The Ultimate Beginner's Guide to Protein

Protein is one of the three macronutrient essential to building muscle mass. In this complete guide to protein you will learn just about everything you need to know about this powerful macronutrient

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    Diet and nutrition are historically a controversial topic, and for obvious reasons. Results vary, preferences differ, studies change and reveal new information, and frankly, some people simply choose to believe what they want to believe.

    The archives of nutrition, however, tell a consistent story about macronutrients and its corresponding importance to our health. If you don’t know what macronutrients are, there are three: Protein, Fat, and Carbohydrate.

    (unlike micronutrients like vitamins and minerals that are only consumed in very small portions and can be stored in the body, macronutrients like protein needs to be repeatedly and constantly consumed through foods and supplementation).

    In this beginners guide to protein, you’ll learn everything you need to know about Protein; from what it is, how our bodies use it, and what benefits it provides, to more specific detailed topics like how much you need, who needs it most, and what protein-based products to avoid.

    So, whether you’re an elite athlete or beginner to the gym, pursuing any type of health and fitness body weight goal, or you’re simply trying to become a healthier, happier YOU through a diet and lifestyle shift, this article is for you.

    Keep reading this impartial guide to protein to learn everything you’ll need to know about the macronutrient: protein.

    What is Protein?

    As mentioned above in this beginners guide to protein, proteins have been a part of the nutrition archives for as far back as history takes us; they are, in fact, the building blocks of life whether you’re a fully developed human, or your a microscopic bacteria at the bottoms of the ocean. Protein is all around us, contained in everything that we eat in various quantities, and provides us with the nutrients we need to thrive, survive, and drive towards our health and fitness goals.

    Throughout this article, we will be discussing protein as if it were a singular nutrient for simplicity sake. However, in the most complex of scientific explanations, protein actually comes in many forms, millions of forms in fact. Without getting into too much detail for now, proteins are the most complex of molecules in the human body, being made up of up to 2000 different amino acids, containing 20 essential amino acids, and containing numerous properties essential for human life.

    To give protein a proper concise definition, protein is an organic compound consisting of essential and non-essential amino acids, and is one of three macronutrients necessary for our bodies to function and survive. Protein is made up of the following:

    • Cartilage/tendons/ligaments (i.e. collagen)

    • Muscular components of contraction (actin and myosin)

    • Keratin (substance based on skin, hair and nails)

    • Blood proteins

    • Enzymes

    • Hormones

    • Antibodies

    • Cell Structures

    While this information isn’t important to know unless you’re taking a biology class, the takeaway here is that protein is truly the building blocks of our body. Its no wonder body builders heavily rely on it to build lean muscle mass!

    Because protein is a macronutrient, that means that we consume large quantities of it daily (unlike micronutrients like vitamins and minerals that we only need small quantities of daily). It’s found in most foods that we consume today, from meats, nuts and seeds, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains, to even more processed foods like cereals, energy bars, and more.

    It goes without saying that quantities largely vary throughout said food options. In other words, meat, for example, contains high amounts of protein, while grains are largely made up of carbs, though they do contain small amounts of protein as well.

    Below is a list of foods that contain high amounts of protein source:

    – meat and poultry (approx. 6-9g/oz)

    – Fish (approx. 5-8g/oz)

    – Dairy, eggs, and cheese (eggs contain 6g/egg)

    – Nuts and seeds (4-8g per half cup)

    – Fruits and vegetables (1-2g/oz)

    – Beans (approx. 8g per half cup)

    The reason a daily intake of adequate protein is so important to include in healthy qualities in your diet is because it’s the only way we can get it; food and supplementation. In other words, unlike fats and carbs which can be stored later for energy, protein can’t be stored in our bodies.

    Protein Utilization

    As you can become to realize from reading through this guide to protein so far, protein plays a large role in our daily lives. In biological terms, it allows us to have healthy oxygen flow throughout our bodies; it helps repair muscle tissue and repair muscle fibres; and it produces and elicits hormone responses. In short, protein is fundamentally necessary for our bodies at large, including but not limited to our skin, hair, and nails, as well as our organs, blood, muscles, and bones.

