Protein 101: An Introduction to Protein for Women

We see the word “protein” everywhere these days – from the gym to your Cheerio’s box – the word seems to be in vogue lately. The Protein Bar restaurant chain is expanding like crazy in the city and curated images of protein pancakes are lighting up my Instagram feed. People like talking about protein as much as they like talking about gluten-free diets and the dangers of carbohydrates. There’s a sea of information out there (not to mention very appealing recipes on Pinterest), but if you’re like me, it’s hard to know where to begin and which sources to trust.

Today I’m going to try* to get us some answers. The internet is a very scary and confusing place sometimes. When I googled “the importance of protein post-workout,” I was met with the following two articles in a row: “The Importance of Drinking a Protein Shake Immediately After a Workout” and “Why You Really Don’t Need A Post-Workout Protein Shake.” There are plenty of ongoing protein debates and everybody’s needs are different. For the purposes of this post – I’m going to start with just the basics.

So let’s crack the code on protein for women: what it does for you, how much you really need, and how and when you should be taking it.

*Disclaimer: I am no scientist. I am no expert here. The last nutrition class I took was my freshman year of college and I may or may not have skipped a few of the lectures in favor of naps. This post is a collection of information I have accumulated throughout the past few years and from various research I have done while trolling the internet. Feel free to add any additional knowledge, thoughts or feedback in the comments here – especially those that can be beneficial for others.

What does protein do for me?

I’m fairly certain my brain eliminated almost all scientific knowledge I once had in order to create room for other important things like learning the new Taylor Swift lyrics. The first thing I needed to understand was what protein really does for our bodies. Our bodies use protein to build and repair tissues. Parts of us, including our hair and nails, are made up of proteins. A protein is a molecule made up of amino acids. Think of the amino acids as lego pieces – building blocks to creating your magnificent body. There are 22 amino acids(/lego blocks) and 8 of them are essential to us but are not produced in our body. Proteins build, protect and maintain our bodies. I guess you can say that protein is pretty important – there is no debate there.

When should I take protein?

When and how you consume protein is a personal preference. I never used to consume protein shakes post-workout, but after I tried a Muscle Milk Light after a half marathon two years ago, I’ve become a dedicated fan of the idea. My legs used to be out of commission for a day or two post-long run. Now I find that if I have a quick drink of a protein shake after a long day of running I recover significantly faster. The combination of quick carbs and easily digestible protein to repair my muscles has forever changed my recovery process. Protein powders that contain whey, rice or pea protein digest relatively quickly, making them great for a post-workout or post-run recovery.

We’ve all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and there is research to back up the benefits of eating protein in the morning. According to a study by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating a higher-protein breakfast can reduce appetite throughout the day and actually help you lose weight. In too much of a rush to prepare a huge breakfast? Try grabbing some Greek yogurt on the go. I use a microwaveable egg boiler to quickly cook up some hard-boiled eggs while I get ready in the morning.

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How much protein do I need?

According to the Institute of Medicine, you should get at least 10% (but no more than 35%) of your daily calories from protein. The amount we all need varies on our weight and activity level, but the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 46 grams of protein per day for women 19-70+ years old. The dietary reference intake suggestions about .36 grams of protein per pound in weight. If you are trying to build muscle or working out often, your protein intake should increase accordingly.

There are debates about how much protein the body can absorb at one time. Studies have shown that there is no additional benefit to consuming more than 20g of protein after a workout. However, another study conducted by the Human Nutrition Research Center found no difference between a group of women who consumed most of their protein in one meal each day as opposed to a group of women who consumed most of their protein throughout the day in separate meals. Lesson learned? The when’s and how’s are still up for debate, but you still need to consume your protein each day!

Which foods pack the most protein?

I often think of meat when I think of protein, but protein has many (delicious) sources. Meats such as chicken, beef and pork are great options for omnivores, but be smart about your meat selection. Try to purchase lean meats and fresh is better than frozen. Salmon, tuna and tilapia (23, 25 and 21 g of protein per 3 oz serving, respectively) are protein-rich and common seafood options. If you eat diary, greek yogurt, cottage cheese and milk are good sources of protein. Packed with amino acids and 6 g of protein each, eggs are a great muscle-food. Non meat-eaters can get their daily fill of protein from edamame, green peas, quinoa, lentils and almonds.

Protein is popular and omnipresent – making it easier than ever to grab a protein-packed granola bar on the way out the door to make sure we are getting enough. When making protein choices, make sure to read your labels – sometimes brands sneak in additives you would rather do without (is 2 more grams of protein worth 10 more grams of sugar?).

It is also important to note that protein from different sources of foods are absorbed differently; variety is something to take into consideration. For example, 10 grams of protein from a meat source absorbs very differently than 10 grams of protein from soy, eggs or milk.

What about protein powders? Are those a good idea? What type would work best for me?

I’m personally a fan of protein powders. They are a fast and easy protein source after a tough workout or to grab, shake and go in the morning when I hit the snooze button a few too many times. However, protein powders and shakes are best in supplement, not in place of, a diet of protein-rich whole foods. Proteins that take longer to digest (such as casein and hemp) are better to taken at night. Proteins that digest quickly (such as whey, rice and pea) are great options post-workout to help repair muscle tissue. Whey and casein proteins are both derived from milk.

Egg protein has a concentrated amount of essential amino acids and is closest to consuming whole food, but has a moderate speed of digestion so it might not be ideal post-workout but better between meals or before bed. Soy has a similar speed of digestion and is a plant-based option for vegetarians. If you choose to incorporate a protein powder in your diet, there are a lot of individual preferences to take into consideration.

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But won’t I bulk up?

Just because you do a few deadlifts and add a bit more protein to your diet doesn’t mean you are going to bulk up like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the mid-80s. In fact, adding a little more strength training and lean protein will likely accentuate your natural feminine curves. You are NOT going to accidentally wake up jacked – honestly, the idea of that happening is mainly hilarious and somewhat insulting to female bodybuilders everywhere.

That kind of work takes a lot of time, effort and intention and requires a discipline to say “no” to pizza more often than I am capable of. Strong is the new skinny, people. The idea of being a strong woman (both mentally and physically) is empowering. Embrace it.

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About Cass Gunderson

Cass hails from the southwest suburbs as a proud White Sox fan and a graduate of University of Illinois. By day, Cass is a full-time student at the University of Chicago's Booth Graduate Business School. Before deciding to throw away all her money to go back to school, Cass worked for a private equity firm that buys technology companies. Raised as the youngest in a family of older brothers, Cass grew up a tomboy and remains active in sports. To her mother’s satisfaction, Cass learned how to embrace her feminine side in college and has developed an interest for fitness activities that require spandex as opposed to knee-length basketball shorts. In her spare time, she runs a lot because it is cheaper than paying for real therapy. Cass has completed four marathons and one ultramarathon (she claims she'll never do this to herself again, but that's TBD). She can still be found on the basketball courts in Lincoln Park wearing knee-length basketball shorts.