protein intake, how does it work?
November 14, 2011 9:12 AM   Subscribe

How do I get enough protein on a moderate weight-lifting regimen without spending lots of money on food?

So, I weight about 185 and am 5'7". I lift three times a week, doing squats, deadlifts, overhead press, and bench (with pull-ups and various other small-group exercises, mostly with dumbbells). I'd like to lose at least 15-20 pounds of body fat over the next six months or so and get stronger, but I'm not looking to get massive musculature. I also do cardio, mostly strenuous but short work on the rowing machine.

So I have a few questions: how much protein should I be getting? How much bioavailable protein is there in, say, a six-ounce chicken breast (I used to think that something like a chicken breast was almost all protein by weight, but after doing some reading I'm unsure)? How can I get enough protein without spending a lot of cash on good lean meat (I don't think the good whey protein is in my price range right now, but it will be eventually)? And what else should I know/think about when planning my exercise and diet?

Any and all responses are welcome. Thanks!
posted by clockzero to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
150-200g of protein per day would be a good target [1, 2]. There's no harm, and potentially some benefit, in overshooting as long as you keep your overall calories at the appropriate level. A 6 oz chicken breast has 46g of protein. Whey protein isn't that expensive -- you can get some for $6.89/pound (plus shipping) from, for instance, and cheaper if you buy larger quantities. You don't need fancy protein formulas with a bunch of stuff added, regular whey will do fine.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:32 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Three ultra-cheap options for boosting your protein intake are canned mackerel at 23 grams of protein per 100g, sardines at 21 grams, and beef liver at 25. Personally, I'd prioritize the sardines: no risk of vitamin A or mercury overload, and plenty of omega 3.

Of course, there's always the infamous protein-sparing modified fast known as the Dave Draper tuna and water diet. Not a sustainable option in any sense of the term-- but the idea of reducing carbs to burn fat while maintaining your lean muscle tissue is worth considering.
posted by aquafortis at 9:37 AM on November 14, 2011

I'm probably going to get shot down for this, but if your main goal is to lose weight, I wouldn't sweat the protein thing. Of course you should eat some, and there are good suggestions there but you should instead watch total calories consumed. I lost 30+ pounds recently and I did it by watching my calorie intake. I can lift the same as I could when I was heavier, but I look lean rather than stocky. If your main goal is to bulk up then you need to focus on protein, but otherwise I wouldn't get obsessed with it.
posted by ob at 10:24 AM on November 14, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for your responses, guys. I'm wondering if I can afford to eat the equivalent of a pound of chicken every day.
posted by clockzero at 10:50 AM on November 14, 2011

Eggs. Egg white is the gold standard of protein. Eggs, even free range, organic, abx-free eggs are way cheaper than meat.

A single egg only has about 7 grams of protein, but it's not ridiculous for an average sized person to eat 3 eggs in a sitting. So that's 21 grams of protein for about $0.75.

Another good source is whey. If you can stand to drink it straight, it's non-fat, low in calories, very high in protein, and extremely gross.
posted by Leta at 10:53 AM on November 14, 2011 [3 favorites]

Egg whites=3 grams per egg...
I used to get 60 pack crates from costco for $12...they were local,organic, free range...but im sure standard eggs are much cheaper.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:56 AM on November 14, 2011

Oh...also, regarding whey.

My kids (4 & 2) love chocolate...but rather than giving them nestle quik or something, i give them a scoop of choc protein powder. They love it.

In the mornings, they have a half cup oatmeal, half cup blueberries, half cup water...microwaved for a minute...then add a scoop of the best tasting protein powder i have ever tried.

Good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:00 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, but the yolks have protein, too.

I always forget that there are people who just eat the white. Bleh.
posted by Leta at 11:03 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

On the chicken front -- I'd do something slow-cooked with chicken thighs. They're cheaper than chicken breasts, stay moist for slow-cooking, and if you get the boneless, skinless ones they're way less fat.

