Protein, bro. People say protein is good for you, and when you look up why–oh, it becomes clear: It builds huge, honkin’ muscle! More protein helps you lose weight (indirectly)! It’s necessary for healthy hair, nails, and skin! Plus, there is a minimum amount your body needs for it to be healthy enough and power through unwise decisions (like drinking four Irish car bombs in a row).
That protein helps repair and build muscle that has been broken down from exercising are probably its most sexy-sounding and prominent roles, but that begs the question: how much protein should you be eating? Maybe you’ve used your Google-Fu to find out and your conclusion is…
Understandable. Don’t worry, I’ll be like a mama bird and break it all down for you so you only take away the important parts that you care about. We’ll go over:
- How much protein you really need when you’re a normal person and don’t have a goal to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger
- Simple eating strategies
- Do you need protein powder? When it helps and when it doesn’t
- Differences between various kinds of protein supplements
- Foods that are high in protein and options in other countries (including protein supplements)
And because I do my darndest to stay in shape while I travel around the planet, I will also address how to find protein when you’re constantly on the move or traveling to other countries. Trust me, it is a very real concern and struggle.
First, I have to set something straight about the typical person’s protein requirements.
How Much Protein Do You Really Need?
Protein is one of three main macronutrients that is in the food you eat (the other two are carbohydrates and fats). Protein is typically in animal products, but also in nuts, tofu, some grains, soybeans, beans, lentils, and more. It’s tasty stuff, obviously.
To be clear, eating protein doesn’t automatically make you She-Hulk. Simply, eating enough protein is great for health, but it’s the “enough” here that always trips people up.
The minimum amount of protein needed to avoid deficiencies for most healthy adults is about 50 grams a day, or two fist-sized portions of BBQ chicken breast, and that doesn’t take into account exercise or whether you want to lose weight or get jacked. More research is showing that you (yes, even you) would do better on more protein than that.
You’ve probably been told that you should be getting more protein because you’re working out. Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon the outdated bodybuilder’s “one gram of protein per pound of body weight” rule. Following this rule, a person who weighs 150 pounds should then eat 150 grams of protein. Holy shit on a plane, if you’ve never seen how much protein that is, it’s a lot of food to stomach.
That rule of thumb actually grossly overestimates how much protein people should eat, even if we’re talking “it probably doesn’t hurt.” Few people truly need that much.
In truth, protein needs are based on the following:
- Body weight
- Activity level
- Type of activity (strength training versus running)
- Your goal: do you want to maintain muscle, pop out bigger biceps, or be able to wear those skinny jeans and look like you won’t explode out of them?
- Amount of muscle mass you have
It can get quite granular when you combine the above factors, but the case for more protein is a no-brainer for anyone age 65 or older, as long as they have good renal health. The elderly need to be able to maintain their muscle mass to avoid nasty falls and generally lead a better quality of life.
The formula for simplicity and to save your sanity:
Your IDEAL body weight (in pounds) x one gram of protein = how much you should aim to eat per day
This is a formula I learned from world renown nutrition researcher and legitimate bro-scientist Alan Aragon. Let’s say you weigh 170 pounds and want to weigh 125 pounds:
125 pounds (ideal body weight) x 1 g/lb protein = 125 grams of protein per day
It’s straightforward and the number encapsulates the factors we listed above. This number also tends to be more manageable, but may still feel like a lot for people initially.
If you don’t have an ideal weight, then go with twice the U.S. government’s recommendations:
50 grams (minimum amount) x 2 = 100 grams per day
Meeting this number means you’ll be okay. I’ll talk about what that looks like in terms of real food in a typical day further down.
If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty about it, I’ve actually written a very detailed guide on Lifehacker about diving into your protein needs here. Word of caution though: it’s easy to get hyper-focused on a single amount of protein. Some days you’ll eat a ton of protein; some days you’ll nail it perfectly; and others you’ll hit the low end because donuts sounded more appealing. All good.
In the end, your protein intake should even out and be relatively consistent. At the end of the day, month, or year, that consistency is what matters. And sure, you can always eat more protein, as long as your renal health is good, and try to optimize it. But unless you’re competing for a bodybuilding show, where the lack of optimized nutrition (and sleep, hydration, training, and other factors) could mean the difference between first and second, you don’t need that Xanax-popping neurosis in your life.
