The magic protein ratio

Or as I call it, the 1% milk rule. Also: embracing post-competition emptiness, lifting in a barn, and the 'Life is Good' guy. This is Links 40!

The magic protein ratio

We are back after a week off! At the risk of girlbossing, it’s been a while since I Stopped and I really needed it. I had the most magical time camping in the Eastern Sierras, dipping in hot springs, admiring big tall pine trees in a microdosed bliss while marching through the snow, and stargazing every single night; thank you for asking.


A post shared by Casey Johnston (@swolewoman)

Back to business: the following tip is buried deep somewhere in an old Ask A Swole Woman column, so deep and so old that if you were to be the first person to find and tell me about it, I’d certainly at least give you a free She’s A Beast shirt of your choosing. But even though Asks of A Swole Woman are now the provenance of paid newsletter subscriptions, I’m resurrecting the format briefly here because it’s a question I get so often:

A big source of frustration when people start lifting is that they eat foods with protein in them, yet find themselves coming up short at the end of every day. How does anyone know if the food they want to eat has “good” macros, and/or a “good” protein-to-everything-else ratio? Peanut butter has protein in it; is it a “protein” food? What about bread? What about whole wheat bread? Cheese? Parmesan cheese? If I know I’m behind on protein for the day, how can I look at an individual food and figure out if it’s helping the cause?

(Here I will say, if food numbers are not your thing, I advise skipping down to the links!)

It should go without saying that if you struggle with protein, it’s not required to track any numbers, and you can easily just reach for known protein heavy hitters: meats, plant-based meat substitutes, Greek yogurt, eggs.

But the world is wide, and I love to eat varying foods, so when I started lifting, I often found myself short on protein, and also looking at new foods outside the classic “protein food” pantheon and going “…protein?”

Protein fakeouts

There is one big thing that confuses the process of identifying a “protein” food, at least in the US. It’s that, as we are so often finding lately, our regulations suck. The use of the labels “good source of protein” and “great source of protein” are protected by the iron hand of the FDA.

But this does not stop me from, for instance, making a brand of cereal called Protein Monster POWER Granola, printing in big text “2G of PROTEIN in EVERY BOWL!” implying you will be well-taken-care-of in terms of protein intake when you eat that granola. But to look at the nutrition label, you actually have to consume 500 calories worth of cereal to get that 2g of protein; for the same caloric amount of 1% milk, you’d be getting 40 grams of protein. The “protein” granola is actually an extremely weak source of protein. But there doesn’t seem to be any law in the land that can thwart this kind of heavy-implication labeling. So this is the rule of thumb I developed for making better calls in the face of terrible manipulative marketing.

So 'weight loss' is bad, but 'cutting body fat' is fine? Explain yourself immediately
The Questions Hi Swole Woman! I started lifting dumbbells almost a year ago and am enjoying the strength gains. I've noticed the appearance of new muscles on my arms and back, improvements in my posture, and a new ease in walking home with bags of groceries and hoisting boxes of cat litter. I haven't noticed any loss in fat since starting to lift, and while this is not a big concern, I wouldn't mind losing a bit of fat and seeing a bit more muscle definition, for aesthetic reasons.

The first thing to know is this is not a hard and fast rule. The second thing to know is that it’s going to vary a little depending on whether you are cutting, bulking, or maintaining, because both your protein and caloric needs can change depending on your goals.

However: No, peanut butter is not a “protein” food, at least not for our purposes. Peanut butter is wonderful, a miracle of shelf stability and deliciousness. I eat it every single day and revel in it. But I do not lean on it as a source of protein. Let me explain.

The 1% milk rule

First, let’s go back to our overall daily food and protein intake goals. Let’s say when I’m growing muscle, I’m aiming to eat 2400 calories a day, and get 170 grams of protein. That means for every 140 calories I eat, I want to be getting about 10 grams of protein (math!). That is, again, not a hard and fast rule; most foods don’t have exactly that ratio of protein to calories.1 But it gives me a line to follow: for foods that I’m eating with a higher calorie-to-protein ratio than that, I need to offset them with other foods with a lower ratio.

Why I stand with one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight (sometimes)
If you’ve gotten into lifting any time in the last decade or so, you’ve probably heard the Golden Ratio of Protein Intake for building strength or muscle: one gram per pound of bodyweight that you weigh (so if I weigh 160lb, 160g of protein a day). But if you stayed into lifting over the last year or so, you’ve probably also seen some of your trusted sou…

But if I just need to know if a food is going to kind-of-help vs. kind-of-hurt my protein-consuming mission for the day, I use what I call the 1% milk rule.

A cup of 1% milk has about 110 calories and 8 grams of protein, or about the same ratio as 2400 calories/170 grams of protein. Foods with that calorie-to-protein ratio or better punch above their caloric weight, in terms of protein. Foods with a lower ratio than that (peanut butter, nuts, bread): We need ‘em, we enjoy ‘em, they are just not the foods that are going to move the protein needle enough on their own for the day.

Another thought experiment in this vein: Bread has usually about 2-3 grams of protein per 80 calories. If I were to eat 2400 calories of bread, that would come out to 60-90 grams of protein, way short of my goal. Same with peanut butter: 2400 calories nets 100 grams of protein, short of the 170 I want. You can play out that kind of math for every food, but I find it much easier and faster to ballpark individual foods and servings with the 1% milk rule.

More examples:

Chicken thigh: 28 grams of protein in a 206-calorie serving. That thar’s a protein food.

Parmesan cheese: 11 grams of protein in a 122-calorie serving. That thar is, perhaps surprisingly, a protein food!

Spaghetti: 8 grams of protein in a 222-calorie serving. That thar is not a protein food.