For a weeks' work of food, you could do:
$6 -- 2 doz eggs (3/day for breakfast)
$5 -- 3 cans black beans (1/2 can with breakfast)
$4 -- lettuce (for salad at lunch)
$10 -- 6 cans tuna (for salad at lunch)
$10 -- 2x servings of whey protein shake (whole foods sells 16 servings for $11)
$14 - 3.5 lbs chicken thighs (dinner)
$2 -- 28 oz can diced tomatoes (dinner)
$2 -- chipoltes in adobo (dinner)
$3 -- onion and garlic (dinner)
$3 -- chicken broth (dinner)
$3 -- chili seasoning (dinner)

approx $60/week for food and 160g of protein per day. you might need some more carbs if you're working out heavily, but you can add those in the form of white beans/cannellini in the salad and black or kidney beans with the chicken soup.

It's not super cheap, but those are whole foods prices, so you might be able to get those things cheaper elsewhere.
posted by mercredi at 11:48 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

I should clarify -- the food above is only about 1200 calories a day. I was focusing on the protein issue, but you should probably add more carbs/fat. olive oil in the black beans at breakfast, other veggies and salad dressing at lunch, and some beans or rice with the dinner. (this will probably up your food cost about $5-10).
posted by mercredi at 11:53 AM on November 14, 2011

Offball answer but if you have a halal grocery nearby, you may be able to purchase affordable goat meat, which has about 60% less fat than beef, but a similar protein content. (Some places claim it's lower in fat than chicken!) The temptation for most Americans is, "OMG, goat, ewwwwwwwwwwwwwww!" but it's actually really delicious. Not as gamey as lamb, not as blah as grain-finished beef. It's my most favoritest meat, and I grew up on corn-fed, Illinois-raised steer.

And also, there's eggs. Omelets, stratas, egg salad, etc. etc. etc. A great egg breakfast is 10 whisked eggs + cottage and/or goat cheese + green onions + sauteed spinach + garlic + thyme poured into baking dish and cooked @ 325F for 30 min. until puffed and slightly golden at the edges.
posted by muirne81 at 11:56 AM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hmm, good thinking on the goat, muirne81. Thanks!

mercredi -- thanks so much for working that all out!
posted by clockzero at 12:19 PM on November 14, 2011

glad it was useful!

here's a dressed-up version of the chicken recipe.

you can do a simpler version by chopping the onion, 4 cloves of garlic, and then dumping it all in a large pot with the chicken, broth, tomatoes, chilis and accompanying adobo sauce, 1 tbsp chili powder, and some salt. cook for 1 hour on low(at a simmer), then shred chicken as desired and return to the stew. (the other version is a little more complex/refined, but not worth a lot of time and money if you don't have the equipment or ingredients in-house.)
posted by mercredi at 12:30 PM on November 14, 2011

Response by poster: I live with my girlfriend, and so we share meals (as, y'know, people do). So I'm not just cooking for myself, which would make it simpler.

I guess I'm asking, how can I get 150-200 grams of protein per day in the thriftiest and most pleasant/easy way possible?
posted by clockzero at 12:38 PM on November 14, 2011

Logic Sheep's Super Simple Chicken:
-Chicken breast
-Stainless steel pan
-Toaster oven or oven preheated to 400 degrees

1) Heat up pan on medium low to medium heat. Medium low is best on my stove.
2) Add butter, let melt.
3) Add chicken breast, cook for ~4 minutes or until brown.
4) Flip. Cook the other side for ~4 minutes or until brown.
5) Finish cooking in the toaster/oven at 400 degrees. This should take 5-10 minutes depending on the thickness of the breast. Check for doneness by slicing the thickest part of the breast - if there is pink, put it back in.

This method gives me reliably tasty and juicy chicken. You can dice it and add it to salad or soup, or eat it as is. Dry spice addition like blackening seasoning work better than marinades, which get gummy.

