What You Really Need to Know About Protein

Photo: Kitchen Treaty
Whether you add a scoop of protein powder to your daily smoothie or roast enough chicken during Sunday night meal prep to feed a CrossFit gym full of hungry women, it's safe to say that protein intake is on your radar. After all, we need to build our strength to power through a muscle-taxing boot camp.

The macronutrient plays a crucial role in just about every single bodily function. (We're talking digestion, hormone regulation, immunity...need we go on?) Found most abundantly in animal proteins, legumes, and grains, protein is broken down into essential amino acids, which are then delivered to the body to grow and maintain cells, providing us with necessary energy. In other words, if protein had its own statement tee, it would say "Food is fuel."

But from there, the information can get a bit confusing. Can vegetarians and vegans still get their fair share of protein? (Hint: yes!) How much is too much? And what is the deal with all those protein powders and supplements?

To help you build up your protein knowledge, we've gathered all our best advice when it comes to the nutrient crucial for healthy muscles, hair, and skin alike.

So how much protein should you really be eating?

“Age, activity level, and your size will affect your protein needs,” nutritionist Lauren Slayton of Foodtrainers tells us. A good guideline? Slayton would recommend "50 grams if you’re not very active, 75 grams if you’re moderately active, and 100 or more to put on muscle." As in, if you start your morning with a WOD, you're going to want to put a hearty helping of protein powder into your a.m. shake. That being said, spreading out your intake throughout the day is key; after all, your body can't absorb more than 30 grams at a time.

And what about if you're a vegan or a vegetarian? Where can you get your protein from?

It is a major myth that non-meat eaters can't consume sufficient amounts of healthy protein. Want proof? Ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll has conquered grueling-distanced triathlons (we're talking 10-kilometer swims, 90-mile bike rides, and double marathons), all while following a completely vegan diet. If animals can get their protein from plants, so can humans. "My favorites are lentils, black beans, hemp seeds, chia seeds, mung beans, almonds, spinach, and broccoli," Roll tells us. He also loves spirulina—the most protein-dense food on earth. (Take that, filet mignon!)

Need some ideas for a protein-packed breakfast?

Fueling up in the morning is key. And it's easier to do than you think: Try eggs, add a scoop of protein to your pancake batter, or try a homemade granola packed with nuts and seeds. (In fact, we've found 35 recipes, if you  need a bit more guidance.) . If you're on-the-go, or just have a serious love affair with your morning smoothie, try this Berry Mojito Protein Smoothie.

What about lunch or dinner?

Grain bowls are in— and, depending on the base ingredient, they could be packed with protein too. You're probably familiar with quinoa, which makes for a tasty, protein-rich meal. Trendy super grain farro is also a great option. “Farro is high in protein and fiber, and it has a rice-like texture that’s preferred by more consumers than quinoa,” notes John Beatty, executive chef at Lexington Brass, the American brasserie behind this nutritious entrée.

(And we couldn't forget dessert...)

Yes, even your sweet nightcap can give you an extra dose of protein, thanks to multitasking protein powders that play well with others. Take, for example this truffle recipe: All you need is a favorite nut butter and an all-natural sweetener (think maple syrup) to bind it all together. Oh, and they take less than five minutes to make, NBD.

Looking for a protein bar that you can trust to keep you fueled?

A lot of protein bars are packed with sugar, not protein. According to nutritionist Miranda Hammer of The Crunchy Radish, you want to keep a close eye on limiting certain ingredients, like dates or ultra-processed soy byproducts. Need some more guidance? She helped us find the six best vegan protein bars to grab when you're on-the-go.

Need some help understanding protein powders?

Sometimes there's just no time to throw an organic, free-range steak on the grill. Enter protein powder, which turns anything from water to the aforementioned truffles into a serious power booster. But with so many varieties—whey, hemp, pea, casein, even collagen, to name just a few—it can be hard to keep them all straight, let alone know which is best for you.

Whey and casein protein are great for building muscle, but that doesn't mean you should worry about turning into Hulk overnight. A plant-based protein powder may be better if you're looking to simply maintain health. In particular, pea has been the protein powder du jour among in-the-know foodies and nutritionists. If you tend to favor soy products, just be wary of soy protein isolate, an uber-processed additive. Stick to getting your soy protein from more natural sources, like nuts, lentils, or non-GMO tofu or tempeh.

...Or which brands you can trust?

Once you've decided on a type of protein powder, the options still seem to be endless. If you've wandered aimlessly up and down the entire aisle devoted to protein powders at the supermarket, you're not alone. And since so many brands use artificial additives and less-than-high-quality ingredients, it can be tough to know which one to choose. A good rule of thumb? Look for the shortest ingredient lists, with the ingredients you recognize.

Ready to move on from protein? Here are the ancient grains you should know about. And if it's the produce aisle that overwhelms you, check out our handy guide to greens.

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