    Eating protein is so vital, in fact, that it also allows us to fight disease and avoid infection. How? Simply put, the antibodies that act as our body’s defence mechanism are primarily made up of protein.

    All for protein sources receiving a Nobel Prize, say Yay!

    So, that’s great – protein sources are the building blocks of our bodies and plays a crucial role in our bodily biological processes. But if you’re like most, you likely are care about one of two things when it comes to protein, health, and fitness: Muscle growth, and/or losing weight.

    If this is you, keep reading!

    When you consume quality protein, whether from whole foods, or from supplementation, a process called protein synthesis occurs. What is protein synthesis, you ask? In short, it’s a process whereby the amino acids of protein help to build new lean muscle mass. By consuming a protein supplement, for example, right after your workout, this process becomes activated thereby increasing the amino acids in your blood, ultimately stimulating rapid muscle protein synthesis.

    The result? Lean muscle mass.

    Dietary Protein Benefits

    If you pay attention to the health and fitness industry, you likely think of protein is the gym-bros form of candy who love lifting weights. In other words, you may associate protein with big muscles and alpha-males. While this does have some merit to it, it’s largely a naive way of thinking of protein.

    Instead, protein hosts an endless plethora of benefits, from the aforementioned of muscle growth, to assisting in weight-loss, fending off infection and more.

    Below is a list of notable benefits of dietary protein intake:

    – Helps build and repair muscle tissue

    – Assists in weight-loss and fat reduction

    – Boosts metabolism

    – Improves bone health

    – Increases immunity and fends of disease and infection

    – Reduces food cravings and appetite

    – Promotes childhood development

    – Transports oxygen and vital molecules throughout the body for proper function

    – And more…

    As you can decipher, consuming a high-protein diet can not only assist in your muscle building goals, but can also help reduce body fat in combination. Because high-protein foods typically contain low amounts of fat and carbs, and because it inherently kills cravings and reduces appetite, protein acts as the ultimate tool for health and wellness.

    Can You Consume Too Much Protein?

    If you aren’t already, hopefully after reading this beginners guide to protein you’ll decide to consume sufficient amounts of quality protein and include it as a staple in your diet going forward. With that said, this still begs the question of whether or not you can consume too much protein and go overboard.

    First, we need to take a look at the data and see how much protein is sufficient for the daily recommendation. In short, the recommended dietary allowance, or RDA, is set at a range of 0.8g/kg of bodyweight to 1.5g/kg of bodyweight depending on your age, weight, height, activity level, and fitness goals.

    Here’s a quick note on general guideline to protein intake when it comes to age:

    • Under 18: 0.8 grams per pound of body weight

    • 19-40: 1.0 grams per pound of body weight

    • 41-65: 1.1-1.3 grams per pound of body weight

    • Over 65: 1.3-1.5 grams per pound of body weight

    As you can see, the older you get, the more protein your body needs to repair and function properly. This is in large part due to a general loss of strength, mobility, and muscle/bone mass, among other things. In fact, one of the most common problems among the elderly is a deterioration of muscle tissue. By consuming sufficient amount of foods high in protein, one can reduce, and potentially reverse this problem. The same goes for weight; the heavier you are, the more protein your body requires, generally speaking.

    Now that you know what a healthy recommendation of dietary protein intake looks like, it’s time to see whether or not one can consume too much dietary protein.

    While there have certainly been studies done on the subject concluding that one can, in fact, consume too much protein resulting in stomach discomfort, bowel issues, and even more serious health risks like kidney damage and bone depletion, the majority of this data has since been discredited by the health and medical community at large.

    With that being said, that doesn’t mean the consuming too much protein is inherently a good thing, nor a more effective approach if you will. After all, although it may not hurt, per se, to consume more than the RDA, it likely doesn’t help either.

