There are hundreds of different metrics that can be tracked about a meal — calories, macronutrients, vitamins, food processing, glucose, fiber, phytonutrients, omega ratios, hunger hormones... even for an expert it can be overwhelming. For anyone interested in tracking or improving their diet, protein is likely the best starting point. It is the simplest and most actionable metric, and getting your protein right will naturally adjust your carbs, fat and total calorie intake too (since they are all pieces of the same equation).
Getting adequate protein is absolutely critical for good health, whether your goal is to lose bodyfat, build new muscle, or simply stay alive. Unfortunately, most people don't get enough.
In addition to the total amount of protein you get per day, protein quality and timing are also important factors to optimize. The other meal metrics (like micronutrient density or sugar and fiber) become relevant once protein intake has been dialed in. If a healthy meal is like building a house, protein is the solid foundation to build upon.
Protein isn't just needed for extreme bodybuilders. Every human body needs protein to function. Eating enough protein is key to living a healthy, active life. Managing your intake correctly can help achieve and maintain a healthy body composition.
This guide will teach you the purpose of protein as well and help you increase your intake to make sure you are getting enough. Gyroscope members using Food XRAY may see constant warnings and low grades from not getting enough protein. This guide will show you why getting consistently low protein is a serious problem that should not be overlooked, and how fixing this will get you a lot closer to your goals.
Fortunately, after reading this guide you will be fully equipped to turn the situation around and maximize your protein intake. With just a few adjustments and new habits, it will not be hard to meet your daily requirements.
What is protein?
The food you eat is made of a few different macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, fat.
All these macronutrients have different roles in the body. Tracking all of them together can also tell your total calories (protein and carbs provide 4 calories per gram, and fat 9).
Protein is one of the most important nutrients to focus on at the beginning, possibly even more important than total calories since it affects things like your hunger levels, calories burned, muscle synthesis, etc. Adjusting your intake is one of your most direct and powerful levers to control your body.
Protein is made of amino acids, the building blocks of your entire body. Your body can create some amino acids on its own. Others, known as essential amino acids, that must be obtained from the foods you eat. These include Valine, Leucine, Isoleucine, and others.
In most cases of animal-sourced proteins (dairy, meat, eggs, etc.), all of these amino acids will be present. Tracking individual acids (ie. “did I get enough valine today?”) is therefore not needed, which makes food tracking a bit easier.
Plant-based sources sometimes have a subset, so a combination of sources are needed to get the full set. For example, neither rice nor beans have all the essential amino acids. However, eaten together they do! If you are eating a vegan diet, getting a wide variety of sources daily is important as well as double-checking that you are getting all the needed amino acids.
What are the benefits of getting enough protein?
A diet that is rich in protein supports muscle strength and growth, preserves lean muscle mass, and helps muscles recover after exercise. Having more muscle on your frame improves your metabolism, prevents injury, and helps you look and feel your best. *
Important hormones and signaling molecules contain protein. Insulin, a hormone which helps you uptake glucose into your bloodstream, or adrenocorticotropic hormone, the hormone which produces cortisol to manage your blood pressure and metabolism are both made of amino acids. Eating a diet high in quality protein ensures that you maintain optimal function of many hormones. *
Better sleep and moods
Neurotransmitters involved with sleep and mood such a GABA, melatonin, dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin are made of amino acids. Inadequate amino acid levels, especially of amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan, can disrupt brain function and impair sleep. *
Higher protein intakes will protect bones, prevent falls, and buffer the aging process so you are able to enjoy an active lifestyle throughout your golden years. Eating protein can help prevent age-related muscle loss, especially when paired with resistance training. *
Certain proteins, including collagen, have been studied for their role in improving skin health. Collagen is the main structural protein found in your body's various connective tissues and skin. Eating collagen from animal products has been associated with an improvement in skin's elasticity, hydration, roughness, and density. *
Perhaps one of the most popular benefits of protein is the effect it has on your appetite. The presence of protein in your meal signals satiety hormones like GLP-1 and peptide YY while reducing your levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Protein also takes more time and energy to digest, keeping you full for longer so you can manage your hunger. Not being distracted by hunger during the day can then lead to many other benefits, including better productivity and focus. 1, 2
Conserve muscle mass
Eating protein allows you to preserve your lean mass. Without adequate muscle protein synthesis, muscle breakdown can occur and valuable lean muscle mass can be lost.
In addition to the appetite control it provides, protein requires more work for your body to break down. This is partly due to the thermic effect of food, with protein requiring more energy to digest than sugars. Ultimately, eating a higher protein diet results in burning more calories immediately following a meal, reducing the surplus energy that could get stored as fat.
