When You Should Follow a High-Protein Diet

high-protein diet

You likely know that protein is an integral part of nutrition. It’s more than necessary– it’s essential. How much protein you need depends on many factors, such as age, sex, and activity level. Then there are times when a high protein diet is necessary, including for those with a high activity level, trying to lose weight, and anyone over 50. 

Proteins are the building blocks of your body, but your body does not absorb protein when you eat it. Instead, it’s broken down into its amino acids, transported through the bloodstream, and rebuilt in your hair, skin, nails, bones, and muscle tissue. Your diet is the only way to ensure your body is getting enough protein to rebuild and make new cells. 

I will tell you more about when you should eat a high-protein diet, the benefits of protein, what makes a complete protein, and how to determine how much protein you should eat. First, let me tell you about the best sources of protein. 

Table of Contents

The Best Sources of Protein

I’m not going to make any friends in the vegan or vegetarian communities with this statement, but the best source of high protein is from animals, and it’s not even close. 

Complete vs. Incomplete Protein

For starters, animal protein is a complete protein. That means it contains all nine essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are those only found in food and are not naturally produced in your body.[1]https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002222.htm The nine essential amino acids include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Plant-based protein sources, such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds, are often incomplete. However, combining different plant-based protein sources makes it possible to obtain a complete protein. For example, combining rice with beans or lentils, or eating hummus with whole-grain pita bread, can provide a complete protein.[2]https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7760812/

Having a complete protein in your diet is vital because it ensures you get all the essential amino acids your body needs to function. A diet lacking complete proteins can lead to protein deficiency, which can cause muscle wasting, fatigue, hormone imbalance, and other health problems.[3]https://www.health.com/nutrition/signs-not-eating-enough-protein

high protein - infographic - Very Well Wellness

High Protein Content

Another reason animal protein is superior to plant protein is the amount of protein content. For example, one 4-ounce serving of pork contains 29.4 grams of protein. In contrast, one half-cup of chickpeas contains 7.25 grams. 

Peanuts and almonds are two plant-protein sources that contain high protein. One cup of peanuts contains 20 grams of protein, while almonds provide 16.5 grams per half-cup. Nut butter is also high in protein, but many have added sugars

Tofu, a popular meat substitute, contains 10 grams of protein per serving. However, it’s essential to consider that tofu is made from soybeans, which is inflammatory in some people

Chicken, beef, and fish are also high-protein foods that pack a punch. Four ounces of chicken contains 23.5 grams of protein, while salmon (22g) and beef (25.6g) pack a protein punch. In the battle between animal and plant protein, animal protein is the undisputed winner. 

As a sports nutritionist, I recommend a diet with animal protein as your primary source of protein. It should also come from organic sources when possible. At the very least, it should be grass-fed or have outdoor access. This ensures its free of antibiotics, GMOs, and pesticides.[4]https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2013/05/17/organic-101-can-gmos-be-used-organic-products

Be Careful with Whey Protein

Whey protein is protein from cow’s dairy and contains the protein casein. In most cases, the whey protein separates from the casein protein in cow’s milk. However, whey only makes up 20% of the protein in milk. The other 80% is casein. 

While whey protein has many benefits, it could do you more harm than good if you have a dairy intolerance.

Whey protein also contains lactose, a sugar in milk that many people become intolerant to as they age. As a matter of fact, I tell all of my clients to remove dairy from their diets. This includes whey protein because regardless of how hard manufacturers try, there’s no way to guarantee your whey protein is lactose-free.[5]https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/whey-protein-isolate-vs-concentrate#TOC_TITLE_HDR_3

Furthermore, too much whey protein has been found to cause long-term kidney damage over a period of time.[6]https://www.thehealthyjournal.com/faq/why-do-doctors-not-recommend-whey-protein

That’s not to say you cannot use whey protein or plant protein as your food source of protein. However, animal protein is superior if you need a high-protein diet. Let’s discuss why you would want to eat a high-protein diet. 

Why You Would Need a High Protein Diet

The need for a high-protein diet is more than just a one-size-fits-all methodology. No two bodies are the same, and depending on various factors such as age, sex, and activity level, you could need more or less. 

For example, if you are active, you need more protein. If you are over the age of 50, you need to be eating high protein. If you are in your 20s or early 30s and live a sedentary lifestyle, you likely don’t need as much protein. 

