portions, and have mastered your local super market. 

If you missed  any of the previous weeks you can go back and catch up:

  • Week 1, “Drinking More Water,”
  • Week 2 , “Clean out your pantry and refrigerator
  • Week 3, “Document What You Eat – And Watch Your Portions”
  • Week 4, “The Grocery Store: Go prepared, shop the perimeter, don’t go hungry, and read the nutrition labels”
  • Week 5,  “Eat More Fruits & Vegetables”

Week 6: Eat Lean Protein With Every Meal

High protein diets are in vogue these days. Not necessarily for the right reasons but the end result is a good one. A diet high in protein will increase metabolism, improve body composition, boost essential amino acids, and drive favorable hormone production and balance. And most sources of proteins eat pretty good too!

A Little Science
First of all let’s understand proteins. They are molecules made up of amino acids, and as Jeff Goldblum says in the original Jurassic Park, “they are the building blocks of life”. There are two main categories of amino acids in the body. Essential amino acids, those that the body can’t make on their own and we must procure from food, and nonessential amino acids, those that the body can usually make for itself.

These aminos pool in your bloodstream but are not stored the way carbohydrates and fats are. They just circulate in the blood waiting to be used. They travel around, rebuilding cells and transporting various substances throughout the body as necessary.

The cyclic nature of amino acid use dictates that you eat protein regularly to keep amino level “full”. It would be great to eat a 16 pound steak and be done with protein for the week, but alas your body needs protein stores to be replenished regularly, which means that you should consume protein regularly throughout the day. Without necessary protein intake, our bodies can’t function well at all. Bottom line: eat protein with every meal to keep that pool of aminos topped off and able to take care of your body.


Image source: DJ Millward, The Metabolic Basis of Amino Acid Requirements.


A Little More Science
Protein can crank your metabolism just by eating it. The metabolic processing required for digestion, absorption, and storage of protein is a lot higher than that of carbohydrates and fat. What does that mean? You burn more calories by simply digesting the protein.

We all chase the almighty calorie. Well, maybe most of us try to run away from it, but really calories are simply a measure of energy. And when it comes to losing weight it’s all about energy in versus energy out. Think back to third grade and the laws of thermodynamics. According to these laws, energy is never really created, and it’s never really destroyed. Rather, energy is transferred. And when you expend energy it’s really transferred via heat and work.

Most of us think of energy out as exercise, but an abundance of energy is burned through processes just keeping you alive and upright every day. Among those is digestion, and digesting protein takes a lot of energy. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF) and protein leads the way. Protein requires up to 35% of the energy it provides to digest while carbs and fats require less than 15%. Let’s compare using a simple 100 calorie sample:



TEF Calories after TEF


20-30% 70-80
Carbohydrate 5-15%


Fat 0-5%


All this means it takes more energy to eat proteins than carbs or fats. Energy to chew, swallow, churn the stomach, make the acid in the stomach, make the enzymes, to make the muscular contractions known as that drive the food through, and so forth. That in turn increases your metabolic rate which of course drives an associated caloric burn and subsequent fat loss. It’s a win-win.

Why Popeye Ate his Spinach

Popeye as a 2- dimensional, cartoon character, had some guns. And when he downed that can of spinach he went through a Bruce Banner like transformation that him gave him Hulk like power without being green. But how? Spinach gives you superpowers? Not really. But spinach is high in protein especially for a vegetable. And, back to all those aminos traveling around in your bloodstream, they help cells in your muscles rebuild themselves. This is called protein synthesis.


Muscle in the body goes thru turnover regularly, constantly replacing old cells with new ones. This is part of your adaptive and growth system. (Popeye obviously had quite an overactive and fast responding system). By increasing your protein intake you can increase this rate of protein turnover resulting in improvements in muscle quality, which in turn drives faster muscle growth, more strength, less fat, and a higher metabolism. This is really to say that higher protein diets help your muscles recover and grow more quickly, and drive fat loss in the process. The best of both worlds. Just a lot slower than Popeye.

How Much Protein Should I Eat?
Great question and the range is wide, from .4-2g of protein per pound of bodyweight daily. Your activity levels, goals and objectives will drive the appropriate level to consume. The basic recommendation for a sedentary person is 0.4 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So a 150 lb person would consume around 60 grams a day. This really isn’t much, roughly equivalent to an egg (6g), 4oz chicken (38g), and a container of Greek yogurt (17g).

And this amount is only to prevent protein deficiency. It’s not optimal for those who train regularly and hard. For active people, especially those doing high intensity training, protein needs might go up to about .8-1 g/lb of body weight. Our 150 lb person would then need about 120-150 g of protein per day. Think 2 eggs(12g), 8oz chicken (72g), two cups spinach (2g), a protein drink (40g), and a Greek yogurt (17g) every day. We need a small amount of protein to survive, but when we are active we need a lot more to thrive.

Of course, you can overeat protein. Excess protein will be converted into glycogen or fat which generally results in undesired effects. Like anything, moderation is a good thing.

A Quick Hint
Start a meal by eating vegetables and protein first, before carbohydrates. The slow rate of protein digestion slows down release of sugar into the blood stream when the carbs are consumed and reduces post-meal glucose levels. This stabilizes your insulin levels, which can offset storing those sugars as triglycerides (adipose) and prevents a sugar ‘high’ and then crash. It also keeps you fuller and limits hunger pangs.

Ok So What Do You Recommend?
Obviously protein is essential to your existence and can go a long way to controlling your appetite, producing muscle, and helping achieve your weight loss goals:

  • For basic protein synthesis, you don’t need to consume more than 0.4-0.9 g/lb of protein per day.
  • If you are exercising regularly you should consume higher levels of protein, up to 1g per pound of body weight.
  • More protein may help you feel satisfied after eating.
  • You should consume some protein before and after training to ensure adequate recovery.
  • And remember we can’t store protein, so the consumption needs to be regular, at every meal.

So be like Popeye and eat your protein.


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