List of High-Protein Foods
Your best options for protein are lean cuts of the animal, which basically offer a lot more protein (and calorie) bang for your buck per gram. If you get a very fatty piece of protein, like pork belly, fat takes up more space, reducing the overall protein to fat ratio. You end up eating more calories overall, but not gonna lie, it’s damn delicious. Here are other protein sources:
- Chicken breast and turkey breast are leanest options, but you can also eat goose, duck, pigeon, squab, etc.
- Eggs and egg whites (chicken, duck, or otherwise)
- Pork loin, chops, blade, and pig trotters or hocks
- Beef sirloin, eye of round, lean brisket
- Ground beef, buffalo, bison, elk, ostrich, antelope
- Offals like beef tripe, beef tendon, chicken cartilage, and more
- Dairy products like low-fat cheese, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, quark, kefir, Skyr (an Icelandic yogurt). Sorry, ice cream doesn’t count.
- Canned tuna
- Fresh tuna, yellowtail, sea bass, cod, tilapia, and snapper
- Salmon, sardines, mackerel, fatty tuna, and uni (sea urchin) are also viable but fattier
- Shrimp, prawns, crawfish, lobster, crab
- Octopus, squid, jellyfish, geoduck, oysters
- Vegetarian options include seitan, tempeh, tofu, soy, bean curd, canned gluten, lentils, chickpeas, peas
- Protein supplements
- And even…snails
I can go on and on. Basically, if it’s an animal (land or sea), you can bet that it’s got protein. If the meat is super moist and tender, it’s very likely not a lean source. Not that it’s bad; just something to keep in mind if you want to keep calories under control.
If there are many items on that list that you haven’t yet tried, you are missing out! Keep this list in mind as you come across various supermarkets and different food environments.
Ultimately, preparing your own food ahead of time will give you the best success in eating more quality protein and eating healthier in general. I wrote a Lifehacker guide here on shopping and cooking healthy for one. The keys are to plan ahead and cook in bulk. There are plenty of slow cooker and oven-baked recipes that minimize the hassle of cooking. Here’s a simple one to try that I love:
Chicken stew slow cooker recipe (courtesy of PaleOMG)
- 1-2 pounds chicken breast
- 1 medium-sized yellow onion, cut into cubes
- 1 green bell pepper, chopped
- Buncha chopped carrots
- 1 4-ounce can of chopped jalapenos
- 1 4-ounce can of chopped green chiles
- 1 14-ounce can of diced tomatoes
- 1 7-ounce can of tomato sauce
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon chili powder
- 2 teaspoons oregano
- Salt & pepper to taste
It’s so easy that you just throw everything into the slow cooker and cook on high for 6-8 hours or 8+ hours on low until the chicken is super easy to shred and you go hnnnnnnnngggg.
Simple Strategies for People Who Don’t Want to Overthink It
You’re likely already overthinking it. Here’s what I want you to think about doing, especially if you’re new to eating more protein or out in the wild:
- Aim to eat a palm-sized serving of protein at every meal (assuming you eat three meals). Dudes tend to have more muscle, so if you’re a dude you might do better on two palm-sized servings. Each palm-sized serving of lean protein comes out to approximately 20-25 grams of protein. Fattier proteins have about the same, but add about 12 grams of fat, too.
- Eat as much of your protein as you can during breakfast (if you eat it), a method called “front-loading.” To be clear, I’m not claiming there’s anything magical about breakfast. It’s just that I’ve noticed with myself and some others that doing it this way gives me a bit more leeway during lunch and dinner when I can’t find protein-rich foods while I’m out exploring.
- Have protein supplements as back-up (more on this in the next section).
It’s that simple and it’s that hard.
