Protein, carbohydrates and fats are the macro-nutrients and they are primarily what is determined following the estimation of total energy (calories) needs. Protein is one of the most important nutrients for the body, especially for active individuals. Studies have shown higher protein diets to be healthy and safe and typical recommendations lie between 1.4-2.0 grams per kilogram of BW for those that are exercising according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition. I tend to do well with higher protein diets and essentially plan my weekly meals around what protein I am going to cook. In that case, due to the fact that the majority of my training is with weightlifting, I stick with 2 grams per kg of BW. If I was doing more CrossFit style workouts revolving more around conditioning, interval work or aerobic based exercise, I may lower my protein consumption a bit to allow for more carbohydrate. Most recommendations suggest that lean meats are optimal, and more healthy. This I believe, is somewhat subjective. To me, it implies that fattier cuts of meat are not as healthy, or unhealthy which I would disagree with. Lean meats digest faster and are optimal in relation to the timing of workouts. It is also important to understand that the fattier cuts of meat will naturally increase your dietary fat intake, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing dependent on your needs. However, in relation to exercise, you may want to save the fatty meats to having either earlier or later in the day, well before or well after exercise due to their rate of digestion.
What is Good Quality Protein?
There are a couple basic criteria for determining what is ‘good quality protein’ that I am going to focus on for the basics. First, it is the amino acid content. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are essential to repair and rebuild skeletal muscle. Animal sources of protein are “complete” because they typically include a full selection of the nine essential amino acids, which are the important ones that are not able to be produced by the body. Plant sources do not contain all nine essential amino acids and are labeled; “incomplete”. Therefore, plant sources must be combined with other plant sources, i.e. legumes + nuts, to fulfill the ‘complete’ amino acid profile. In greater depth, of the essential amino acids listed above, leucine has shown to be the essential amino acid with the best ability to maintain a positive protein balance within the body. This would suggest that protein sources with the highest concentration of leucine, are of the best quality in accordance with the ISSN. The order of highest to lowest quality proteins as determined by leucine content is:
1. Dairy Proteins; Whey
2. Egg Proteins
3. Meat Proteins
4. Plant-based Proteins
Secondly, from a cooking standpoint, good quality proteins typically mean those that are local, sustainable, and humanely raised in their most natural environment. Take chicken for example. Chickens are meant to be free roaming, eating seeds, bugs, worms, grasses, etc. They are not meant to live their life, piled in cages that are stacked on top of one another, or in such cramped quarters that they are living in their own waste next to other dying or other already dead chickens. Yes, this is a bit more expensive for the consumer, but if most consumers cared more about their food and less about other material things (like the car, clothes, video games, shoes, etc.) society may just be a little bit healthier as a whole.
What About Grass Fed?
Yes, it’s natural and yes, it’s considered healthy. But, just because it is not 100% grass fed does NOT mean it’s unhealthy. On paper grass-fed/ grass-finished beef (or other red meat) has some minimal health benefits over the grain or corn fed counterparts. But, since most people only discuss the omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids as to which provides the better ratio, grass-fed tends to win. However, fish or fish oils are or should be used to make sure you are getting the recommended intake of omega 3’s, not just the idea of consuming grass-fed meat. Unfortunately with this, comes the assumption that if it’s not grass-fed, it’s poisonous! This is also untrue. I would suggest that it is largely up to personal preference when all else is taken into consideration, and it get’s back to the question of; is it local, sustainable and humanely raised. See this comparison between grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
In a practical application to lifestyle, it is recommended that people who regularly exercise get about 25-35 grams of good quality protein per meal for best results and body composition. By this recommendation, at roughly 230 lbs BW for myself, I already know I need to get around 210 grams of protein in using the 2 grams of protein per kg/BW, as mentioned above. Using the 210 grams of protein that I am taking, at 30 grams per serving, I would need seven servings, or six servings at 35 grams each. One ounce of cooked meat yields seven grams of protein, as does one egg. You can elaborate on the math as it pertains to your needs, but basically four or five eggs at a sitting, or a four to six ounce (usually more like an 8-10 ounce or more) piece of meat is accurate, as it pertains to my consumption. I will typically have the normal breakfast, lunch and dinner, which by the math above with 30-35 grams of protein per meal, equals 90-105 grams in total. Lets keep in mind that this is the protein from only sources of meat and eggs. I also eat; grains, nuts, cheese, milk, beans and legumes…all of which are sources of protein. Aside from that, I usually will have a couple protein shakes during the day as well, which will account for another 50-60 grams. The best practice would be to distribute the total protein throughout the day as evenly as possible to maintain (or improve) lean body composition and be sure to get one of the servings immediately following training or exercise, mixed with some carbohydrate like maltodextrine or dextrose.