    In summary, it seems as though consuming too much protein is likely a non-factor when it comes to potential health consequences. However, it does seem that consuming more protein than what it necessary can certainly occur. This would, for obvious reasons, result in an increase on food expenses, a reduction of consumption of other healthy food options due to satiety from an increase in protein intake, and it may in some cases even cause minimal stomach discomfort.

    A simple approach? Begin with the minimum RDA and slowly increase your intake from there. While this is somewhat of a trial and error strategy of sorts, it’s likely the most effective strategy we can implement.

    Cases Where You May Need to Consume More Than the Average:

    – If you’re an athlete or competitor

    – If you weigh more than the average individual (typically if you’re a Male)

    – If your level of activity is more than average (due to job duties, etc.)

    – If you’re trying to build more muscle or loss more weight

    – If you’re an elderly individual

    The rule of thumb here is really just to increase the amount of dietary protein you consume with the level of activity and intensity in which you partake. In other words, the more activity you do, the more protein you should consume.

    Protein Supplementation

    While many have the preconceived notion that protein is protein, no matter where you get it from. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. When it comes to protein, there is most certainly a spectrum when it comes to quality.

    The good news is that most people can get a sufficient amount of adequate protein from food alone. The issue arises when the amount of food required becomes too expensive, too inconvenient, or too much to eat. This is where supplementation of protein can help.

    Protein supplementation comes in many forms, from whey protein shakes, to powders, and even bars. These methods of supplementation aren’t the highest quality source of protein, however, when it comes to convenience and consumption, these are king.

    With respect to protein bars itself, if you’re not familiar with them you may be wondering how a candy bar can be healthy. While some protein bars on the market are certainly direct competitors to the classic candy bar industry, more sustainable brands have taken the innovative approach to developing healthier alternatives. When choosing the right bar, be sure to look at the ingredient list, and choose those of the highest-quality of protein. In addition, seek out those with fewer calories, fewer carbs, and fewer fats.

    Don’t fall trap to the industry and begin consuming candy bars masked as high quality protein rich bars. Instead, do your research, and invest in your health by choosing the healthier option. Heck, if you’re prepared to take initiative, you can even make your own with just a few simple ingredients!

    To summarize, if you’re on a tighter budget, in a rush and constantly on-the-go, or simply want to ensure you get enough protein overall but don’t want to consume more food, consider supplementing with protein shakes – it’s you’re next best option.

    Types of Protein Powder

    As mentioned in this guide to protein already, there are a number of different ways one can supplement protein. The most common of those is protein powders. Within the category of protein powder, there are a number of different types of protein one can choose from, each with different intentions and benefits.

    Let’s get into it, shall we?!

    As mentioned earlier, protein powders are a great way to consume high quality protein rich food quickly and easily. The best part is that there are such a variety of powders on the market that tend to every dietary preference, allergy, and desired flavour, no one is missing out.

    While not all types of protein are created equal, each protein variety offers a unique offering with potential benefits to boast.

    Whey Protein Concentrate

    Whey concentrate is the most common choice for protein powder supplements. Why? At its most basic, it’s typically the highest of quality whey protein source that mixes easily with any liquid, and it is known to absorb the fastest. Not to mention, it’s typically the easiest of products to find. Lastly, Whey concentrate is versatile in that it can be taken before or after a workout, or even as a midday snack of sorts.

    Whey Protein Isolate

    Whey isolate is concentrates biggest competition. It absorbs just as quickly, and provides the same versatility in that it can be taken pre or post workout. Isolate is among the lowest of calories when it comes to protein powders.

    Whey Hydrolysate

    Whey Hydrolysate is the least common of whey protein forms, though it to absorbs quite conveniently and acts as a great tool to repair and achieve muscle gain as well as rebuilding muscle tissue.

    Casein

    Casein is going to be your go to when it comes to evening/night time protein intake. Why is this? Casein is a slower digesting protein source, which results in slower absorption times. While Whey absorbs within 20 minutes, casein can take up to 4 hours. For obvious reasons, casein is the optimal choice for night-time recovery.

