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How Much Protein Do You Actually Need?

April 2, 2024

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

Our bodies need protein, that’s a fact. However, diet culture has become obsessed with this and has gotten us confused about how to know how much our bodies legitimately need.  

In today’s episode, I’m going to help you sift through the noise and nonsense and give you clarity on how to know how much protein your body needs and how to approach this in a way that isn’t diet-y or obsessive and that doesn’t require you to be tracking or measuring anything. 

Diet Culture’s Obsession With Protein

Diet culture has become so fixated on protein that not only do we have all sorts of trendy low carb diets (such as keto), but we’ve even got the carnivore diet that is basically all meat. This is a perfect example of how diet culture will take things to the extreme, and spoiler alert – that’s not healthy.

So how did we get here? And is there any validity to the emphasis on protein?

Ultimately protein got put on a pedestal for 3 reasons:

  1. By default, given that there are only 3 macronutrients: carb, fat and protein. We learned a few decades ago that the low fat dieting trend was a bad idea and didn’t improve our health, so fat is out of the running for first place. And prior to that Atkins had already been popular so we already didn’t trust carbs, but then even more so after the low fat era where a lot of the fat in our food was replaced with carbohydrates, now we REALLY don’t trust carbs, so those have gotten put in last place of the 3 macronutrients. Which leaves protein to take its place at center stage and to be put on the highest pedestal. It kind of ended up there by default.
  2. Anti-fat bias and our obsession with weight loss. Research in recent decades has shown that protein helps with satiety and keeps us full, so naturally diet culture has latched onto that and turned it into the holy grail of keeping us full, and basically suppressing our appetite so we can lose weight. 
  3. Fitness culture is obsessed with protein for gaining muscle mass while losing body fat. And if you’ve ever seen some of the stuff that they eat it’s weird and troubling. Some of the concoctions they’ll make using protein powder are disturbing and are reminiscent of the things that my patients would describe when I worked in an inpatient treatment center for eating disorders. 

So you can see how all of this created a perfect storm for protein to become glorified by diet culture, because it plays to perfectly into our fear of fatness, our obsession with weight loss, and the idea that “healthy eating” means eating a whole bunch of whatever food group we’ve deemed as the healthiest and excluding the other food groups. 

We’ve done this over and over again as a society – low fat, low carb, low calorie, and now this high protein thing is just another iteration of all that. In fact, the protein obsession is trying to be low fat, low carb, and low calorie all at once, and I’d like to point out just from a common sense standpoint that of course this isn’t actually healthy or sustainable when we are demonizing basically all other food groups besides protein and vegetables. That’s not a sustainable way to eat, and it’s certainly not necessary or even healthy.

What Is Protein & Why Do We Need It?

Protein is a macronutrient. That means 2 things: 

  1. It’s required for your body. All nutrients, by definition, are something that is required by the body in order for us to live. Therefore there is no such thing as a good nutrient or a bad nutrient – they just are. Kind of like how we don’t judge oxygen as good or bad, we understand that we need it to live. So protein is a nutrient, which means it’s necessary for your body and not optional.
  2. It provides energy for your body. That energy comes from calories. That’s all a calorie is – a unit of energy for your body. Calories are not something we need to be afraid of. It’s like putting gas in your car, you have to have it to go, and just like you don’t’ want to overflow your gas tank with fuel, you also don’t’ want to run out. Same thing with food and calories.

Protein is made up of these things called amino acids. Amino acids are kind of like little Lego pieces where you put them together to make a protein molecule. The human body can’t synthesize protein on its own, so we have to ingest it from food.

Inside the body protein does a lot of really important things:

  • Building blocks for the cells and tissues of your body. 
  • Helps your body create and repair cells.
  • Creation of enzymes which help with so many things that happen internally to keep your body running – e.g. digestion, energy production, blood clotting, muscle contraction
  • Carries oxygen throughout your body
  • Hormone synthesis
  • Helps your body maintain proper pH levels
  • Regulates your fluid balance
  • Helps form immunoglobulins and antibodies which fight off infection
  • Transports and stores nutrients

So you can see that protein does a LOT of different things within your body, and so of course it’s important. But how much is enough? And how much is too much? We’re going to get to those answers in a minute. 

We talked about what protein does in our bodies, but let’s also talk about how protein in food is digested and how it impacts our appetite signals. 

Protein and Your Appetite Signals

Different foods digest at different rates inside our bodies. Liquids digest more quickly than solids, which makes sense because your body has to work harder to break down solid food, right? With solid food your body basically has to do the work to liquify it inside your stomach. 

Does this make liquids bad or unhealthy? No.

Does it mean that you shouldn’t drink your calories? No.

That’s diet mentality. 

