You’ve probably read about them. Maybe you’ve even tried one. We’re talking protein diets, like, Keto, Paleo, and Atkins. If you’ve ever heard a co-worker talking about supplementing with a protein powder post-workout and wondered if that’s right for you, or have questions like “How much protein do I actually need?”, “What’s the best protein food?”, or “Which healthy proteins should I incorporate into my diet?”, it can be overwhelming to find answers. For starters, there’s a lot of information out there, especially with protein being the latest macronutrient trend. So how can you decipher all of the buzz surrounding protein to make a decision that’s right for your body and diet preference? We got you!
But, First, a Protein Primer
Protein is a building block of every single cell in the human body: skin, hair, nails, muscle, bone, and internal organs. It’s also one of the three macronutrients your body processes for functionality. We’re talking blood clotting, fluid balance, immune response, vision, and production of hormones and enzymes. Clocking in at 4 calories per gram, protein foods are also an important source of micronutrients, including vitamins and minerals, like iron, niacin, vitamin B12, vitamin B6, riboflavin, selenium, choline, phosphorus, zinc, copper, vitamin D, and vitamin E. In short, protein is kind of a big deal.
But protein isn’t just protein, it’s made up of 21 amino acids. And amino acids are vital. In fact, there are 8-9 essential amino acids (depending on your age) that are not synthesized within the body, and therefore need to be supplemented via diet for optimum nutrition. Complete healthy proteins contain all of the necessary amino acids, while incomplete proteins are missing one or more of them. Not to worry! Eating a varied diet–whether you eat meat or not–can help ensure you’re getting the amino acids you need. As an example, eating rice and beans or peanut butter and bread (shout out to PBJ!) makes a complete protein.
The 411 on Animal-Based and Plant-Based Proteins
When it comes to protein, there are two types that come from whole food sources: animal-based protein and plant-based protein. Complete animal proteins are found in meats, poultry, eggs, fish, shellfish, and dairy. Some animal proteins contain saturated fats. And it’s no secret, foods high in saturated fats (meat and dairy) are linked to cardiovascular disease and decreased bone health. Moreover, The American Heart Association suggests limiting the amount of saturated fats to 11-13 grams per day, replacing them with foods like fish and nuts that contain healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Further, the dietary guidelines recommend combining varied sources of lean animal and plant proteins as part of a balanced diet plan.
If you’re vegetarian, vegan, flexitarian, or even a diehard meat eater, plant-based healthy proteins are a great protein source, and include nuts (peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, etc.), seeds, and legumes (lentils, soy, beans, peas). They also contain less saturated fat and cholesterol than their animal protein counterparts. The USDA’s Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern suggests ½ oz. nuts/day or 5 oz./week for a 2000 calorie per day diet. For vegetarians with a 2000 calorie per day diet, they recommend eating 1 oz./day or 7 oz./week of nuts and seeds for optimal health. In 2007-2010, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found women ages 1-71+ were not getting their recommended daily protein overall, and the same for men ages 1-18 and ages 71+. And then there’s this: Plant-based proteins are healthy and economical, costing roughly $0.22 – $0.53 per 1-oz serving. Compared to animal-based proteins, that’s a bargain!
Current dietary guidelines (2015-2020) recommend including more protein and consuming it from diversified whole food sources. Plant products like peanuts, almonds, cashews, and walnuts are an easy and convenient way to incorporate more protein into your diet. Different types of protein sources also provide richer amounts of additional nutrients: Meats provide more zinc; eggs the most choline; dairy more calcium, potassium, magnesium, vitamin D, and vitamin A; and nuts provide the most Vitamin E.
Whole foods are closest to nature and more bioavailable; therefore, the body metabolizes them most efficiently and completely. Whole foods are ones found in their most natural state with little to no additional processing. All vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, and peas, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry, when prepared with little or no added solid fats, sugars, refined starches, and sodium are high quality nutrient-dense foods. Nutrient-dense foods are defined by the US Dietary Guidelines as foods and beverages that provide vitamins, minerals, fiber and other naturally occurring substances that contribute to adequate nutrient intakes or may have positive health effects. Most nutrition professionals will agree that getting your nutrients from whole food sources is the best path for a healthy life.
We like to think of these whole food sources of protein as Nature’s gift to us. Pretty amazing!
And Then There’s Protein Powders…
Two of the most popular protein powders are whey (animal-based) and soy (plant-based). Whey protein is derived from milk, and is the watery by-product of the cheese-making process. Casein is another protein that comes from milk, and is used in supplements. It’s also absorbed by the body more slowly than whey. Soy protein powder is derived from de-fatted soybeans, which is further treated with chemicals to isolate the protein.
