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Protein, especially how much of it to eat, is a topic of hot debate in fitness and nutrition circles. Unfortunately, most of the discussion is geared towards men, specifically men interested in hypertrophy.
Women’s nutritional and fitness needs are different. While there are indeed some tough and incredible female bodybuilders going for big muscle mass gains, most of your female clients will have different goals. And that leaves women with a lot of questions trainers need to be ready to answer:
How much protein should I be eating?
Will too much protein make me bulkier or fat?
Is eating too much protein unhealthy?
Should I try a protein shake?
And so on; the questions are nearly endless. While we can’t answer all of them here, let us give you some of the most important information to pass on to your female clients who are confused about protein.
Protein is a macronutrient, one of three large molecules we get from food and need in large amounts. (The others are fat and carbohydrates.) We need to eat protein to maintain the structure of cells, hair, bones, and connective tissue; for enzymes that digest food; for antibodies that keep the immune system functioning; for muscle strength and muscle mass; and for energy. Each gram of protein you eat provides four calories of energy.
Protein molecules are made up of smaller components called amino acids. Amino acids link together to make long strands. These strands fold up to make large, three-dimensional structures that do everything from creating structural underpinnings in the body to catalyzing reactions and transporting other molecules within and between cells.
The body can make some amino acids; others it needs via the diet. The latter are called essential amino acids. There are nine essential amino acids in total, some of which include leucine, methionine, and tryptophan.
From babies to seniors and men and women, everyone needs to consume enough protein. Compared to men, though, women are more likely to consume a less-than-optimal amount. Make sure you and your female clients know just how important protein intake is. It does much more than aid in muscle growth.
Bodybuilders love protein. But don’t make the mistake of thinking eating an adequate amount of protein will bulk you up like a heavy lifter. They get those big, bulky muscles from protein and a lot of hard work.
Protein is an essential component of muscle tissue. Though, dietary protein will mostly go toward strengthening the muscle mass you already have. Protein in the diet builds lean muscle, the kind of muscle that gives women the bodies many of them crave: slender, tight, and lean.
The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn even while at rest. So, if protein helps with muscle growth, this can increase your calorie burn rate, resulting in greater weight loss.
Research also connects protein with a modest satiety effect. (1) People feel fuller after eating protein, in part, because satiety hormones increase after a high protein meal. When you aren’t fighting hunger cues, it’s easier to make healthier food choices. These healthier food choices make it easier to lose weight.
Weight loss is multifaceted. It involves making healthy food choices, such as eating more natural foods than processed foods, along with reducing sodium and added sugar intake. Consuming an adequate amount of protein is also important, with many studies connecting a higher protein intake with the ability to lose more weight.
One such study was published in 2021. It involved 60 obese women between the ages of 20 and 45. All of the subjects followed a low calorie diet. The intervention group also ate a diet high in protein. After eight weeks, the high protein group had greater weight loss. They also had greater reductions in body mass index and waist circumference. (2)
Another study involved 60 obese premenopausal women. For two months, some of these women followed a low calorie diet that included 30 grams of whey protein powder each day. The rest served as a control. Even though the group consuming whey protein powder didn’t lose more weight, they did have greater body fat loss. (3)
A 2020 study adds that women eating higher protein don’t lose as much handgrip strength in older age. As a result, researchers concluded that a high protein diet may aid in muscle strength maintenance in postmenopausal women. (4)
Being sick is no fun. To stay healthy, the immune system needs to function correctly. This requires protein. Antibodies, critical components of the immune system, are proteins. Avoiding the next cold going around feels great and helps you stick with your workouts.
Protein is structural. It provides the basic material for connective tissue, bones, hair, and nails. Bone health and density are essential for women, especially as they age. Getting enough protein can keep bones strong and minimize the density loss that comes with aging. It also keeps hair and nails looking healthy and strong.
Not all women need to closely monitor their daily protein intake. Counting can be helpful if your client has very specific fitness goals or struggles to balance macros or lose weight. For the rest of us, it may just take greater awareness to realize if we’re not getting enough protein-rich food:
Feeling unusually fatigued or weak
Brittle or damaged hair and nails, flaky skin
Being hungry a lot of the time
Getting sick a lot or staying sick longer than expected
Slow healing of wounds
Edema, swollen feet or hands
Check out this post on the ISSA blog about protein myths to learn more about this vital macronutrient and why it’s hard to get too much.