It just means that you might notice that drinking a protein shake or smoothie instead of eating a meal doesn’t keep you full for very long. And if you had some solid food with it you might be more satisfied for longer. And it means that the calories that you’re getting from beverages aren’t going to have as much satiety power, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t drink them. It just means that you should also eat solid food throughout the day. This isn’t an either/or issue, it’s both/and. 

It’s the same reason that when your stomach is upset – let’s say you have the stomach flu. Liquids like soup, broth, gatorade, Sprite, ginger ale, and other liquidy foods and fluids tend to be better tolerated because your stomach doesn’t have to work as hard to break them down.

There are pros and cons to solids vs liquids, depending on the situation. This is something we talk about all the time on this show – how instead of labeling food categorically as healthy and unhealthy, we have to look at context and think about what is most supportive of your body’s needs in that situation, based on what you have available. And that’s going to depend on a lot of variables.

Back to the protein thing…

In addition to solids digesting more slowly than liquids, we also know that the different macronutrients in our food break down at different rates. When you eat something that contains the 3 macronutrients, let’s use a turkey sandwich with mayo as our example, here’s what’s happening as it breaks down:

The carbohydrates in the bread are digested and absorbed the most quickly, then the protein in the turkey, and finally the fat in the mayo. And this is great, because you’re going to get some quick energy from the carbs, and longer lasting energy from the protein and fat. 

It’s also why if all you had for lunch was a bowl full of crackers you’re going to be hungry again in an hour.

Now I don’t want you to hear this and to think, “Oh ok so I should just avoid carbs and eat protein and fat because it will keep me full longer.” This isn’t a keto podcast, and that’s not what I’m saying (Lol). 

Carbs are still your body’s primary and preferred source of actual energy. Your body needs those carbs to give your cells immediate energy to keep doing their thing to keep your organs running. That’s why we need glucose circulating in our bloodstream 24/7. Glucose is your blood sugar, which is a type of carbohydrate, and if your blood sugar gets too low you die.

But in terms of satiety, they don’t keep us full for very long because they digest relatively quickly. Which is a wonderful thing when we need quick energy, like for a workout, or if your blood sugar is low. If someone with diabetes gets hypoglycemic, we give them straight carb, the most easily digestible form of sugar we can find, to get that blood sugar up asap. Carbs aren’t evil. They are an important part of being a living breathing human being.

But again, they don’t stick with us very long in terms of fullness and satiety, so from an intuitive eating standpoint it’s important to know that so that you can also give your body other foods that will give you more satiety and long-lasting energy throughout the day. 

That’s where protein and fat come in. I’m not going to go too much into fat today because that’s not the topic of this episode, but know that it is an important nutrient, and it does do really important things in your body and aids in satiety and also helps with nutrient absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. So don’t be avoiding fat because that’s not helpful either. 

When it comes to recognizing how these different nutrients and different foods make you feel in terms of hunger and fullness and satiety, sometimes that can be really confusing and challenging if you’ve been disconnected from those appetite signals for a long time, or if you don’t feel like you can really trust your body. Because of that I created a free guide for reconnecting with your hunger and fullness, and inside that guide there is a hunger and fullness scale which is a really helpful tool for when you’re working on this process because it’s going to show you how to become dialed in with the nuances of your body’s appetite signals as they relate to the food you eat, and you’re going to start to see how protein gives you that satiety cue. You can download the guide for free >>here<<

Let’s get back to protein. Protein not only breaks down at a slower rate than carbohydrates, but it also sends a signal to your brain that you have had enough, and that the food you ate is going to stick with you. It increases the secretion of satiety hormones, and decreases hunger hormones for a period of time after you eat it. 

Protein also helps keep your blood sugar stable. If you’re eating carbs without protein, your blood sugar can more easily go up, and then come right back down. If you’re prone to blood sugar issues or diabetes, then this can be hard on your pancreas which is secreting insulin to help your body utilize those carbs. Pairing carbs with protein slows down the digestion of the carbs so that your blood sugar doesn’t spike as high, and it keeps your blood sugar stable for longer. 

So in general, it’s a good idea to try and eat some protein with most of your meals and snacks. And to know that if you eat a meal or snack that doesn’t contain protein, you’re probably going to be hungry again sooner than you would be if you had eaten something with protein. This isn’t bad or wrong, it’s just about understanding nutrition science so that you can understand what’s happening with your body, and factor this into your intuitive eating decisions.  

How Much Protein Do You Need?

So by now you’re probably thinking, “Ok, Katy, I am really getting that I need protein, but how much protein? And do I need to be tracking it?”

I want to reassure you that you don’t need to track or measure anything or get obsessive about numbers here. You can see how easily this could slip into diet mentality with food where you’re worrying about grams and you’re measuring your food…and that’s not the path we’re going to go down.

I can’t tell you exactly how much protein your body needs (unless you’re my client and I have your history and understand your body’s needs). What I CAN tell you is that most people don’t need to have a specific protein goal in order to meet their body’s protein needs.

