Protein is by far the most favored macronutrient! While carbs and fats have been demonized throughout the years, protein is always seen as the superhero. There is no doubt that protein is pretty great, it is only beneficial when consumed in appropriate amounts and from healthy, non-processed sources. Protein is used by the body to perform several important roles such as muscle building, immunity, DNA and RNA synthesis, carriers of other nutrients in the body and can (as a last resort) be used as energy. How does protein do these various roles? Well first let’s examine what protein even is, in a basic sense!
Proteins are molecular compounds composed of chains of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and an amino acid group. The amino acid group determines what specific protein is made. There are 20 amino acids- 9 which are essential and 11 that are non-essential. Essential amino acids must be consumed directly from food sources. Non-essential amino acids can be synthesized in the body from other amino acids consumed. Most animal protein foods (milk, cheese, yogurt, meat, fish) contain all 9 essential amino acids, therefore are considered “complete” proteins. Non-animal protein sources (grains, nuts and legumes) do not contain all 9 essential amino acids and should be consumed along with other protein sources in order to get all the needed amino acids. These foods are considered “incomplete” proteins.
For our bodies to function optimally, we need to consume all the essential amino acids, so it is important to eat a diet filled with a variety of complete and incomplete proteins. Getting all the 9 essential amino acids in the diet tends to be easy for meat, fish and dairy eaters as these foods contain all essential aminos! Nuts, grains and legumes do not contain all essential amino acids so should be eaten in combinations- think beans and rice, peanut butter on whole wheat bread, or hummus and multigrain crackers. When all amino acids are present in the diet, the body is able to break down the proteins from foods and use them to rebuild and repair your body! We all know that proteins are important for muscle growth, but what else are they good for? Let’s find out!
Physiologically, protein has many important roles which are greatly under appreciated! Structural proteins form the basis of all your cells which make your organs, muscle tissues, bones, skin, hair and nails! The circulatory and immune systems rely on proteins because protein makes up red and white blood cells. Red blood cells are carriers of oxygen around the body while white blood cells act as the primary defenders for our bodies against infection and disease. Protein also acts as a carrier of other nutrients (vitamins, minerals, carbs and fats) that are absorbed from food through the small intestine. Protein is the messenger system of the body as it communicates between body organs and systems- for example telling the brain to release antibodies, hormones or signals the relax and contact muscles for movement. As a last resort, protein can be used as energy when fuel from carbs and fat are not available. Protein as fuel is generally not too good though because it leads to muscle breakdown, decreased immunity and other bodily health issues.
On a physical level, protein is known for helping to build and maintain muscle mass. All weight lifters know that increasing protein helps increase muscle synthesis. Many believe that more protein is always better, however there is a limit to how much protein the body can absorb and put to use! Extra protein will either be burned as fuel, stored as fat or excreted through waste.
Protein is a key nutrient in the goal of reaching your ideal weight! This is because:
- Protein supports muscle mass which burns more calories compared to fat mass.
- Protein is digested slowly which keeps you satisfied after meals, prevents blood sugar spikes and crashes and requires more energy to be broken down inside the body.
- Protein increases levels of appetite reducing hormones (specifically GLP-1, peptide YY and cholecystokinin) while reducing the hunger hormone (ghrelin).
- Protein stokes the metabolism which causes you to burn more calories overall throughout the day. Studies show an increase of approximately 80-100 more calories burned by those who ate higher protein diets.
- Protein is proven to decrease cravings throughout the day and especially at night. Late night cravings are one major cause of excess weight gain.
Too little protein has many negative effects on the body. When one consumes minimal amount of protein: muscles may begin to break down or remain broken down after physical stressors, bones are weakened, growth is stunted, inflammation accumulates in the muscles and joints, immunity decreases and infection and illness increase, skin becomes dry and flaky, hair and nails becomes thin and brittle, mood decreases, concentration declines, sleep is interrupted despite fatigue increasing, blood sugar spikes and crashes, metabolism slows, hunger and cravings increase and weight in the form of fat may be gained! No one wants any of these harsh bodily effects, but thankfully few healthy people get inadequate amounts. Those at a greater risk of protein deficiency includes elderly, injured, ill and pregnant women. Individuals in these at risk stages of life should consult a nutrition professional for personal guidelines. But for those who are healthy, active and curious as to how much protein is enough, here is what research says!
On average, most females should consume at least 46 grams and
males 56 grams of protein per day. Based on weight- aiming for 0.36-0.50 grams of protein per pound of body weight is optimal! So for a 150-pound female or male, this translates into 54-75 grams of protein per day. This could look like this:
3 oz grilled chicken (23)
1 cup greek yogurt (19)
2 eggs (14)
2 TBS peanut butter (7)
TOTAL: 63 grams
1 oz almonds (6)
1 cup quinoa (8)
1 cup soybeans (30)
1 cup spinach (5)
4 TBS chia seed (8)
1 cup almond milk (1)
TOTAL: 58 grams
Seems pretty easy to get enough protein in, doesn’t it? Well it is! So many people over think their protein needs! You don’t need protein supplements, shakes or bars to get adequate amounts of protein in a day! Focusing on whole, minimally processed meats, dairy, nuts, seeds and beans can get you to your goal. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may need to consider your intake a bit more- but including whole grains, beans and nuts is a good start towards reaching your daily needs!
Protein is a powerful nutrient and getting the right amount each day is vital for optimal physical and physiological health! Too much and too little could be harmful, so shoot for your personal daily needs! Seek protein from whole, non-processed sources and don’t fall into the trap of high protein or supplement use suggestions.