Protein powder is generally associated with bodybuilders and bulky muscles.
But do women need protein? How much protein can they eat? Should they take protein supplements or will such protein powders make them lose their feminine look and become bulkier instead? Do protein powders make women gain more weight?
With so many overwhelming concerns, it’s no wonder that many women are confused about their protein intakes.
Protein is actually an effective tool for women who wish to lose their excess body fat and get stronger. Protein supplements can help women tone up and look even more shapely.
How Much Protein Should Women Take?
A sedentary lifestyle requires only about 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight (1). In this case, energy is absorbed from fats and carbs. This is not the ideal protein amount. The average American digests about 16% of daily calories from protein from animal and plant sources.
The first Protein Summit that was held in 2007 defined Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) as the amount of the nutrient that would meet the needs of a particular population (2). The summit laid emphasis on the benefits of higher protein intake. Consumption of this nutrient should be spaced out over the day’s meals instead of loading it during dinner as many Americans do.
The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) was increased to 15% to 25% that would vary depending on the age, gender, and level of activity of the individual (3). Women athletes will need to up their protein intake to about 2.3 grams per kilo of body weight to maintain their lean muscle mass during a weight loss regime (4).
Summary: About 0.8 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight is recommended for sedentary women while athletic women need up to 2.3 grams/ kg of body weight. Spacing out protein intake throughout the day with a variety of food sources will provide the requisite quantities.
Counting Protein Grams
One way to ensure you are consuming sufficient proteins is to count them. A good direction would be to take 1.2 to 2.0 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight. A woman whose weight is 150 pounds should have an intake of a minimum of 80 to 136 grams of protein each day. 136 grams is for women who engage in strength and endurance training preparing for fitness competitions.
It is advisable not to prolong taking a high dose of protein. Consider the amino acid content in the protein foods you consume. Both animal and plant-sourced foods have these amino acids.
While a complete amino acid profile may not be present in plants, a combination of plant proteins provides all the required protein nutrients the body needs. Different types of foods should be included in a regular diet to get all the amino acids (5).
Some of them are skinless chicken, turkey, tuna or salmon, shrimp, fat cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, and soy nuts. Broccoli, nuts, and seeds also serve proteins apart from poultry fish and dairy products.
Balancing Macronutrients According to Body Types
Macronutrients are fats, proteins, and carbs that we consume through various food sources. They don’t exist separately in foods and interact in our body when food is consumed. Intake of a well-balanced diet is key for fitness and achieving weight loss goals.
One way to ascertain the right diet is to understand your body type. This can be used as a guideline to determine the ratio of calories from macronutrients.
Body types are broadly divided into three types (6). Though it does not correctly conform to a person’s type of body it can be related to depending upon how close it fits a category. It should be seen only as a guideline for weight management and building lean muscles.
The Ectomorph Body Type -This relates to the type of body that is thin and has a high metabolic rate. People of this body type may consume a ratio of 25 percent protein, 20 percent fat and 55 percent carbohydrates.
The Endomorph Body Type – Here the individual’s body type is heavier with a slow metabolism. They are recommended a diet with a ratio of 25 percent carbohydrates, 35 percent protein, and 40 percent fat.
The Mesomorph Body Type – The person under this category has an athletic body and is able to develop muscles easily. A ratio of 30 percent protein, 40 percent carbs, and 30 percent fat will be adequate.
Timing: Pre and Post Workout Protein
Many conflicting theories and research exist on the intake of protein before and after a workout session. How much to take and what is the window period after a workout, when protein consumption will deliver the best results?
While it is necessary to be aware of these pointers, it is a good suggestion to ingest a mix of proteins and carbs two hours before an exercise session so that you can complete the workout successfully. It will be good to have approximately 0.4 to 0.5 grams of protein for every kilogram of body weight within a couple of hours of training.
It is more important that you have a variety of protein food sources throughout the day so that you are getting all the essential amino acids needed for the body.
Summary: There are pre and post-workout foods that will help in reaching your health goals. Having different protein foods throughout the day in small portions should be the focus. The variety of foods will supply all the necessary amino acids and nutrients.
Some Benefits of Protein for Women
Let’s throw some light on why we need sufficient amounts of this invaluable compound. Just like fat and carbs, protein is a macronutrient.
There are 20 amino acids that bond together and form the protein. Eleven of those amino acids are produced by our bodies. 9 of them are the ones that need to be supplied through food. These are considered essential for the body and are known as the essential amino acids.
Protein which contains all these 9 amino acids in adequate proportion is known as a complete protein. Examples of a single source of complete protein are meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and milk products like cheese and yogurt.