If you're eating a lot of eggs, you may want to try different hot sauces with them. It alleviates the monotony.
posted by Logic Sheep at 12:50 PM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gah, forgot. I buy lots of chicken when it is on sale. You can buy it frozen in bulk. Just defrost before use.
posted by Logic Sheep at 12:52 PM on November 14, 2011

150-200 grams is a shit-ton of protein. You would either have to overeat, or you can use supplements (powder or bars). You're not going to get that much on a normal diet without supplementation.

Personally, I think that's way more protein than you need. You said specifically you're not trying to get big, and you don't need 150-200 grams for normal muscle recovery.
posted by facetious at 1:26 PM on November 14, 2011

Response by poster: Okay, thanks facetious, that's really helpful. So, what's the difference in protein requirements if you just want to give your muscles enough to repair themselves and strengthen after weightlifting vs. how much you'd want if you're trying to bulk up?
posted by clockzero at 1:48 PM on November 14, 2011

I'm not a registered dietician, which is who you want to consult with if you want the straight skinny. Personally, my opinion is that if you eliminate the crap from your diet and get some decent protein every day (a few eggs, some lean protein for dinner), you'll be fine. My personal experience suggests that the best single thing you can do for yourself is get some protein and carbs right after you work out. For me, it promotes recovery like you wouldn't believe. My secret: chocolate milk. But that's just me.
posted by facetious at 2:00 PM on November 14, 2011 [2 favorites]

Resistance training as you have outlined along with adequate protein intake (as indicated above at about 1 g/lb per day) should help you maintain lean body mass as you work to lose the 15-20 lbs you outline above. Since your goal as outlined is to not get Huge but simply lose some weight and maintain or gain a little muscle, the focus point for you should be maintaining a reasonable daily calorie deficit (300-500 calories works well for many).

A great book about overall straightforward science-based nutrition is "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" by Walter Willet MD. Great book, easy read, lots of recipes at the back.

Some great info about protein above, seconding recommendations on canned fish such as sardines, but remember also there are some inexpensive Complete proteins in non-meat sources such as beans + rice = inexpensive complete protein.

IMO "Bioavailability" of protein sources is likely less important than following a healthy diet overall - I doubt that in practice you'd see a difference between eating fish, beef, chicken, goat and the protein balance in the body.
posted by walmerhoz at 2:29 PM on November 14, 2011

clockzero, facetious is wrong about protein causing "bulking up", and ob's statement about "not worrying about protein" is blatantly wrong. Protein is the most important macronutrient during weight loss as the caloric deficit causes the cannibalization of muscle mass--increased protein intake helps preserve this muscle mass.

Aim for at least 1-1.5g/lbs of protein per day. If you get that much and combine it with an intelligent weight-training program you'll be golden. Yes, it's a lot of protein. But the USDA recommends woefully low amounts of protein for anyone attempting to preserve any kind of muscle mass, much less build muscle, and you won't get anywhere aiming for their recommendations.

Eating more protein will not make you "big". Getting "big" takes a tremendous amount of time and dedication to weight training and diet. Nobody ever woke up one day with 20'' biceps just from eating more protein, and they sure as hell didn't do it while losing weight. And if getting "big" is hard, then for everyone but the most untrained the preservation (much less building) of 100% of one's muscle mass during weight loss is ten times more difficult.

You do want to preserve the muscle mass that you have now as I can only assume since you're asking this question you are not someone with a bodybuilder-level excess of muscle mass (otherwise you'd already know your answers!). So I STRONGLY suggest your focus be on weight training and protein intake.

The cheapest form of protein in dollars per gram is whey. It's also the leanest, so it can be easy to fit into a weight-loss diet. The next I believe is eggs, those can be slightly harder to fit into a caloric deficit due to the extra calories from their fat content.
posted by schroedinger at 4:58 PM on November 14, 2011 [5 favorites]

ob's statement about "not worrying about protein" is blatantly wrong

Well, all I can say is that it worked for me, and this is after years of worrying about how much protein I was getting. Maybe there's something wrong with me. Anyway, it struck me that the question was about losing weight as being more important than anything else. Also my point was not "don't eat any protein", just that counting calories was more important. Obviously that is within a balanced diet that includes protein.
posted by ob at 5:31 PM on November 14, 2011

