With so much conflicting nutritional advice out there, it’s no surprise that there is a lot of confusion about how much protein active women should be eating every day to sufficiently support training and aid recovery. We’re going to do our best to break it down for you and clear up the confusion!
And for those of you looking for information beyond solely protein, read my comprehensive post all all things MACROS here!
FIRST: WHY WE NEED IT
Protein is found in every cell in our body and is an essential building block to literally everything; blood, muscles, skin, cartilage, organs, glands & bones. It is vital in cell repair and generation, which means it helps repair and build muscle tissue (read: welcome to the gun show).
Unlike the other two macronutrients, carbohydrates and fat, our body does not readily store protein, which means we do not have a reservoir to pull from when we are low (except our existing muscles. Read: goodbye gains), so we need to constantly supply it for everything in our body to stay in tip top shape.
Eating a proper amount of protein helps us recover from workouts much faster, helps build lean muscle mass, helps prevent muscle loss, keeps us full in between meals, and keeps our body in good general health. Basically, if you're striving to be a badass in the gym, hit certain body composition goals, or generally be your healthiest self, getting the correct amount of protein in your daily diet is imperative.
If you are a Crossfitter, runner, weightlifter, regular gym-goer or otherwise active person, protein is even more essential to help fuel & recover from your training, and most of us aren’t getting enough. So how much is “enough”?
Although there are many factors to consider when finding your perfect number (age, activity level, weight, personal goals, etc), our recommendation as a baseline rule is to eat between .5 and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight every day. So for a 140 pound woman, that would mean eating between 70-140g of protein per day. (It should comprise about 20-35% of your daily caloric intake, or macronutrient profile breakdown.)
If you aren't super active (don’t have a regular exercise routine), you will fall on the lower end of that scale, with about half your body weight in grams of protein per day. However, if you are moderately active or very active (talking to you, Crossfitters!), you’ll want to fall on the higher end of this scale, at about 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight.
And if you are trying to gain lean muscle mass, lean out, or otherwise change your body composition and consistently perform muscle building activities, you may want your daily number to be higher still, comprising up to 40% of your daily intake. For example, I weigh about 125 lbs, but in an effort to recover quickly from workouts and build lean muscle, I eat 140g of protein every day. Yes, every. day.
How do you know how much protein you're actually eating? We suggest picking up a food scale and weighing and/or measuring all your proteins, and tracking it using an app like My Fitness Pal for about a week to be able to accurately gauge how much protein you are getting on a daily basis. From there, you can make adjustments as you see fit.
Our go-to protein sources are properly and ethically raised meats and seafoods (organic, pasture raised, grassfed, and wild caught). Animal proteins contain the most bioavailable source of protein, meaning your body more easily and completely absorbs the protein from animal sources compared to the protein in foods like beans or vegetables (yes, vegetables do have a small amount of protein). Eating properly and ethically raised meats and seafoods ensures that your body is getting the protein it needs along with healthy fats and tons of micronutrients. Depending on your personal nutrition template and sensitivities, dairy and eggs are also great sources of protein.
And in light of the WHO announcement this week about processed and red meats, we should tell you that our views haven't been swayed. Properly sourced animal proteins are an important and vital element to a healthy diet, period. And especially so for athletes. Animal proteins contain nutrients that your body needs which you simply cannot get from plants alone, like vitamin B (especially B12), vitamin D, iron, zinc, creatine, CLA, omega-3's and lots more. They are also complete proteins, meaning they provide the proper proportion of all nine essential amino acids that humans need for optimum nutrition. When it comes to protein, animal proteins reign supreme.
Note: If you want to unpack more details of the meat-cancer conversation, we highly suggest you read this thorough article by Sarah Ballantyne, Phd (aka The Paleo Mom). Still nervous about the WHO report? Please read this before you swear off bacon for good.
To shake or not to shake? While whole food sources are always a better choice than a processed replacement, sometimes protein powders and other supplements can come in very handy for convenience. We get it, we're all busy. We don't always have the time to prepare a filet to carry around in our purse to enjoy when hunger strikes on the go. So what are your best options?
If you're looking for a high quality protein powder, our favorite is Equip Protein, as it is 3 simple ingredients (beef protein isolate, cocoa powder and stevia), whey-free, and actually tastes good.
Quest makes lots of different flavors of protein bars that are a great in a pinch (some bars are cleaner than others so check out your labels to see what fits with your nutrition template).
There are also other protein-containing supplements you might want to consider that help enhance your athletic performance and recovery, that you can add into your post workout shake and have multiple benefits. They include collagen (aids in joint health), branched chain amino acids (or BCAAs, aids in muscular endurance and synthesis), L-glutamine (improves recovery and aids in gut health). These are all great options to explore that can help your time in and out of the gym and aid in your general health, all while helping you hit that daily protein number.
GETTING IT IN
So now that you know how much we should be getting, you might be thinking how on earth do you get that much protein in in one day? Yeah. We hear you. Sometimes it can be a struggle, but here are some tips to help make it happen!
- Aim to have each of your 3 main meals contain about 30% of your daily total, and fill in the rest with snacks. And if you can’t hit that percetage at all 3 meals, try your best to make it happen at breakfast! Having a protein-heavy breakfast will ensure that your body doesn’t pull from it’s own muscle tissue for fuel after a night long fast, and it will also help keep you full for hours to come.
- Make most of your snacks protein based and hitting your daily number will be easier than you think. Things like jerky, hard boiled eggs, nuts, cold cuts, and Epic bars are all great things to throw in your lunchbox or purse and snack on throughout the day.
- Take advantage of your anabolic window! This period is the 30 minutes immediately following a workout, during which your body soaks up nutrients like a sponge. Be sure to eat 20g+ of protein immediately following your training session, to help aid in tissue repair and improve recovery. (Try to avoid fat with this meal as fat slows down the digestion and absorption of the protein). Throw a protein shake in your gym bag and drink up!
- Consider the supplements above. They can add as much as 35g of protein!
We hope that this helps you decide how much protein you need to help you hit your health and fitness goals! And remember that while protein is important, be sure that you're still making room for veggies and the other foods that help support your immune system and keep you healthy, so you can stay strong and keep kicking ass in and out of the gym!