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Women and Protein – An Essential Guide

Protein, and 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 awesome female bodybuilders going for big muscle gains, most of your female clients will have different goals. They want to lose fat, gain muscle, and look lean.

That leaves women with a lot of questions that we 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 protein shakes?”

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 – What is it?

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 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. They link together to make long strands, which then fold up to make large, three-dimensional structures that do everything from creating structural underpinnings in the body to catalyze reactions and transport other molecules within and between cells.

Women and Protein – Why Getting Enough is Essential

Everyone, from babies to seniors, men and women, need to consume enough protein. Compared to men, though, women are more likely to be consuming a less-than-optimal amount. Make sure you and your female clients know just how important protein is in the diet. It does much more than build big muscles.

Protein Builds Lean Muscle Mass

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 muscles, but the protein you eat will mostly go to work 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.

Protein is Essential for Weight Management

Trying to lose or maintain weight are common goals for your female clients. Protein is a crucial part of the diet for so many reasons, but especially for women trying to lose weight. Protein keeps you full and satisfied for a longer period of time than carbohydrates because they take longer to digest.

High protein amounts at breakfast can be particularly useful. It helps to minimize cravings for snacks later in the day and helps you avoid the dreaded hangry mood.

A Healthy Immune System

Being sick is no fun, and to stay healthy the immune system needs to function properly. This requires protein. Antibodies, key components of the immune system, are proteins. Avoiding the next cold going around feels great but also helps you stick with your workouts.

Supporting Bones, Hair, and Nails

Protein is structural. It provides the basic material for connective tissue, bones, hair, and nails. For women, bone health and density is important, especially as we 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.

Signs You’re Not Eating Enough Protein

Not all women need to count grams of protein. If your client has very specific fitness goals, or really struggles to balance macros or lose weight, counting can be useful. For the rest of us it may just take greater awareness to realize if we’re not getting enough protein:

  • Feeling unusually fatigued or weak
  • Moodiness
  • 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

How Much Protein Do Women Really Need?

If you simply follow the government’s Recommended Daily Allowance, or RDA, for protein intake you’ll fall short. The RDA protein intake amount—just 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, or around 48 grams per day for a typical woman—is just 10 percent of daily calories. With this plan most of your calories would come from carbs and fat. Technically, it’s enough for anyone who is sedentary, but it’s far from ideal.

Most people go over the RDA, and the average American consumes about 16 percent of daily calories in the form of protein. (1) According to the Protein Summit Report, 16 percent of daily calories from protein is not too much, and in general Americans eat too little protein. (2) The Report states that at least doubling the RDA is recommended and safe.

Women and Protein – Counting Grams

One way to make sure you are getting enough protein is to count the grams in everything you eat. Different sources have different recommendations, but generally 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is the minimum. For women who are active or trying to lose weight, more 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.

Balancing Protein with Fat and Carbs

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 important for health and for 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 percent protein, 55 percent carbohydrates, and 20 percent fat.
  • Endomorph. Endomorph body type is naturally heavier with a slower metabolism. These clients should eat a ratio closer to 35 percent protein, 25 percent carbohydrates, and 40 percent fat.
  • Mesomorph. A mesomorph has an athletic body and builds muscle fairly easily. A ratio of 30 percent protein, 40 percent carbs, and 30 percent 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 your 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 for muscle building.

Protein Before and After a Workout

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 you should consume protein within a certain window of time. Again, there is debate and conflicting evidence as to how long the window is and how important it is to get some protein during it. A good rule of thumb is to consume between 0.4 and 0.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight 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.

How to Choose Foods with Protein

When choosing foods for protein, it is important to consider amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids that we need to eat because our bodies cannot make them from other molecules. All animal sources of protein provide these essential components. Plant proteins are mostly not complete, but they can be combined to include all eight.

For women looking to eat a healthy diet and to consume adequate protein, variety is important. If you get protein from a lot of 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: (3)

  • 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. Include a variety of meat, poultry, fish, dairy, and plant-based foods to meet your protein needs.

For Vegans and Vegetarians

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 intake of legumes, like beans, lentils, and peas, with whole grains. Together, these plant based foods provide complete proteins. Variety is especially important for plant-based eaters.

What About Protein Powders and Supplements?

Another way to get protein is through supplements, although whole foods should always be the main source of nutrients in a healthy diet. Supplements are just that, meant to supplement a diet. You 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 or casein powders or pea, hemp, or rice protein powders for vegans. There are also more specialized supplements, like branched-chain amino acids for clients trying to restrict calories or meet very specific training goals.

Protein can be a confusing topic for your clients, especially women because most research and discussion is geared to men. Help your female clients by providing this important information about how, when, what, and how much protein to eat for health, weight maintenance, and strength and fitness.