Conserving and increasing muscle mass also helps to increase calorie burn in basal metabolic rate further long-term. Therefore, optimizing protein intake can be as important as trying to adjust total calories, with the additional benefits of feeling more full rather than hungry! *
These are just some of the most popular and well researched ways your body utilizes protein. Even if some are not particularly exciting to you, there are probably at least a few on the list that you care about.
On the flipside, without adequate protein many things can go wrong.
It's easy to see why protein is such a vital nutrient, as it is involved with so many of your body's essential functions. A severe protein deficiency is rare in western cultures, yet many people aren't getting the amount that they need for optimal health.
Here are some signs that might indicate that your protein intakes are too low:
• You have a hard time gaining strength and feel tired all the time *
• You are always getting sick 1, 2
• You've noticed weak, dull, or thinning hair *
• Your nails are brittle or splitting *
• You get injured often, or have had a doctor diagnose you with weak or porous bones *
What is the correct amount?
If getting adequate protein is so important — to anyone wanting to gain or maintain muscle, have clear skin, live longer, maintain hormone levels or not be hungry all the time — how much is enough to get all the benefits? How much should you eat every day to avoid the negative effects of insufficient protein?
Protein recommendations are a hotly debated topic because protein needs vary between individuals. Instead of a blanket recommendation like 100 grams a day for everyone, protein needs are generally calculated using body mass. In addition to body mass and total size, they will differ depending on age, activity level, and other factors. As you get older, you need more protein, and when you are more active you will also want more protein.
The original recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams per kg of bodyweight (0.4g per pound) was given as a minimum requirement for sedentary adults. That means an average 150 pound adult would eat 50 grams a day to stay alive and avoid starving.
Most people use this reference for their protein intake, without realizing that this amount will only cover the most basic nutritional requirements to keep you alive, not the amount that will help you feel and move your best. The other thing to keep in mind is the opportunity cost of the macronutrients. A food can only be one of the three, so a lower protein by definition means higher carbs or fat — and vice versa.
Other recommendations from the Institute of Medicine, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, and a report from protein summit published in the AJCN include more realistic recommendations for the average person. They recommend numbers between 1.3-2.0g/kg/day (about 0.6–0.9g/pound/day). *, *
These numbers represent quite a large range to choose from. If you are a 150lb male, for example, eating a recommended 1.3-2.0g/kg protein each day gives a range of 88g to 136g per day!
In Gyroscope, you can add other factors like your activity levels, current goal, age and other factors to get a more precise target. However, don’t stress too much about getting that exact number. If you calculate your optimal target at 127 grams and you only got 123 today, nothing bad will happen. However, if you are only getting 30 grams in a day or consistently falling short (which can be common in a high sugar diet), then that needs urgent attention!
Now you have a good target for your protein intake. Keep in mind that as you change, this number will too!
The following lifestyle changes will increase how much protein you require. Almost all these cases will increase the requirements further.
Aging — eating slightly more protein as you age helps prevent age-related muscle loss which can help prevent falls and fractures. 1, 2
Losing weight — When you lower your calorie intake, you'll need a higher percentage of calories from protein to still preserve muscle tissue and support satiety hormones despite lower calorie intake.
Activity level — If you increase your exercise workload or start a new training program, you'll need more protein to support muscle recovery and growth.
Pregnancy and Breastfeeding — A pregnant or breastfeeding woman requires an extra 1.5–1.9 g/kg to support lactation, tissue growth, fetal development, and prevent anemia and other complications of pregnancy. *
Injury or Infection — When your body is healing from an injury or is fighting an infection, you'll need more protein to build new tissues, blood, immune factors, and support healing.
Your total daily protein intake can be tracked by experts in Gyroscope XRAY, or you can analyze your meals yourself using the food database. It can be helpful to look back on days that you met your target and see which meals helped you reach those goals, and vice versa. You might be surprised which meals aren't contributing much protein to your diet and are simply a marketing gimmick — generally processed foods.
Through the years of coaching members in Gyroscope, we have seen that almost everyone is lower on protein than they should be, due to the fact that most common foods (processed foods, desserts, sugary foods, etc.) are low in protein. Or if you are getting enough protein, it may be from eating a high amount of total food and also going above your calorie targets.
In either case, it's very likely that you aren't getting the full amount and proportion of protein in every meal yet.
Practical ways to eat protein
If your protein intake is lower than these calculations (most people are), then what?
Here are some practical ways to move the needle if your daily average is lower than you want it...