If you follow the government’s Recommended Daily Allowance or RDA for protein intake, you’ll fall short. This protein requirement—0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or around 48 grams per day for a typical woman—is just 10 percent of your daily calorie intake. Most of your calories would come from carbs and fat with this plan. Technically, it’s enough for anyone who is sedentary, but it’s far from ideal.
Most people go over the RDA. The average American consumes about 16% of daily calories in the form of protein. (5) According to the Protein Summit Report, this is not too much, and, in general, Americans eat too little protein. The report states that at least doubling the RDA is recommended and safe. (6)
One way to ensure you are getting adequate protein is to count the grams in everything you eat. Different sources have different recommendations, but generally, the minimum is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For women who are active or trying to lose weight, extra protein is better.
A good general guideline is 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
For a woman who weighs 150 pounds, this means eating between 80 and 136 grams of protein per day. The high end of this range is pretty extreme and only really necessary for any client doing a lot of strength training, preparing for fitness competitions, or who is a serious athlete. Experts recommend you don’t stay in that upper level indefinitely.
You may also want to consider counting your protein by balancing macros. Measuring protein as a percentage of your calorie intake is worthwhile. Eating the right amount of protein is about more than just protein. Macronutrients don’t exist separately; they interact with each other in the body. Getting the right balance is essential for health and hitting fitness and weight loss goals.
One way to determine the right balance of macronutrients is to look at body type. The percentages given here refer to the ratio of calories coming from a particular macronutrient:
Ectomorph. This body type is naturally thin because of a relatively high metabolic rate. Ectomorphs should aim for a ratio of 25% protein, 55% carbohydrates, and 20% fat.
Endomorph. Endomorph body type is naturally heavier with a slower metabolism. These clients should eat a ratio closer to 35% protein, 25% carbohydrates, and 40% fat.
Mesomorph. A mesomorph has an athletic body and easily builds lean muscle. A ratio of 30% protein, 40% carbs, and 30% fat is ideal.
Keep in mind that not everyone fits neatly into one body type category. But this is a good place to start for a female client who wants to consider all her macros. She can start with the guidelines for the body type she is closest to and adjust as needed for weight loss or maintenance, or muscle building.
Another important consideration is how to eat before and after exercise. A quick search of this topic will bring up a lot of conflicting answers as to what, how much, and when you should eat before and after working out. Generally, it’s a good idea to have a good mix of protein and carbs a couple of hours before exercise so that you have the energy to do it.
After a workout, many experts suggest consuming protein within a certain window of time. Again, there is debate and conflicting evidence about how long the window is and how important it is to get protein during it.
A good rule of thumb is to consume between 0.4 and 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight within a couple of hours of a training session.
Because the evidence from research is mixed, don’t get too bent out of shape trying to figure out specifics of eating protein after a workout. What is clear is that the overall protein you consume in a day is more important to muscle and fitness gains than timing protein consumption.
Yes, it is possible to eat too much protein. There is a dangerous level. The liver and the kidneys will suffer if you eat more than they can handle. The liver breaks down and makes new proteins. The kidneys process protein as part of waste disposal and urine production.
The most protein these organs can handle is about 3.5 to 4.5 grams per kilogram of weight. This translates to 238 to 306 grams of protein in a day for a 150-pound woman. While the kidneys and liver can technically process this much, it stresses the organs and can cause harm and damage. Eating this much is strongly discouraged.
Signs of eating too much protein include constipation or diarrhea, dehydration, bad breath, and weight gain. Potential health risks include kidney and liver damage and even loss of calcium, negatively impacting bone strength.
It’s always important to talk to your clients about existing health issues before recommending diet plans. Anyone with kidney problems, past or present, may need to eat less protein than healthy individuals and be sure they’ve checked in with their doctor.
When choosing protein foods, it is essential to consider amino acids. Remember that there are nine essential amino acids that we need to eat because our bodies cannot make them from other molecules. All animal sources of protein provide these critical components. Thus, they are referred to as a complete protein. Plant proteins are mostly not complete, but they can be combined to include all nine.