    Vegan Protein (Pea Protein)

    While there are a number of vegan protein powder options on the market today, pea protein may be the most common plant based sources. Even if you’re not vegan, it’s a great option if you’re lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy in any way. While it may not provide you with all essential amino acids, it’s obviously a great, healthy option for those that can’t consume whey, dairy, or casein. Other forms of vegan protein are: rice, soy, and other plant based protein powders.

    Below are some of the most common, popular, and healthy vegan plant based protein sources and their corresponding protein content value:

    – Tempeh: 17 grams per 1/2 cup

    – Tofu: 9 grams/3 oz.

    – Soy milk: 7 grams/1 cup

    – Quinoa: 8 grams/1 cup

    – Rice: 6.5 grams/1 cup

    – Oats: 6 grams/1 cup

    – Spinach: 4 grams per 1/2 cup

    – Brussels sprouts: 3 grams per 1/2 cup

    – Lentils: 18 grams/1 cup

    – Chickpeas: 11 grams/1 cup

    – Black beans: 14 grams/1 cup

    – Hemp seeds: 6 grams/2 tablespoons

    – Almonds: 9 grams/1.5 oz.

    – Cashews: 8 grams/1.5 oz.

    – Peanut butter: 8 grams/2 tablespoons

    Protein Powder Frequently Asked Questions

    In this section, we’ll be reviewing some of the most commonly asked questions regarding protein and protein powders, whether it’s safe and effective, and in what cases it may not be.

    As a disclaimer, these questions and answers are of a general speaking nature and do not go for all situations and circumstances. Nonetheless, these are the most common questions regarding said topic and the answers that accompany them are appropriate for the majority.

    Let’s get right into it!

    Is Protein Powder Healthy?

    Likely the most common of common questions regarding protein powder is whether or not it’s a healthy alternative. The answer? Not so simple.

    Protein Powder is a means of supplementing so to get enough protein from real, whole foods. This could be for convenience purposes, or it could be to avoid eating more food. Whatever the case, supplementation is just that – a supplement. It is not and never should be your first choice.

    Nonetheless, if you are to supplement for the right reasons, then yes, protein powder is generally healthy all things considered (that is if you purchase the right one – after all, there all garbage products on the market that you need to look out for too). In fact, supplementing with a daily high protein shake could be the exact thing you’ve been missing for optimal results and performance!

    If you’re still uncertain on whether or not protein powder is healthy, ask yourself this: Do I need it? If the answer is yes for any reason at all, it’s likely the right choice. In addition, when you’ve decided that you will in fact supplement with protein powders, be sure to read the labels! Not all supplement companies are as transparent as they seem.

    For obvious reasons, avoid those that contain fillers, preservatives, and sugars.

    Is Protein Powder Safe?

    While this question goes hand-in-hand with the question above to some degree (because if something is generally healthy, then it’s by logic generally safe as well), those that ask it are typically referring to questions of more specificity (i.e. safe for children, safe during pregnancy, etc.).

    So let’s get specific.

    When it comes to children, the question shouldn’t be whether or not it’s safe. To quickly answer that, yes, for generally healthy children with no allergies or health complications, whey protein powder does not provide any inherent risk. The question you should be asking yourself, however, is whether or not it’s necessary for a child to supplement with types of protein powder, or any supplement for that matter.

    In short, the obvious recommendation here would be to provide the child with a well-balanced diet of whole foods the majority of the time. With that said, if you do decide to allow your child to have a shake every now and then, it will not hurt them.

    When it comes to pregnancy’s, safety should be the least of your concerns. Why? Because it can actually be quite beneficial, not only for the fetas, but for the mother carrying as well! With that being said, it’s important to insert a disclaimer here. Because everyone is different, it’s vital to consult with your medical professional prior to introducing any new product or food to your diet during pregnancy.

    When Should You Take Protein Powder?

    Yet another common question regarding protein supplementation…

    At it’s most basic, those that supplement with protein powder will largely consume it post-workout, and for obvious reasons. After a workout your muscles have been broken down and are in need of repair. Protein shakes will assist in this process.