Protein is vital for maintaining the structures of cells of bones, connective tissue, hair; for strength and muscle mass, and for energy. It also contributes to the body’s immunity. It is needed for the production of enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals.
The major components of healthy immune systems are antibodies which are made up of proteins. The amino acids in proteins build the cells that power immunity. It fights off infection.
A weakened immune system leads to the growth of abnormal tissue (neoplasia), protein-calorie malnutrition with a harmful effect on the T-cell system which may lead to infections and an increase in mortality rates, especially in hospitals (7).
The T-cell system is essential for immunity response to certain pathogens and is also responsible for searching out and destroying foreign bodies that invade the body.
Protein plays a key role in the balance of nitrogen which in turn contributes to growth periods, hypothyroidism, tissue repair, and pregnancy. The intake of nitrogen should be greater than the loss of it so that the protein pool in the body is replenished.
In clinical studies, the amino acid arginine was found to magnify cellular immune mechanisms particularly the T-cell system. Studies have strongly indicated that the supplementation of arginine helps in the restoration of T-cell functions post-operation. It helps in preserving immunity and increases the resistance to infection.
Summary: T-cells are dependent upon protein for its function of destroying foreign agents that attack the body. Amino acids in protein help prevent infection.
Protein Supports Bones, Hair, And Nails
Bone density is critically important for women as we age. Protein aids in keeping the bones strong with minimal loss of density. Hair and nails remain strong and healthy because of protein. Keratin is the key protein in nail and collagen is the main bone protein.
Collagen peptide is a form of protein that makes up for 70% of tissues, hair, nails, and skin. Different types are present in the body and each has a specific function.
Type I is the most common type of collagen as it forms the main part of bones, skin, nails, and hair. Type II is for cartilage and joints. Type III is a component that makes the structure for many organs and skins and is usually present with Type I collagen.
Summary: Collagen peptides found in protein are involved in the structure of bones, tissues, hair, and nails.
Protein and Weight Management
The motivation to eat right among most women is from a desire to lose weight. Protein takes longer to digest therefore prolongs satiety time period by curbing appetites and controlling weight. A high protein breakfast minimizes snack cravings between meals.
What does the ‘thermic effect of food’ mean? The amount of energy that is expended to process food for storage and use is called the thermic effect of food. As proteins take long to digest, it takes at least 20 to 35 percent of energy from protein to digest and absorb the nutrient.
Proteins take more energy to digest than carbohydrates and fats, so by increasing protein intake during the day may result in fast fat loss than a low-protein diet.
Summary: The thermic effect of food along with high satiety levels promote weight loss.
Women And Lean Muscles
Protein is crucial for maintaining lean muscles that you already possess. Including sufficient amounts of protein in your diet will help you to tone your body and keep it slender, tight and lean.
As fats and carbs become less in your body by following a diet regime and exercise, it starts taking on protein in foods as the source of energy. Therefore it is necessary to increase the amounts substantially to maintain the lean figure and perform the bodily functions.
When fewer amino acids are present, the body will break down muscle tissue to fill the gap. This could lead to a loss of muscle and slow resting metabolism. It can be avoided by having the right focus on protein intake.
Summary: Protein helps in keeping your body fit and toned.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Why do Some Women Reduce their Protein Intake?
Many women tend to equate protein with undesired weight gain. They may incline to cut down on protein-sourced foods that in actuality maintain satiety. The root cause is not protein but the lack of a well-balanced diet and regular exercise.
At times a week of planned exercise and diet gets a little ruffled by a strong craving for sweet snacks and ice cream. If you are a woman the craving may lead to yielding. This may be due to gender differences when it comes to the types of foods men and women crave. According to a report published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine in 2016, sex hormones are modulators of the type and amount of food we eat (8).
Estrogen and testosterone interaction with the digestive systems and neurotransmitters in our brains transmit signals to our body that get expressed as hunger and cravings. The level of testosterone in men is higher than in women who have comparatively higher levels of estrogen. During a menstrual cycle, the balance of hormones gets fluctuated in women and could influence the type of food we crave.
The report further points out that men tend to crave for protein-rich foods while women desire sweet foods like chocolates more frequently. However, this is not necessarily the case but seems to be a general pattern.
Many women shy away from protein intake because of certain myths of protein consumption associated with weight gain. Let’s understand what proteins are all about before we deal with the misconception of the protein linked to bulkiness.
Although often associated with men looking to bulk up, these protein foods are favored by women as well. In fact, many protein powder supplements are now marketed specifically for women.
