3 Protein Best Practices, From An Amino Acid Requirements Researcher
You may know that eating enough protein gives you optimal energy, immunity, satiety, hormonal balance, and more, but it's also one of the most essential macronutrients for longevity. See, protein is a building block of muscles, and we know that maintaining lean muscle mass is critical for longevity. Essentially, if you want to live a long, healthy life, you need to pay attention to protein—period and full stop.
But protein can be an emotional topic in the nutrition space, filled with clashing expert opinions and conflicting research. That's why we consulted Don Layman, Ph.D., one of the world's leading protein and amino acid requirements researchers, on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. He has spent over 30 years investigating the role of protein for muscle-centric health and has over 120 peer-reviewed research publications on the topic.
In short: Layman is the guy when it comes to protein. And if you're serious about getting enough protein, you'll want to consider his best practices ahead:
Aim for 100 grams of protein per day.
The current Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, but that number estimates the minimum1 amount1 of protein you need to eat to avoid nitrogen imbalance and muscle loss. And as Layman previously tells mbg for our 2023 Wellness Trends: "Nobody I know is after minimum health. We're after optimum health."
Plus, that "0.8 gram per kilogram of body weight" becomes a bit difficult to visualize. That's why Layman makes it simple by recommending at least 100 grams of protein per day, across the board: "We find from a metabolic standpoint, working predominantly with women, that if they get below 100 grams per day, they lose most of the benefits of protein: fatty acid metabolism, insulin sensitivity, weight loss, satiety," he says. "All of these 'grams per kilogram' and stuff I think people just find confusing."
So, he draws a hard line in the sand when it comes to protein intake: "If you're worried about general health, you should be above 100 [grams]," Layman continues. Of course, that specific number may vary depending on your height, weight, and lifestyle. "If you're an athlete that weighs 200+ pounds, you're probably going to want to be in the 160 [gram] range," he adds. "I like real numbers. I think they give people much more 'meat' to sink their teeth into."
Get the bulk of your protein at breakfast.
It can be difficult to reach 100 grams of protein per day—we get it! But according to Layman, evenly distributing your protein intake (rather than stockpiling all your protein at dinner) can lead to better protein synthesis in your body.
"Doug Paddon-Jones, Ph.D., and I did an experiment2," he recounts, "We were looking at this distribution question, realizing that the average American is eating around 90 grams [of protein] per day, but they're eating 60% of it or more at dinner." In this experiment, Layman decided to redistribute those 90 grams evenly throughout daily meals—so 30 grams during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. "What we found is that with the exact same calories, the exact same protein per day, we got a higher level of daily protein synthesis just by moving it from dinner to breakfast," he notes. Perhaps think about adding a high-protein breakfast to your morning menu.
Not all protein is created equal.
All that all being said, plant-based proteins don't necessarily have the same impact as animal or whey sources. While they're surely great, fiber-rich additions to your plate, plant proteins (think beans, lentils, or soy protein powders) don't contain as many essential amino acids, namely leucine.
Leucine activates mTOR, a signaling pathway that's responsible for stimulating protein synthesis3. "In whey protein, leucine is about 12%, so 23 grams of whey protein isolate will trigger it. Whereas in soy protein isolate, it's about 7.8%, so now you need 33 or 34 grams. So all proteins aren't equal," says Layman. That's not to say you can't get enough protein on a plant-based diet. "But you have to realize you will always need more total protein, and that means more total calories, to be equal," adds Layman. And check that leucine count on your protein powders—it matters.
Now, this is somewhat of an emerging area (that's why we covered it in our 2023 Wellness Trend forecast!), and we need more research to say, definitively, how much protein you actually need. But we can all agree that prioritizing protein intake is a good idea for your overall healthspan. And if you're serious about building muscle, don't forget to add resistance exercise to the rotation: "You can't eat your way into more muscle," Layman adds, and strength training is just as important for longevity.