Order double protein for entrees: Restaurants tend to skimp on chicken, beef, tofu, and other high-protein foods in their entrees. You can simply ask that they double it. It will cost a little more, but your health is worth it!
Buy “quick” protein: Meat tends to be tedious to prepare, save time by buying more convenient high-protein options like hard-boiled eggs, canned fish, beans, cottage cheese, or rotisserie chicken, for when you're in hurry but still want to eat a healthy meal with adequate protein.
Make extra for later: Another way to work around time-consuming protein prep is to make extra servings when you cook. Portions of cooked meat like shredded chicken, lean ground beef, or grilled turkey burgers, can be frozen in individual portions for later use.
Add an extra protein shake: Use a high quality protein powder (like whey protein isolate) to make a protein shake. This could be eaten with a meal or as a supplement in between meals.
Other uses of protein powder: Not just for protein shakes. To give your meals a quick, effective protein boost, consider adding a high-quality protein powder to foods like oatmeal, smoothies, pancakes, or mixed with yogurt for a good dessert swap!
Snack on Protein: If you snack or graze, make sure you're still including a good source of protein each time you eat. You could try cottage cheese with cucumber or carrot sticks, hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt, flavored tuna packets on crackers, roasted soybeans, or edamame.
Go Lean: Lean proteins like fish, chicken breast, or pork chops will yield more protein per serving size than fattier cuts of meat like chicken thighs, wings, or a steak.
High Protein Swaps: Small choices really add up. If you can make a few simple swaps of commonly eaten meals for higher-protein foods, you'll have a much easier time reaching your protein goal!
Regular yogurt → Greek yogurt, quark, or Skyr
Side of potatoes or rice → Black or pinto beans
Sour cream or mayo → Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
Croutons → Sunflower seeds or a hard-boiled egg
Butter → Peanut or almond butter
Popcorn → Roasted soy nuts, pistachios, or sunflower seeds
Have fun with it
Our most important recommendation here is to make it fun. Eating healthy isn’t a punishment, but your opportunity to improve your lifestyle. There are so many options above, you should be able to find at least one or two that you enjoy and fit your budget and routine.
These recommendations will only be useful if you are continuing to do them a year from now. If you only eat protein as a one-week experiment and then return to your old routine, it will have minimal impact on your life. If you boost your protein intake by just 20% but stick to it forever, it can be life changing and totally transform your physique.
For some people, this could be a new dish at your favorite restaurant or something you buy at the supermarket. For others, it could be a new substitute for your most unhealthy meal or a new recipe to cook at home.
Some protein sources are digested and absorbed more easily than others. Different sources contain different amounts and types of amino acids. These factors can add up to "protein quality" and is something else to consider when choosing your protein sources.
In general, the highest amino acid distribution in proteins come from animal-based sources such as meat, fish, milk, and eggs followed by legumes such as soy, then cereal protein such as wheat *. However, with a little extra planning and effort, you can obtain your protein needs from plant-based foods.
If you want to use plant sources to hit your protein target, you may need to double up on total protein amounts and combine a variety of protein sources.
For example, the amino acids that are missing from legumes are found in grain products. By combining foods such as rice and beans (like many cultures have done) you're getting a more complete amino acid profile. If you eat a varied diet, eat a high percentage of plant-protein-containing foods at each meal, and supplement with plant-based powders when necessary, you can meet all your needs on a vegan diet.
In general, a diet high in protein will be better than one that is low. However, there are also other health considerations. For an occasional meal at a restaurant, these are not a big deal but as you start to eat the same thing every day it becomes important to optimize your most frequent meals and food sources.
The more processed a food is, the more potential health risks it may contain. This includes processed meats as well as vegan foods or food substitutes. For meats, having grass-fed sources or using regenerative agriculture will generally be better than something from a factory or just picking the cheapest option — both for ethical and environmental concerns, as well as your health since you are ultimately getting the nutrients from the same food sources.
Reading the ingredients is always a good habit. If something has dozens of complex ingredients, or is high in things like vegetable oils, that is a sign that it may be too processed. You should avoid sodium nitrates in processed meats like bacon, for example, which can increase the risk of cancers.
The best way to increase your protein is to accurately audit your diet for at least a few weeks. Taking a photo of everything you eat will give you a more realistic picture of which meals are high or low in protein.
As with any changes, take it slow. If you’ve been eating just 20 grams of protein a day, don’t try to go to 200 overnight. Make a few small tweaks every week and within a few months you may find your whole life totally transformed.
If you have any questions or need help, just send us a message in the app!