Historically, women have had a complicated relationship with protein. That antiquated notion that men can order steak at a restaurant while the more "feminine" choice is a salad has stuck around way too long. And shakes anchored with whey, hemp, or pea protein? It used to be thought of as a gym bro thing.
But lately—fortunately!—times have changed, and stashing a protein bar in your gym bag for a pre- or post-workout boost has become the norm.
For many women who are realizing what protein can provide—everything from sustained energy to glowing skin—the shift is even changing the way they think about food.
It's not just about fueling up anymore, though. For many women who are realizing what protein can provide—everything from sustained energy to glowing skin—the shift is even changing the way they think about food. (Read: It's about self-care, not deprivation.)
Of course, the devil is in the (muscle-building) details: What role does protein play on days when you don't hit the gym? How much do you need, and which form is best?
Keep reading for expert advice on finding the right balance for you, and the beyond-the-gym role the building-block nutrient is playing.
How much protein women actually need
First, some protein basics. Frances Largeman-Roth, RD's hard and fast rule is that women need one gram per one kilogram of weight a day. "The caveat to that is that the body can only absorb 30 grams of protein at once," she says. "[After that], if it isn't burned off as energy, it will be stored as fat." (And after a while, a protein detox may be in order.)
What does 30 grams look like? An egg has 6 grams, there are 25 grams in 3 ounces of tuna, and 8 grams in 1 cup of quinoa—so it does add up pretty quickly. (Which is why this handy guide to protein is helpful.)
"In nutrition science, an egg is considered the perfect protein source because it also has all the essential amino acids."
And not all protein sources are created equal. "You should also consider what other nutrients you can get with your protein," Largeman-Roth says. "In nutrition science, an egg is considered the perfect protein source because it also has all the essential amino acids." But meat eaters don't always have the upper hand. "Many packaged meat products are loaded with sodium, which is something you don't want. Especially, when you could have almonds instead, which also have selenium, vitamin E, and magnesium."
What it's fueling—besides your workout
Even if all you're doing from 9-to-5 is sitting at your desk working, Largeman-Roth says you still need that recommended serving of protein. If you don't, prepare to get droopy-eyed at your computer. Likewise, if you typically feel completely spent by the time 4 p.m. rolls around each day, chances are, you're not getting enough of the macronutrient at lunch.
What's good for your insides shows on the outside, and the beauty biz is taking notice.
It's also good for your gut—and don't forget, a healthy microbiome is a major happiness booster. Plus, it keeps metabolism in check. "Protein doesn't speed up your metabolism, but it is essential for maintaining a good metabolism because it helps keep blood sugar levels steady throughout the day," explains Largeman-Roth.
What's good for your insides shows on the outside, and the beauty biz is taking notice. In December, Burt's Bees debuted a line of protein powders, which are sold in drugstores alongside its lip balms and face cleansers. And collagen, a building block of protein, is popping up in a whole slew of beauty beverages, touting its reputed skin-firming and anti-aging benefits.
How protein brands are catering to women
Convinced protein does more than build muscle yet? Brands have taken notice of women who are looking for more ways to add the nutrient to their diet—and they're changing the way they market their products as a result.
Ora Organic co-founder Erica Bryers kept women in mind when designing her brand's packaging. In fact, her goal for the supplements line as a whole was to make the products look pretty enough to display. "It's a lot more approachable than something with orange wrapping or huge capital letters," she says.
And Muscle Milk, perhaps the most masculine name on the market, is putting most of its, er, muscle toward attracting female buyers with a female-focused campaign called Stronger Every Day, says Josh Mohr, vice president of consumer marketing. The campaign was so successful that the brand launched another one in January celebrating (you guessed it) muscles— but women's muscles were the focus.
"It's a lot more approachable than something with orange wrapping or huge capital letters."
Even jerky brands are changing their approach. Jason Wright, Founder and CEO of Wilde Snacks, a meat bar line, says that everything from Wilde bars' vintage-style packaging to its taste has been driven by what the brand believes ladies are looking for.
Now that brands are realizing the buying power of women, prepare to see a lot more products on supermarket shelves. And if the products themselves hold up, it's a win-win for companies and consumers.
After all, even if you're a meal-prepping pro with the organizational skills of a Marie Kondo-in-training, sometimes...life happens.
If you want to step up your protein game, these are the best 6 best vegan bars on the market right now. More into powder? These are the healthiest options out there.
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