One caveat regarding the eggs: they're high in protein and super cheap, but a high-egg diet gives me the deathfarts, much to the dismay of my partner. YMMV, but be aware.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 5:46 PM on November 14, 2011

schroedinger, i don't want to argue about it, but i didn't say protein causes bulking up. you misunderstood.
posted by facetious at 6:21 PM on November 14, 2011

When your goal is to lose body fat, also consider that it ought to help to lower your carb intake as you increase your protein and fats intake. So you can save money in not buying grains, legumes, lots of fruits or sugary/starchy veggies, and concentrating on the proteins, nuts, green veggies, and sparing amounts of fruit. I have very reliably lost body fat when (eating a Paleo style diet, working out regularly, and) keeping my carb intake under 75g/day, concentrating on increasing protein and fat intake (fat becomes energy for workouts), and not giving half a crap about calorie counting.
posted by so_gracefully at 10:39 PM on November 14, 2011

I'm not sure where you live, but in my city there are three different tofu factories, where I can buy tofu for 1.25 a pound, no tax (it just went up .25 last year, wah!). If you don't like the taste of tofu you can disguise it in shakes, but I love it stir-fried with black bean sauce (or fermented bean sauce, you pick) and soy sauce and a garlic and veggies. You don't have to use oil if you have a good non-stick skillet. Soybeans are high protein and you can make a bean chili that is fantastic with soybeans.

The protein issue is fraught. You'll find people arguing on both sides of the fence. There are vegetarian bodybuilders, but they eat a metric ton of eggs. There are vegan bodybuilders, but few of them get big, and the ones who do get bigger use protein supplements, just like omnivore bodybuilders. Someone upthread said that it doesn't hurt to overshoot your protein requirement, but it does put stress on your kidneys if you do. It will also leach calcium out of your body. So if you take in a lot of protein, a calcium supplement is non-optional ( This following link was written by a vegetarian, so buyer beware, but the article is well-cited and I'm too lazy to cite on my own.

FWIW I've done serious attempts at bodybuilding and I am not a vegetarian. I tried eating ahigh-meat protein diet the first time around, and I could not afford to do it more than a couple of months. I've found I do just as well only eating meat a couple of times a week. It's my opinion that until you reach serious competitive amateur status, you do not need the metric tons of protein that are advertised.

Don't eat white anything for your carbs...whole wheat is high protein. One serving of my whole wheat spaghetti nets me 8 grams just from the pasta, and that can really bump your count. Also, you can cook whole wheat like a pilaf and it's nutty and fantastic and high protein. Watch the calories though: grains can be high-cal. Cheap when bought in bulk sections of the local co-op.

For meat, don't laugh, but Costco is good. You'll have to freeze some of it. Also, check a local butcher. Two of the butchers in town are very expensive, but another one is cheaper than the local large chain grocery. If you're shopping chain grocery, arrive ridiculously early, like 6 a.m., because you'll find the meat marked down that didn't sell the previous day. 7-ish or later and people start buying the good "sale" meat, or at least around here. The previous suggestion for halal goat is good, but halal (and kosher) butchers can be expensive. YMMV.

Good luck!
posted by thelastcamel at 12:49 AM on November 15, 2011

Also, regarding whey: you can find high quality whey sometimes at discount grocery stores on deep discount. Usually some chain or other closes out, and they sell existing stock to the discount stores. I bought those a couple of times and it worked out well. Check for deals online as well. Sometimes you can find a deal that's worth it. The bottom line is, if you can't afford it, don't try to buy it, but do keep your eyes peeled.

Tuna is often a loss leader at stores. Keep your eyes peeled for sales and buy a bunch when it makes sense. The cans will keep.

If you feel experimental you can try making your own yogurt in a crock-pot. Personally I'd love to, but I've never had the time.
posted by thelastcamel at 12:53 AM on November 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for your thoughts, everyone.
posted by clockzero at 7:09 AM on November 15, 2011

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