For the average person, simply being intentional about eating some protein with most of your meals and snacks is good enough. And if you think about it, we tend to do this pretty naturally with meals. Most of the time the entree of a meal contains a decent amount of protein – it might be a sandwich with meat, or a piece of chicken or steak, or a pasta dish that has a meat sauce or chicken alfredo, or a stir fry with tofu. Even vegetarian entrees usually have protein because most vegetarians understand they need to be intentional about getting in their protein. As a loose estimate, try to get a decent chunk of protein at meals, in the realm of 20-30 grams minimum, which if we’re eyeballing it is about the size of your hand with meat. 

At snacks we’re less likely to always get protein. A lot of snack foods are naturally carbohydrate-based, for example chips, crackers, granola bars, fruit, pretzels. There’s nothing wrong with these foods. I eat them for snacks all the time. Just pair them with a protein, such as a greek yogurt, or a cheese stick, or some nuts or PB. In fact, my easy snack hack is to think carb + protein.

If you’re confused or worried that you’re not getting enough protein, or you really want to know how much your body needs, then reach out to me. I do offer 1:1 intensives where we could talk through this and come up with some ideas and strategies for your meals and snacks to ensure that you’re getting the protein your body needs. I know some people really like to know roughly what they’re aiming for, and that they can do that while still eating intuitively and without being restrictive or diet-y with food.

Protein and Intuitive Eating

This can feel so tricky when you’re trying to practice intuitive eating. Because on the surface intuitive eating seems like you should just be eating what sounds good, but that’s actually not how it works. 

Intuitive eating IS about eating what sounds good, AND it’s also about checking in with your body to see what your body needs, and honoring your body’s needs with compassion. 

Just because something sounds good doesn’t mean that it’s what your body needs in that moment, or it might also mean that you can have the thing that sounds good AND intentionally pair it with something else to give your body the fuel and satisfaction that you need in order to feel and function well. 

If you’re basically just eating whatever pops into your head, that’s not intuitive eating – that’s impulsive eating. Let me say that again – if you’re just eating whatever, whenever, that’s not intuitive eating – that’s impulsive eating.

This one realization and mindset shift has been such a game changer for so many of my clients in my programs. Because once they realize that intuitive eating is about so much more than just winging it with food, and it’s more than simply not being on a diet, it opens the door to slow down and get more in tune with what your body ACTUALLY needs. And one of those needs is protein. 

Now, I don’t want you to hear this and get obsessed with protein, or to mistake what I’m saying here that you should eat more protein to feel full and then hopefully lose weight. That’s how diet culture thinks about protein.

I’m talking about eating enough protein to give your body the amino acids that it needs to function its best, and eating enough protein to feel satisfied for a period of time after you eat, and enough protein to keep your blood sugar stable. It’s not about finding a new sneaky way to lose weight. That’s diet mentality, and this ain’t my first rodeo, I’m two steps ahead of how your brain is thinking about this. And it’s also why I want you to get the hunger and fullness guide that I mentioned earlier, because it’s going ot help you connect with how different meals and snacks make you FEEL, and what you’re probably going to notice is that foods with protein do provide more satiety and stick with you longer than meals and snacks where you don’t eat protein. But don’t just take my word for it – I want you to actually do this experiment and to FEEL is and connect with how your body experiences this. Grab the hunger and fullness guide >>here<<

Wrapping Up

Let’s recap what we’ve covered today, and then I’ll leave you with some action steps that you can take to apply the information. Because if you just listen to these episodes but don’t DO anything with it, then nothing changes. 

Diet culture has become obsessed with protein – it’s been put on the pedestal as the “healthiest” food and nutrient, and that’s mostly because the promise and assumption is that it will lead to weight loss. Just like how we used to think that avoiding fat was the holy grail of weight loss.

We do legitimately need protein – AND we need carbs and fat too. Protein does important things in our bodies, AND so do the other nutrients. I want to caution you against going to the extremes.

Here’s your homework:

  • Download the hunger and fullness guide.
  • Do an experiment where you eat a snack that’s just carbohydrate (e.g. pretzels, a bagel, crackers, fruit). Notice how much it takes to feel full and satisfied, and how long until you get hungry again.
  • Do an experiment where you pair protein with your carbohydrate (e.g. pretzels with peanut butter, crackers with cheese, fruit with greek yogurt). Notice how much it takes to feel full and satisfied, and how long until you feel hungry again. 
  • Journal about what you noticed as you did the experiments using the hunger and fullness scale inside the guide. 

That’s a wrap for today. If you have any questions or thoughts that you’d like to share, just shoot me a DM on Instagram I’d love to chat! 

Thanks for listening, I’ll be back again next week! In the meantime, be kind and gentle with yourself. We’ll talk soon.

Resources Mentioned in Episode:

Grab my free hunger and fullness guide

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