Tomato sauce: 3 grams of protein in a 70-calorie service. That thar is not a protein food.

So here we have a nice mix of some protein foods and non-protein foods that, their powers combined with some oil and breadcrumbs, maybe a little egg, form “chicken parmesan.” That’s a delicious meal, and it is probably doing a nice job of moving the protein needle!

To be abundantly clear, this is not to vilify any foods

The 1% milk rule is not a weapon to use on yourself. Foods are not good or bad due to their protein content. We need the foods without protein as much as we need the foods with them: carbs fuel us, fats help deliver nutrients and also fuel us. But because most food is not protein-forward, it is less straightforward to hit that 1g/lb of bodyweight (or 0.82g/lb of bodyweight) protein intake than it is to fill in all the rest of the calories with other macros. That is where the 1% milk rule comes in handy: I’m trying to balance foods around that ratio.

This does not further mean that the protein in these lesser-protein foods don’t count; they certainly do. Bread protein counts. Peanut butter protein counts. But I’m not going to hit my protein number with those guys.

So my two tips are the following: Absolutely do not pay attention to any “protein” branding, it is often false and trying to ride the general “protein” wave without actually delivering. And then look at the label, apply the 1% milk rule.

What subscribers will be receiving this week: In a mere two days, we’ll be diving into the legacy of Curves, the women-focused gym of my (and many of our) teen yore. What, if anything, did Curves do right? In what ways, if any, did it set us back more than ever? How did it, if at all, inform fitness trends to come? And if it “worked for you”—is that valid? I’m excited to dig in!


Sophie Turner opened up in this Elle profile about how she got through her eating disorder: a “companion” who seems to be like an eating-disorder doula, who would watch over her and help her avoid making destructive food choices. Imagine if this were not a luxury for the wealthy but instead covered by health insurance!

From the guy who brought you ab-rolling on a treadmill with a couch on his back comes this whole compilation of frankly impressive lifting stunts, including split squats on a stability ball and rowing machine while loaded with a squat rack, and inverted crunches holding an inverted-crunch bench. Of course, try none of this at home, but I admire the poetry of some of these combos.


A post shared by @nebraskanice_278

A reader drew my attention to this person who built a whole wooden lifting setup in her barn. I love it!

Relatedly, a woman who lifts weights to support her sheep-herding.

Why We Should Embrace Post-Race Emptiness, or, why your accomplishments/achievements/successes won’t make you happy. And more to the point, pinning your happiness on that can lead to some of our most depressive moments ever when the success comes to pass! Don’t do it! What you want is to enjoy the process, or find processes you enjoy, instead.

My fellow Northeasterners will especially remember the Life is Good guy, he of ubiquitous presence in outdoors activities (apparently his name is Jake). Please just read this:

Crafting the perfect Life is Good T-shirt, one that will inspire someone to smile and shell out the opening price of $28 to preserve that smile, falls somewhere between an art and a science. Designers are guided by “The Good Wheel,” a circular chart with the five major categories that encompass the human experience: Outdoor, Homeslice, Wellness, Beach, and College. They work fast. So fast that earlier in the day I had walked by someone illustrating a tie-dye dog. A couple hours later, it was up on the screen, captioned “Grateful Dog.”

The approval process moved along seamlessly, until one design brought things to a halt. Half the room thought that the message wasn’t clear enough and could use some extra punctuation. Maybe another word or two. The other half wanted to leave it as was.

And the subject of contention?

A drawing of a smiling dog, with the words “A Cold Beer” and, right underneath in slightly smaller lettering: “A High Five In The Mouth.”

“Outdoor, Homeslice, Wellness, Beach, and College,” I repeat over and over, rocking back and forth, clutching my tattered shirt picturing ‘Life is Good’ Jake in shades smiling and waving as the climate-change dust cloud turns the sky to black

“I’m 77 years old and right now I can do more pushups than you can.” I dunno about that, Pat Riley…


I wrote a little about Adderall-dispensing startup Cerebral in the last newsletter, in the context of how it seems companies can dance in and out of health claim regulations (via, say, millions of dollars spent on TikTok ads) so quickly that none of us can keep up; now WSJ has a more thorough investigation into how specifically it made the pivot from general purpose mental-health startup to dubious source of ADHD meds.

I Fucking Hate Resistance Bands and I Am Not Wrong, or as Drew Magary calls them, “hell scarves.” I previously covered the mostly-false promises of resistance bands in an Ask A Swole Woman column, and posted on Instagram about the (limited) ways I do actually use them.

Gamification is good when it’s a motivating carrot, until it inevitably transforms into the guilt and shame stick.

We love the meta of health science and research around here, so here’s a great thread: Data appears to show that the death rate of of white Americans to COVID has exceeded that of Latino and Black Americans. But that’s actually because there just are more older white Americans (who are more susceptible to to COVID generally) to get infected by COVID, because Guess Why.

This feels misogynist for some reason but I won’t be thinking about or commenting on it further!

Why you shouldn’t do a water fast.


Enjoyed this video of stress-testing Teva sandals against their knockoffs, including a pair from Amazon that’s half the price. Turns out we are paying for something!

New vulture in town: “fertility coaches.” Please, rubs temples please don’t come to me saying “but it worked for me!” I owe myself a whole post on the problems with saying “it worked for me!”

That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—

  1. You also could calculate your own exact calorie:protein ratio and use it for your own purposes, instead of the milk rule. The milk is a useful rule of thumb because while people’s calorie-to-protein intake can vary, it does not usually vary so much that the calorie ratio in milk is wildly off. Most of that math will lead back to a 10ish to 1ish calorie-to-protein ratio. Milk is also just around a lot, so if you forget, it’s right there to remind you.