For women looking to eat a healthy diet and consume adequate protein, variety is important. If you get protein from many different types of food, you’ll hit all the bases and get all the essential amino acids. Some foods that are particularly high in protein, with all essential amino acids, include (7):
Three ounces of skinless chicken – 28 grams
Three ounces of steak – 26 grams
Three ounces of turkey – 25 grams
Three ounces of tuna or salmon – 22 grams
Three ounces of shrimp – 20 grams
Six ounces of Greek yogurt – 18 grams
Four ounces of one percent fat cottage cheese – 14 grams
One ounce of soy nuts – 12 grams
These are high-protein foods, but nearly all foods have protein. Just one fist-sized serving of broccoli, for instance, has three grams of protein. A one-ounce serving of nuts or seeds has between four and seven grams of protein. A cup of brown rice has more than five grams of protein. Include a variety of meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and plant-based foods to meet your protein needs.
A lot of proteins are animal based. This includes meat and eggs. Dairy products are as well as they contain whey protein. Whey protein supplements come in three different forms:
Whey concentrate. This is the form of whey protein often found in protein powders, bars, and shakes. Most labels will specifically call out this protein type (i.e., being labeled as a whey protein powder).
Whey isolate. A whey protein isolate has less fat and lactose than a whey concentrate. That makes this a better option for people who are lactose intolerant. Since it does still contain some lactose, it isn’t recommended for someone with a milk allergy.
Whey hydrolysate. This whey protein is easier to digest. However, you aren’t likely to see it in a protein powder or other supplement as it is typically used in infant formula.
Casein protein is another protein powder that is animal based. This protein is found in cow’s milk, accounting for around 80% of its content. (The other 20% is whey protein.)
If you follow a plant based diet, there are numerous vegan protein options. Plant proteins include:
Brown rice protein
Sunflower seed protein
Pumpkin seed protein
You can add these proteins to your diet by mixing them into your foods and beverages. Pea protein powder is a good addition to smoothies, for instance. You might add hemp protein to your baked goods or include it in your homemade protein bars.
Vegetarians can get all the essential amino acids from dairy and eggs, but vegans must meet protein needs entirely from plants. This is possible but requires a little more thought.
A good general rule for getting all the essential amino acids is to balance the intake of legumes, like beans, lentils, and peas, with whole grains. Together, these plant-based protein sources provide complete proteins. Variety is especially important for eaters consuming primarily plant protein.
Another way to get protein is through a dietary supplement, although whole foods should always be the primary nutrients in a healthy diet. A protein supplement is just that, meant to supplement a diet. Your client may benefit from supplements if she struggles to get enough protein for various reasons: limited time to cook, not motivated to cook, or a vegan diet.
Some protein supplements you can recommend include whey protein or casein powders. Pea protein, hemp protein, or rice protein powder are options for vegans. There are also more specialized supplements, like branched-chain amino acids, for clients trying to restrict calories or meet specific training goals.
There is no one “best protein powder” for weight loss. Instead, it is more about picking the best protein powder for you. Factors to consider include:
Other product ingredients. Look for products without added sugar or artificial sweeteners. Instead, choose ones with natural sweeteners. Fruit extract and stevia are good options.
Stay under 150 calories per serving. Increase your calorie intake too much and it can lead to weight gain—even if those calories are protein.
Protein powder flavor. If you’re new to using protein powder, it can take some time to get used to the taste. Try different flavors to find the ones that you enjoy most.
Consuming high amounts of protein is not recommended for everyone. This includes individuals with compromised kidney function. Clients with health conditions should check with their healthcare provider, dietitian, or nutritionist to ensure that this type of diet is safe for them.
Protein can be confusing for your clients, especially women because most research and discussion are geared toward men. Help your female clients by providing this important information about how, when, what, and how much protein to eat for health, body composition, strength, and fitness.
Interested in offering your clients expert nutrition advice? Look into ISSA’s Nutritionist Certification course.
By becoming an ISSA Nutritionist, you'll learn the foundations of how food fuels the body, plus step by step methods for implementing a healthy eating plan into clients' lifestyles.
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Yılmaz, S. K., Eskici, G., Mertoǧlu, C., & Ayaz, A. (2021). Effect of different protein diets on weight loss, inflammatory markers, and cardiometabolic risk factors in obese women. Journal of Research in Medical Sciences: The Official Journal of Isfahan University of Medical Sciences, 26, 28. https://doi.org/10.4103/jrms.JRMS_611_20
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