For more than 60 years, people have been struggling to find the perfect diet. But, if you needed a place to start, few people would argue if you built your plan around protein.
Whether your goal is losing weight or building muscle, protein has undeniable benefits.
A favorite with bodybuilders, athletes, and just about any fitness enthusiast, is protein. Protein is used by your body to repair damaged muscles, bone, and joints, among other things. One popular protein you might hear about is collagen, but does collagen actually work? Unfortunately, because it's an incomplete protein, you won’t find much evidence that collagen improves your workout, or that it helps with weight loss or muscle gain, but it has been linked to beauty benefits like hair, skin, and nails.
In general, it's helpful to think of protein as the mortar between the bricks; without it, the entire structure of your body begins to break down.
That said, not all proteins are created equal, and not everyone needs the same amount of protein every day. Here’s everything you need to know about protein, your health goals, and any potential dangers.
There are two categories of protein: complete and incomplete. Protein is comprised of smaller molecules called amino acids. There are twenty-two amino acids, of which, nine you need to get from your diet (these are known as the essential amino acids or EAAs). Your body can manufacture the remainder of the amino acids.
The essential amino acids include:
A complete protein (also known as a whole protein) is one that contains adequate portions of those nine amino acids. By contrast, an incomplete protein is one that is lacking in one or more of those amino acids. Foods that contain all amino acids include fish, poultry, eggs, red meat, and cheese.
When it comes to protein powders, whey and casein have been the most popular option because both are complete proteins. When it comes to plant protein, brown rice and pea protein are two popular protein sources that are vegan and soy-free alternatives. However, most plant-based proteins are not complete, so when it comes to brown rice vs. pea protein, you'll see that pea protein (what you'll find Ladder Plant Protein) does contain all of the essential amino acids, as does soy whereas brown rice does not.
These amino acids also help your body create hormones that help regulate blood pressure and blood sugar levels, which are directly responsible for your metabolic rate and muscular growth.
Protein and Fat Loss
The hardest part about losing weight is that every time you drop a few pounds, your body is literally working against you to make you add the weight back on. You know this as the intense hunger that happens when you're on a diet. This happens because as you drop pounds, your hormones change to make you feel hungrier.
Enter protein. Research has shown over and over again that protein keeps you feeling more full than either carbohydrates or fats, and it's not really close. In fact, in one study, doubling daily protein caused people to eat nearly 450 calories less per day, without making any other changes to their diet. So, does eating smaller meals help with fat loss? It can, as long as you add enough protein to keep you satiated.
At the most basic level, protein is so effective at managing hunger because it helps lower the hormone that makes you feel hungry (ghrelin), while also increasing the hormone that makes you feel full.
What's more, eating protein helps you burn more calories by helping your metabolism work harder. Protein has the highest thermic effect of food (TEF), which is the number of calories your body needs to burn to digest the food. For every 100 calories from protein you eat, you burn about 20-30 percent of those calories (in this example, 20-30 calories) during the digestion process. Compare that to just 0-3 percent from fats or 5-10 percent from carbs.
What’s more, your body is not very good at converting protein into fatty acids (which is stored as body fat). Thus, eating a lot of protein has a greater chance of building muscle or being used for energy, but not for storing body fat.
Protein and Muscle Gain
When it comes to building muscle, exercise causes muscle damage (which is a good thing), and protein is needed to stimulate the growth and repair process — something known as muscle protein synthesis (MPS).
Protein alone can help promote MPS, but when you combine it with resistance training, that’s when muscle-building magic occurs because MPS helps your muscles adapt, recovery, and reduce muscle protein breakdown (MPB), or the process by which your body uses protein to help fuel the metabolic processes within your body.
That’s why eating additional protein is so helpful, and why it supports muscle gain. It’s not about being bulky; it’s about providing your body with the nutrients it needs to support both processes on a physiological level.
Is Protein Dangerous?
Despite having decades of research, some people doubt the benefits of protein. The China Study triggered new skepticism and concern. (It’s important to mention this is a book based on research observations, not a scientifically designed study.) While some of the claims can be scary, hundreds of well-designed studies tell a different story and show, that in healthy people, high protein diets are safe.
Most protein-fear revolves around a link between protein intake and something called hepatocarcinoma, which is the risk identified by the China Study.
In scientific terms, for protein to cause this problem, there must be aflatoxin toxicity (very rare), and without reaching certain levels of aflatoxin in the body, there is no significant link between protein and liver toxicity.
In fact, for most people, this risk might not even be realistic. To quote Dr. Chris Masterjohn, a professor and researcher in health and nutrition sciences,
“If your friend offered you peanut butter sandwiches with 100 grams worth of peanut butter contaminated with the maximum amount of aflatoxin allowed by the FDA, you’d only have to eat 270,000 peanut butter sandwiches for four days to obtain the dose of aflatoxin that produced a ‘barely detectable response’ in Campbell’s study.”
If protein safety is in question, it’s because we’re stretching the truth of the real danger it poses. While the likelihood of protein-related aflatoxin issues is low, there are a few other conditions where you might need to watch your intake.
If you’re healthy, you are clear to eat protein and not worry about any health problems—because there are none. That’s because there’s no research showing any relationship between eating lots of protein and developing kidney problems.
A study tested up to 400 grams of protein per day without any negative consequences. Now, if you have a preexisting kidney problem, it’s possible that a higher protein diet could be hard on your body. But if you have a kidney problem, you should be talking to your doctor about your diet anyway.
The only case where both dietary protein and your liver are related is for anyone who suffers from hepatic encephalopathy, a liver condition that alters protein metabolism.
Otherwise, there really is no significant concern for liver damage in a practical setting for an otherwise healthy person.
What About BCAAs?
Branched-chain amino acids or the BCAAs are three amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine) that play a crucial role in muscle growth, and might support fat loss as well.
However, while these amino acids are great, you don’t need to supplement with them if you ingest enough daily protein. Not to mention, newer research shows that taking BCAAs alone — without other essential amino acids — has little-to-no impact on muscle protein synthesis or muscle protein breakdown.
That's why it's better to take a whey protein or a complete plant protein than BCAAs alone because the other protein options have all of the amino acids (including the BCAAs), and have been shown to help with protein synthesis and slowing breakdown.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
If you’re looking for a very general guideline, you should eat about .5 to 1 gram per body of your goal body weight. In simple terms: if you want to weight 150 pounds, then you’d aim for anywhere between 75-150 grams of protein per day. How do you differentiate between the lower and higher-end? If you’re very active, you can veer slightly upward, and if you’re less active, then eat less.
Want a more detailed approach? Protein recommendations are usually given relative to your body weight, instead of in absolute terms. Unless you are morbidly obese (calculate protein usage based on your target weight), the rough guidelines are:
- 0.5g/kg body weight: This is the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein. It’s a good amount for general health. This is the minimum, and by no means should be considered the only level that is safe. (Research shows you can consume much more if you desire or it benefits your goals).
- 0.5-1.0g/kg body weight: This is a higher range mostly used by health-conscious people or people who are new to exercise and are trying to build some muscle.
- 1.0-1.5g/kg body weight: This is the typical recommendation for building muscle and reaching your athletic goals.
- 1.5-2.2g/kg (1g/lb) body weight: This is mostly recommended as the upper limit where you will still see muscle-building or fat loss benefits.