We’ve all gotten the finger-wagging lecture about protein from fitness trainers. Their demands for more of it leave us picturing a Henry VIII turkey leg in one hand and a dumbbell in the other. We eat meat — we’re no bunch of Birkenstock-wearing vegans (not that there’s anything wrong with that). So what the heck are they talking about?

Protein is super important. It provides us our amino acids (remember learning about those — the “building blocks”). Something needs building (muscle, tissue repair, enzymes, hormones, hair, etc.)? You’ll find amino acids around to do the job. Imagine trying to build a skyscraper but the concrete trucks aren’t arriving on time. That’s your body waiting on some protein.

Nutritional recommendations can be confusing, especially with messages flying at us from 100 different directions and much of it conflicts. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines make recommendations based on percentages, but textbook chapters base it on body weight. USDA guidelines also assume a 2,000 calorie/day diet — which may or may not be you. Some diet gurus believe in “high protein” and some say you can get by on significantly lower amounts. And, from what?

I prefer to calculate (yes, I said calculate — math is coming) protein needs based on body weight. Sedentary people are encouraged to get 0.8 g/kg body weight per day. Don’t freak out — you don’t need a slide rule to do this — just grab a calculator. Take your body weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 (converts your weight to kilograms). Multiply your weight in kilograms by 0.8. Voila! That’s how much protein a sedentary person needs each day.

If you resistance train regularly, or are an endurance athlete, your protein needs can range anywhere from 1.2–1.8 g/kg body weight. Just repeat the calculation above but swap the 0.8 for your new protein amount. Easy stuff, right?

Now where do you get that protein? To see how you’ve been doing, read some of your food labels. Look for the grams of protein per serving; measure it out if you need to. Food items you thought were high in protein aren’t, and other sources might contain a lot more than you expected. I know I was surprised by some grains and beans — don’t go thinking you’ve got to eat an entire cow to get your protein in (chalk one up for the vegetarians — who, by the way need 2.0 g/kg of body weight to make sure they get all their amino acids). Have you been taking in enough based on our previous calculation?

If not, start thinking “where’s my protein” in each of your meals/snacks. Add in lean meats, eggs, dairy, beans, grains, and nuts. Don’t forget that protein has calories (4 per gram to be exact). You can gain weight on too much of anything. Keep an eye out for fat that might be along for the ride, like in a marbled steak or in some cheese. To avoid overeating, keep a daily tally. You might find you need to swap some of your fat and carbohydrate calories for some protein. After a bit of time, you’ll find the balance of foods that works for you. And if you’re having trouble, a round or two with a registered dietician can help.

You’ll have to be vigilant at first. Our typical, eat-on-the-go food sources tend to be heavy on carbs and fat, and lighter on the protein. But your efforts will pay off. The body’s internal construction will get needed supplies and materials, and you’ll get your skyscrapers in the form of muscle, tissue and hormones.

• NSCA certified personal trainer Shannon Sorrels has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and an MBA. Her Ahwatukee-based company, Physix LLC, works with Valley individuals and groups to improve their overall fitness. Reach her at (480) 528-5660 or visit www.azphysix.com.