Admittedly, I used to overthink things. I used to be that person who would hit my 130 grams of protein, come hell or high water. These days if it’s give or take 40 that’s fine by me. But that’s only because I’ve developed the habit of including plenty of protein in my meals. To give you an idea of what, say, 100 grams would look like in real-world food, here’s what I would eat:
- 3 egg whites scrambled with 1 whole egg
- 2 slices turkey bacon
- Flat-Out multi-grain wrap (a high-protein tortilla wrap)
Breakfast total: 36 grams protein
- 1.5 cups of cooked noodles
- 2 palm-sized portions of chicken teriyaki (that’s about 6 ounces)
- A bunch of veggies like green beans, broccoli, and carrots
Lunch total: 50 grams
- 1 palm-size portion of usually chicken or fish
- 1/2 cup rice
- Plenty of steamed or stir-fried veggies
- 1 cup of ice cream
Dinner total: 25 grams
The above is just an example. Those are meals you can get at a restaurant, such as Panda Express even. (Pro-tip: Ask them to hold the sauce and opt for steamed or grilled stuff.) Also notice that I aim to maximize the “quantity” of food from lower calorie sources, such as green, leafy veggies and cruciferous veggies.
The meals don’t sound like a lot of food, but protein also has satiating effects that naturally make you feel more satisfied from your meal than if you just ate a ton of carbs with a teeny speck of protein. You’ve probably felt this before. It’s like the difference in feelings of fullness from a kale cranberry salad versus a six-ounce steak.
I typically eat three meals because I eat a larger lunch. You can snack at some point with Greek yogurt mixed with berries, a grilled cheese ham sandwich, a Quest Nutrition bar, or something.
For more practical tips on eating more protein, check my homie JCDFitness’s guide here.
High-Protein Foods and Eating Strategies for Travelers
Travelers don’t have the luxury of being able to always predict what they have access to. Whenever I schlep it around the planet, the biggest obstacles to eating that protein and reining in my diet in general are the inconsistent food environment and lack of reliable access to a kitchen.
Despite the revolving door of available protein sources, I did find a couple of protein staples that I was able to get in just about every country I visited:
- Eggs: I’ve found eggs to be virtually in every country for fairly cheap, too. Egg whites are not widely available as a separate product, but you can just as easily do it the old-fashioned way and get rid of the yolk. It seems like a waste, so if you can’t bear with it eat the whole egg.
- Dairy: Unless you’re lactose intolerant, you’ll find a bevy of dairy products. I’ve found low-fat milk, cheese, and yogurt, although it’s rarer and more expensive. Forget cottage cheese because most of the time it’s just not worth the cost (in Hong Kong, it was nearly $10 for less than a pint).
- Pork & chicken: Depending on where you are, pork is more plentiful than chicken and chicken is more plentiful than beef.
In my experience, lean protein sources are expensive and less available outside of the U.S. For example, the ground beef that I often came across was only about 80% lean (check the marbling) and it’s uncommon to find anything more lean than that. You can find chicken breast, sure, but the thighs, the feet, and wings are cheaper.
That’s the other thing. Most cultures eat the entire animal–from snout to the organs (also called offal) to the tail. Every part of the animal are never put to waste, even the bones which are used to make a rich stock or soup. I grew up with this so I have no problems devouring chicken hearts and pig intestines. Yum.
This is the time to be adventurous. Go to outdoor, open-air markets and small restaurants to learn what’s available. If I was on the go, I often went to tiny neighborhood markets and convenience stores to buy hot foods and prepackaged foods, such as jerky, hardboiled eggs, chicken breasts for salads, milk, and whatever else I could find.
Do You Need Protein Powder?
Access to a kitchen is key for long-term success when you travel (or even if you’re at home!), although supplementing with protein powder is also a good option. Speaking of, let’s make a few things clear:
There’s nothing magical about protein powder. You don’t need to take it. And if you do, it’s not the supplement itself that helps you lose or gain weight. Most protein powder brands derive their protein from cow’s milk and combine it with other flavors which makes getting doses of 20 to 30 grams of protein tasty, super convenient, and easy. Each gram of protein contains four calories, so you’re still getting between 120 – 200 calories per serving.
That’s why they’re called supplements. They’re an easy way to boost your current protein intake if you’re not eating enough protein in the first place. In fact, protein supplements are perfect for you if you’re:
- Someone who flits from one place to another like a frequent traveler or digital nomad and stays in a country that doesn’t have as much protein available
- A busy bee who never seems to have time to eat a proper meal
- A small eater who has trouble stomaching a whole bunch of solid food
- Looking for something that’s convenient and doesn’t spoil
So yes, you “need” protein powder if you are one of the above people who has a hard time with eating proper meals. Simply mix the powder with water or a milk of some kind, and a protein supplement can be a quick meal when you are otherwise tempted to get something to quell that bear of a stomach at the drive-thru. In these cases, I whole-heartedly encourage adding protein powder to your diet.