Both whey and soy protein powders can be categorized into isolates, concentrates, and hydrolysates:
- Isolates contain the highest concentrations of protein and tend to be more expensive, as they are highly processed and filtered to remove the majority of milk fat and lactose. Lactose-intolerant? Isolates are a good option to get that extra boost of protein since they contain less than 1% lactose
- Concentrates are manufactured to contain an attractive amount of protein–up to 80% by weight–and still contain fat and carbohydrates
- Hydrolysates are further processed to allow the protein to be more rapidly absorbed in the gut
It’s worth keeping in mind that protein powders may also contain other added ingredients such as artificial flavors, artificial colors, preservatives, and other chemicals added during processing and/or to the final product.
So, How Much Protein Do You Need for a Healthy Diet Plan?
Great question! The answer: Probably not as much as you think. It all depends on your gender, age, height, activity level, and optimal body weight. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 kilograms/gram of body weight. To calculate your perfect protein intake, find the healthy weight for a person with your height, convert pounds to kilograms (1 lb. = 2.2 kg), then multiply by 0.8 to get your RDA of protein.
165/2.2 = 75kg
75kg x 0.8 = 60g protein/daily
Teens ages 14-18 years old should aim for 0.85g of protein/kg/day.
Athletes should aim for protein amounts within the range of 1.2-1.7g/kg/day, while endurance athletes should target 1.2-1.4 g/kg/day.
What does a daily dose of protein look like? Check out the image of what a day’s worth of protein for a person who weighs 165 pounds with moderate activity looks like. If you incorporate common protein foods like skim milk at 8 grams, peanut butter at 7g, lean chicken at 22g, or lean beef burger at 23g, you can easily achieve your daily protein goals.
In Case You’re Wondering Why Protein Is a Big Deal These Days
Whether you’re an athlete, into strength training, or just an active, health-minded individual, you’re probably seeking strength, power, endurance, and lean muscle maintenance. Numerous studies have proven that higher protein intake can lead to enhanced protein synthesis, which in turn promotes gains in muscle mass and size. In other studies, greater protein intake has further proven to assist in positive nitrogen balance. What’s that, you ask? Positive nitrogen balance helps to prevent lean muscle tissues from declining. Maintaining muscle strength is obviously central to strength, power, and performance.
And it’s not just how much protein you consume. Research has shown that timing of protein intake plays a role, too. Because muscle growth happens only when exercise and diet are combined, eating high-quality healthy proteins within two hours after exercising has been proven to enhance muscle repair and growth. Protein bars–especially ones with whole foods and clean ingredients like our Perfect Bar–contain essential nutrients and are great for active individuals who need on-the-go protein for a boost of energy or to keep their metabolism revved up.
With so much information available online, the general population also has greater awareness today than ever about what they put into their bodies. According to results of the 2015 Food & Health Survey, “Consumer attitudes toward food safety, nutrition, and health” indicate protein is essential for a physically active lifestyle. A staggering 89% of consumers believe it’s important to get enough protein in their diet. It comes as no surprise that athletes top the list, ranking protein as most beneficial. Other groups, including active men and women ages 21-45, active teenagers, and active seniors also believe protein helps maintain muscle during the aging years at 81% and enhance recovery from exercise at 77% of responses. That’s why there’s a widespread trend toward incorporating more whole foods and healthy proteins into their daily diets.
The rise in low-carbohydrate diets may also be attributed to the Atkins diet from the 1970’s. This diet promoted a reduction in overall weight and weight maintenance. Low-carb diets–sugar busters, ketogenic, paleo, and many others–do in fact help individuals lose weight, but a large part of weight reduction is a reduction in calories and the possible theory of slightly increased metabolism.
A Delicious Obsession
Likely the biggest contributor to protein’s popularity is…taste!
There are countless ways to prepare protein. Just check out any number of apps, websites, blogs, cooking shows, and recipes to see how easy it is to season, marinade, and cook your preferred protein. Because our bodies physiologically need protein, nothing is more nourishing or satisfying than sitting down with a perfectly prepared steak or chicken, or snacking on a tasty protein bar after an intense workout or hectic workday.
What’s the bottom line? Tailor your protein intake to your individual needs then balance your diet with a variety of nutrient-dense, healthy proteins from whole food sources. Clean forms of protein are nature’s design. And that’s a beautiful thing.
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