    However, is timing really that important? The short answer is no, it’s not. The primary reason for supplementing with protein powder is to, of course, to ensure you are getting enough protein. When you consume it is up to you, the result will still be the same.

    In general, there are benefits to taking it at any part of your day. Starting your morning with a whey protein shake can be a great way to kickstart your nervous system and replenish your body after a restful nights sleep. Having a shake pre-workout has also shown promise for those currently on a low-carb/low-calorie diet. Lastly, there is also benefits, as discussed above, for having your protein shake post-workout.

    Whatever you do, do what works for you. There is no inherently right or wrong answer here.

    What is the Best Protein Powder?

    This is the question you should be asking if you’ve deciding that supplementing with protein powder is the right course of action for you. After all, you should only want to put in your body the best of whatever you consume.

    So what is the best protein powder for you? The answer may not be the same for everyone. In short, the best protein powder for you is the one that you enjoy the most; the one that will provide you with the amount you need; and the one that will help you reach your goals.

    Finding the best protein powder option for you ultimately comes down to your preferences, goals, and needs. Hopefully this article will help you decipher this question…

    Does Protein Powder Help Build Muscle?

    If you can take anything away from this article, it’s that protein is everything but necessary in order to achieve lean muscle gain. As discussed in various forms throughout this article, protein is an incredibly effective tool at stimulating muscle protein synthesis, and thus, building new and improved muscle.

    With respect to protein powder being as effective at eliciting protein synthesis, it seems that whey is a great option. Why? Because of its fast digestive properties, rich amino acid content, as well as its BCAA profile.

    To answer the question in short: yes. Protein powder not only helps build muscle, but it’s quite effective at doing so. That is if you’re, in fact, putting in the physical work necessary to do so!

    Can Protein Powder Help Lose Weight?

    Just as protein powder can help you build muscle, it can also help you lose weight. However, it’s not a magic pill. You must still put in the work required to do so. Consuming a sufficient amount of protein not only provides your body with the energy requirements to be able to perform high levels of activity that can result in muscle building and weight loss, but it also helps facilitate weight loss through the feeling of fullness that protein elicits.

    Dietary protein is also known to assist in fat loss due to its high “thermic effect” that it can have on ones body. In other words, eat more protein, burn more calories. It’s amazing what an impact nutrition can have on the body.

    Protein and Muscle Building

    As its been presented, protein is not only effective at building lean muscle mass, but its largely necessary. While the quality of your muscle truly depends on a number of factors, from the effort and consistency you put into the gym, from the foods you eat and in what amount, protein consumption is at the top of the list.

    So if you’re wondering whether or not protein is needed in order to stimulate muscle growth, the clear answer is yes.

    As mentioned earlier, this is, in large part thanks to a process called muscle protein synthesis. Protein synthesis is the building process, or anabolic process that our bodies can fluctuate between throughout the day. By consuming protein through foods or supplements, our bodies quickly elevate amino acid levels, stimulates protein synthesis, and thus, builds lean muscle.

    A good way of thinking of this entire process is that when you’re training and workout out hard, you’re breaking down your muscle tissue. This is known to be catabolic in nature. After the hard training session, you consume protein to repair the breakdown that just occurred. This is known to be anabolic in nature and is accomplished through, you got it – protein synthesis.

    How Much Protein Do I Need To Build Muscle?

    Now that you know the protein is everything but necessary to build muscle, you may be wondering how much to consume and what is the right amount of protein. As discussed earlier, this is largely dependent upon a number of factors, from how hard and often you’re training, to how much you weigh, overall body fat percentage, how old you are, and more.

    Generally speaking, however, if you’re seeking to build muscle, it’s a promising bet to assume that you’re training quite hard. In this case, it’d be recommended to be consuming at minimum 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight, or 2.3 per kg of bodyweight per day. While this obviously isn’t an exact recommendation due to the factors discussed, it is a reliable place to begin.