A caveat: protein supplements aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so don’t expect the label to honest about its promises or contain all the ingredients it claims it has either. The ingredients list of many protein powders typically contains artificial sugars and preservatives, but some brands have higher quality control than others.
I take protein supplements myself, including Quest Nutrition protein bars (which never melt!), because they’re convenient when I’m out and help me curb the temptation to eat a burger or something. My favorite trusted brands are PEScience (Snickerdoodle flavor, waddup!) and Trutein. It’s also hard to go wrong with Optimum Nutrition, which is more widely available around the world.
Which Protein Powder Is Best?
The most common types of protein powder are whey and casein. Both are made from cow’s milk via the same process as making cheese. They make both whey and casein powder from this. Both contain good, quality protein, promote muscle growth, and can help you get in shape. Their unique characteristics, however, are where people get their panties up in a twist:
- Has more leucine, a type of amino acid, that helps initiate the muscle growing process
- Gets digested faster, making it ideal for getting nutrients right after your workout
- Contains more glutamine, another type of amino acid, which is also important but has a different effect than leucine
- Tends to be thicker when mixed
- Gets digested slower
Some sources encourage taking casein before bed, but that’s not totally necessary when you are already eating enough protein and food throughout the day and you’re not, say, a professional bodybuilder. The differences are nice to know, but in the end, this is minutiae that most of us shouldn’t need to concern ourselves with. Many brands now actually blend the two and sometimes others, which has been shown to be advantageous to whey or casein alone.
Other protein supplements can be made from:
Egg protein is unnecessarily expensive. Pea, rice, hemp, and soy protein can also cost more, but they are great alternatives if you’re vegetarian, vegan, or get nasty reactions to lactose. If you’re lactose intolerant, you can try whey isolate. If that doesn’t work and you want to give whey another go, try switching brands. Intolerance to whey protein sometimes manifests in innocuous ways, such as bloating, gas, headache, or an accumulation of mucous in your throat.
How to Find Whey Protein When You Travel
I’ve been known to pack several-pound bags of whey protein into my luggage, knowing that when I get to the destination the load will lighten anyway. Depending on the country, you might have some problems getting the supplement through customs. In my experience, they were clearly labeled and unopened so I typically had no problems.
The alternative is to buy it when you get to your destination. Whey protein is whey easy (hyuk) to find elsewhere in the world when you need to buy some. Occasionally you’ll come across brick-and-mortar supplement stores, but I highly recommend buying stuff online via iHerb.com or Bodybuilding.com (my old company!). The shipping is pricier than it is within the U.S., but you still end up paying less than at the store.
For mixing, bring just the Blender ball (the metal ball-like spring like here) so you can pop that into something like a HydroFlask if you have one. You could bring a protein shaker bottle (I recommend this one because it’s cheap enough for you to discard if needed), which doesn’t hold up well for long-term travel (speaking from experience). Mixing protein powder with a spoon in a coffee cup sort of works, but gets kind of gross.
If you end up with extra protein that you don’t want to finish and want to toss, you can try turning it into great, albeit expensive, compost.
Here’s the TL;DR version
- To find out how much protein to aim for, take your IDEAL body weight (in pounds) x one gram of protein = how much you should aim to eat per day. So if you weigh 180 and want to weigh 150, go for 150 grams of protein per day.
- Don’t sweat it if your protein intake isn’t perfect.
- It should all even out and be relatively consistent. At the end of the day, month, or year, that consistency is what matters.
- Aim to eat a palm-sized portion of protein (two if you’re a dude) at each meal. Each palm-sized serving of lean protein comes out to approximately 20-25 grams of protein. Fattier proteins have about the same, but add about 12 grams of fat.
- Plan ahead and cook in bulk if you’re at home.
- If you’re traveling, supplement intake with protein powder and do what you can with the available local foods.
- You can bring protein powder with you or buy it online at stores like iHerb.com or Bodybuilding.com. Just bring a blender ball or protein shaker bottle of some sort.
Featured image credit: Karen Hong Photography.
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