Something to note: After 30, your body begins to lose 3% to 5% of muscle mass per decade due to low testosterone or hormone levels, insufficient protein intake, and poor absorption due to lifestyle factors such as smoking or drinking alcohol in excess.[7]https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/preserve-your-muscle-mass Here are five reasons you’d want to consume high protein:[8]https://connect.aacp.org/blogs/stephen-moser1/2020/12/17/reasons-you-should-eat-more-protein

  1. You exercise more than three times a week: Athletes, bodybuilders, and other highly active individuals benefit from high protein intake to support muscle growth, repair, and recovery.
  2. You are over 60: As we age, we may experience muscle loss, also known as sarcopenia. High protein intake may help prevent or slow down this process.
  3. You want to lose weight: High protein intake may help reduce appetite, promote feelings of fullness, and promote weight loss.
  4. You are recovering from an injury or surgery: Protein is essential for tissue repair and recovery, making it necessary for those recovering from an injury or surgery.
  5. You’re pregnant or breastfeeding: Protein is essential for the growth and development of the fetus and infant.

It’s important to note that excessive protein intake can harm some individuals, such as those with kidney disease. Therefore, consult your doctor or a dietician if you have kidney disease before consuming high protein. 

So, how much protein do you need? There’s an easy formula to determine how much protein you should eat.

How to Determine Your Protein Needs

There are two methods to determine how much protein you should eat. The first method is to determine your calorie needs, which is the method you should use if you exercise regularly or are active. It may not seem very easy, but it’s pretty simple. 

Determine your basal metabolic rate (BMR) for daily calorie needs. This is the amount of energy your body needs when resting. 

  • For an adult male: 66+(6.3 x body weight) + (12.9 x height in inches) – (6.8 x range in years) = BMR
  • For an adult female: 66+(4.3 x body weight) + (4.7 x height in inches) – (4.7 x range in years) = BMR

After you figure out your BMR, you can determine your calorie needs to give your body enough energy to perform daily tasks, such as breathing, sleeping, or going to the bathroom. To determine total calorie needs, multiply your BMR by your activity level, which is how many calories you need daily. 

  • Sedentary (little to no exercise): BMR x 1.2 
  • Light activity (1-3 days/week): BMR x 1.375 
  • Moderate activity (3-5 days/week): BMR x 1.55
  • Very active (6-7 days/week): BMR x 1.725

The USDA Recommendation Isn’t Enough

Anywhere from 10% to 35% of your calories should come from protein. So if your needs are 2,000 calories, that’s 200–700 calories from protein or 50–175 grams.[9]https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/hometown-health/speaking-of-health/are-you-getting-too-much-protein However, this is the minimum amount the USDA recommends to prevent disease. To get the full benefits of high protein, you need more. 

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends eating 1.2-1.7 grams of protein per kg of body weight daily to build lean muscle mass.[10]https://www.acsm.org/

The Benefits of Protein

As I mentioned, protein is the building block of your body. It’s found in your hair, skin, and nails as collagen protein. It’s located in your muscles, organs, and bones. And it makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions in your body and oxygen-carrying hemoglobins.[11]https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/ 

Your body is constantly breaking down and rebuilding all of its cells. It performs this job with the amino acids in complete proteins. Here are some of the benefits of protein:

  1. Builds and repairs tissues: Protein is a building block of muscles, bones, skin, and other tissues. It helps repair and rebuild damaged tissues.
  2. Promotes enzyme and hormone production: Enzymes and hormones are essential for many bodily functions, and proteins play a crucial role in their production.
  3. Facilitates an immune system response: Proteins are involved in producing antibodies, which help fight against infections and diseases.
  4. Supports growth and development: Protein is necessary for the growth and development of children and adolescents.
  5. Promotes weight loss: Protein promotes feelings of fullness and reduces appetite, which can aid in weight management.
  6. Helps maintain muscle mass: Protein is vital for preserving muscle mass, especially in older adults who may experience muscle loss with age.
  7. Supports healthy skin, hair, and nails: Proteins are a vital component of skin, hair, and nails and help keep them healthy and strong.
  8. Promotes heart health: High-protein diets have been shown to improve cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and reduce the risk of heart disease.

Final Thoughts on High-Protein Diets

As a sports nutritionist, I cannot recommend eating high-protein foods for every meal enough. As I stated earlier, animal protein is the best source of protein due to its high protein content, and it takes out the guessing game of whether or not you are getting a complete protein.

Your body needs protein to be healthy. You need high-protein if you are over 50 to promote declining muscle mass due to your age. If you’re active, you need it for faster recovery, repairing damaged muscle tissue, and promoting hormone production. 

If you want to learn more about why you may need a high-protein diet and how to optimize your nutrition through The Living Very Well Method™, let me help. Schedule a free discovery call, and let me help you get on the path of Living Very Well™.

About Michael
About Michael

Michael is a functional health coach and sports nutritionist based in Austin, Texas. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Texas and advanced certification in sports nutrition from the International Society of Sports Nutrition.