    To give another quick tip: Opt for the faster digesting protein supplements, whey being at the top of the list. This is not only optimal for weight loss, but also provides the body with the most readily available proteins to repair and rebuild lean muscle tissue. If it’s within you’re budget, you can certainly optimize your supplementation protocol buy investing in casein for your evening serving of protein. As discussed earlier, casein is the best option for slow digesting, over-night repair and recovery.

    Protein and Weight Loss

    As it’s been presented throughout this article, protein is not only imperative to building muscle, but it’s highly effective at eliciting weight loss as well. This doesn’t mean, however, that protein is a magic pill. You still must put in the work.

    Nonetheless, protein is a great tool for fat loss because of a number of factors:

    – Satiety and appetite suppression

    – Reduction in hunger

    – Builds muscle

    – Helps meet protein requirements for an increase in activity level

    – Thermic effect on the body causing perspiration and fat loss

    So, the next time someone tries to tell you that protein shakes are only for bulky bodybuilders, tell them to think again as that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    How Much Protein Do You Need To Lose Weight?

    So, now that you’re aware of the benefits of consuming enough protein I correlation with weight loss, you now may be asking the question: how much protein do I need to lose weight? Much like building muscle, it largely depends…

    In general, however, a beginners guide recommendation would be to consume 1-1.2 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. If you’re on a caloric deficit diet which is quite likely if you’re trying to lose weight, it becomes that much more important to consume high amounts of protein.

    To give another quick tip: Opt for the faster digesting protein supplements, whey being at the top of the list. This is not only optimal for gut health but also has a large impact on appetite suppression and hunger hormones. Whey is also generally the highest of quality proteins whether you’re trying to build muscle OR lose weight. It’s also largely the most readily available in any given store you seek to purchase.

    Protein Is Only One Piece of the Puzzle

    As a final recommendation, it’s important to know that protein is only one of the three main macronutrients that should be a part of your diet, the other two being carbohydrates and fats…

    Taking a look at the bigger picture, consider a pie chart of sorts. In this pie chart, protein should make up 20-25% of your daily calories.

    – Protein: 4 calories per gram

    – Carbs: 4 calories per gram

    – Fats: 9 calories per gram

    – Alcohol: 7 empty calories per gram

    Remember to also fill your plates abundantly with vegetables, high quality, healthy fats, non-starchy carbs, and of course, the highest quality of proteins to top it off. If you follow this rule of thumb, your diet will quickly join the top 1% of healthy diets. After all, the western diet that many of us follow today is, for the lack of a better term, horrible.

    Wrapping Up

    Protein is obviously imperative to a healthy diet no matter your health and fitness goal. Whether you’re an elite athlete or beginner, trying to lose weight or build muscle, and whether you’re a pre-teen or elderly individual, protein is king.

    With that being said, always follow the RDA and go from there. While protein is generally safe and healthy for most individuals, too much protein can cause a number of low, moderate, to severe issues ranging from upset stomach and constipation, to deeper issues like bowel troubles and more.

    In conjunction, protein comes in all different forms. If you’re not allergic or vegan, animal meats seem to be the highest qualities of protein out there. Following, supplementing with whey protein is likely your next best bet – this largely comes down to convenience. And if you’re a vegan or have any type of dietary limitation, there’s always a way to get your protein!

    The benefits of protein cannot be overlooked and must be taken into account for all spectrums of individuals, goals, and health statuses. Gone are the days of assuming that protein is only for the bulky, jacked up gym bros. Protein is the building blocks of our bodies and its time to treat it that way. Protein is imperative to our health, it’s imperative to our longevity, and its imperative to our performance, both in fitness and in life.

    About The Author

    Michael Collins

    Michael Collins

    Michael is a gym enthusiast with experience that spans more than 20 years. He started his exhilarating journey of keeping fit in his late teens, and over the years, he has immensely grown to become a resourceful gem in matters of fitness.

    He has been writing for many years, focusing on answering all the questions you may have on nutrition, muscle building and fitness. Keeping fit and staying healthy is his main passion, and this is evidenced in the articles he writes in a simple and understandable language out of intensive reading and real-life experiences.