Why is Protein Particularly Important for Women?
Women are no strangers to cravings. We tend to lean more towards sweets and low-protein foods. This may be evident during the premenstrual time period. Women who have the PMS-C (premenstrual syndrome for cravings) should give more attention to their diet to maintain a good blood sugar level.
Carbohydrates and fats supply energy; protein is required for stabilizing energy levels in the body apart from the repair and growth of cells. Proteins do not get stored and therefore the body is dependent upon daily intake of protein foods for its repair functions.
With the intake of small and frequent meals that contain complex carbohydrates, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and yogurt these sugary cravings will disappear. Healthy women also indulge in some amounts of sugary foods before menstruation. It would be good if they consume only very dark chocolate as it is unlikely to be overeaten.
Why Do Proteins Not Make Women Look Bulky?
It is next to impossible for women to put on muscle mass or become bulky because of a balanced protein diet accompanied by intense weight training. We do not have the amount of testosterone to prompt the growth of muscle mass.
Some amount of lean muscles gets developed and rest gets converted to energy while excess proteins are excreted (9).
Bulkiness in women is connected to regular consumption of huge amounts of calories which get converted to fat that develops over muscles.
Why is Protein Vital in Achieving Fat-Loss Goals?
Being hungry through the day could mean an inadequate intake of proteins. This macronutrient takes longer to digest more than carbohydrates. You will stay satiated for a longer time period if you will include a good portion of protein in your diet (10).
It is harder to digest proteins than fats. The body utilizes more energy to break down protein and burn more calories. It results in quicker fat loss for those on a high-protein diet than those who have a low intake of protein.
How Do Protein Supplements Help Women?
If you are unable to get a sufficient amount of protein from food sources you could use a supplement. Many women who do not have the time to prepare a wholesome meal from natural food sources depend on supplements to bridge the nutritional gap.
Vegans too may benefit from protein supplements to obtain all the amino acids required by the body (11).
Many protein supplements are specialized for women and vegans. A balanced intake of legumes, beans, lentils, peas, and whole grains will deliver the proteins needed by vegans and vegetarians. A variety is needed for those who do not consume animal and dairy products.
Is Eating Too Much Protein Harmful?
Yes, it is harmful. Eating too much protein has its side effects. It can cause diarrhea, dehydration, constipation, weight gain, and bad breath. It can even lead to kidney and liver damage.
The maximum protein that these organs can deal with is around 3.5 to 4.5 grams per kilogram of weight, which is 238-306 grams of protein a day for a 150-pound woman (12).
Prior consultation with a doctor is mandatory for those who choose to up their protein portion and have an existing medical condition. It applies to people even with a past kidney ailment.
Will a High-Protein Diet Affect My Kidneys?
Not if you are an active woman with good health. You can definitely increase your protein intake if the above conditions are met.
If you had a kidney problem or undergoing medication for a present kidney condition then it is better to avoid increasing your protein diet (13). A consultation with your doctor will rest all your concerns on this matter.
Will More Protein Cause Bone Health to be Compromised?
According to a study found in the “American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition” mentioned that high-protein diets have some appreciable benefit to the lumbar region of the human body (14). There is no conclusive scientific evidence to prove the association of bone loss to high amounts of protein intake.
Can I Rely on Shakes and Bars for Protein?
It is better to avoid store-bought shakes and protein bars as they may contain a high proportion of sugar with lesser protein. It is more equivalent to a candy bar (15).
Real foods provide all the protein requirements that the body needs. It contains all the other natural nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Foods like hard-boiled eggs, nuts, seeds, Greek yogurt, and string cheese are some good sources of proteins.
The Final Note
All of us need this invaluable food component. As mentioned earlier, protein is needed for the production of enzymes, growth of tissue and for repairing of cells.
Women who are more active than others, engaging in training and strenuous exercise need additional amounts of proteins to repair and for the recovery of muscles. Whey is considered the most bioavailable source of proteins and provides an immediate dose of protection for muscles.
It can be said that muscles are more built outside the gym. It requires sufficient fuel which is served by amino acids. Proteins are not the cause of weight gain among women. It may be an unhealthy diet or a sedentary lifestyle that results in weight gain. So do ensure that you consume adequate amounts of this macronutrient and make some lifestyle changes.
Focus on eating high-quality proteins found in chicken, fish, low-fat dairy products and a blend of plant-sourced proteins. By inculcating a habit of proper diet and an active lifestyle you would see and feel the changes in your body. A few months later you will be happy you made these choices.