Proteins, and the amino acids they’re made up of, are often called the building blocks of the body. That’s because they’re essential to the growth and development of our muscles, bones, organs — pretty much everything in our bodies.
But why do we need protein? What does it really do? Are we all getting enough in our diets? Read on for a little lesson about our favorite macronutrient.
Protein’s Role as the Ultimate Body Builder
After you pump iron, your arms ache for a reason: The muscles inside experience damage in the form of micro-tears. Thankfully, protein jumps in to help rebuild and even grow your muscles. That’s why some athletes use protein powder and protein supplements to really bulk up. Pretty cool that you can actually see this humble nutrient in action.
Since each gram of protein delivers four calories and can also serve as a backup source of energy. When we burn calories, our systems first use up the energy from the carbs and fats stored in our bodies, so this isn’t exactly protein’s primary function. But in the case of endurance athletes, when these stores run low, the third macronutrient steps in to fuel that extra push.
Even if you’re not looking to finish a marathon or make major gains at the gym, you’re still experiencing protein’s body-building powers first-hand. But why do we need protein if we’re not all that athletic? Well, there are a lot of great reasons.
Protein helps sustain healthy bone density and repairs tissue throughout our system. Furthermore, it stores and circulates key micronutrients throughout the body. This impressive macronutrient also promotes cognitive performance by supporting neurotransmitters.
Additionally, protein keeps the immune system working, helps our tummies stay full for longer, and can even boost metabolism. As if that’s not enough, protein also contributes to the growth of healthy, beautiful hair and nails. (So, nutrition — but make it fashion!)
But What is Protein, Anyway?
Alongside carbohydrates and fats, protein is one of the three macronutrients our bodies need in substantial quantities. Compare this to micronutrients like vitamins and minerals. They’re still incredibly important, but our bodies need them in smaller doses.
Proteins are made up of some combination of 20 amino acids, which are organic compounds that link up to form long chains. Depending on the sequence and structure, each chain of amino acids serves a different purpose. An Oregon State blog describes the whole structure quite prettily, with amino acids as the charms on a charm bracelet.
Nine of these “charms” are considered essential amino acids. The FDA explains that our bodies need them to function normally, but we can’t make them on our own. Lab tests have shown that missing out on these essential amino acids can cause illness and may even have fatal consequences.
The remaining 11 amino acids are considered nonessential, which means that our cells can produce them in a process known as protein synthesis. But this requires the help of other proteins and the essential amino acids.
2 Types of Protein Sources, 1 Caveat
If that’s starting to sound a little chicken-or-egg (both are popular protein sources, by-the-by), remember that we have to get protein in our diets to keep this process going.
We take in this all-important macronutrient from two types of protein sources: plant sources like beans, nuts, and whole grains, and animal sources like meat, fish, and dairy products.
Animal-based foods are often known as “complete proteins” because they provide all nine essential amino acids, whereas plant proteins lack some of them. However, even if you’re following a plant-based diet it’s possible to get all nine in your diet by varying what you eat.
But even so, the major benefits of protein all sound pretty good, right? So, is this a “more is more” situation? Are there any downsides to loading up on protein?
Well, let’s start by saying that we do need to consume certain amounts of protein every day to keep things functioning properly. But it’s a little challenging to identify a one-size-fits-all answer to the “correct” intake of protein or the “best” source of protein.
In general, most Americans are already getting enough protein in our diets. The caveat is that certain widespread eating habits aren’t delivering the healthiest combination of nutrients to our bodies.
Now, let’s identify how much protein we really need every day, before digging into the most nutritious sources of protein to look for.
Daily Protein Recommendations
The Dietary Reference Intake for protein suggests 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight as the recommended dietary allowance (RDA). The RDA is defined as the “average daily level of intake sufficient to meet the nutrient requirements of nearly all healthy people.” This is a baseline estimate of what we need to stay healthy and functioning.
Sticking to the RDA would involve consuming just around 10% of your daily calories in protein form, according to an article published by Harvard Medical School. But the average American adult takes in closer to 16% of their daily calories from a combination of plant and animal protein sources. That’s not necessarily a problem, though, since the RDA is simply what the human body needs to get by and avoid muscle loss or a protein deficiency.
While research into the perfect amount of protein is still underway, the Harvard article suggests that consuming up to twice the RDA of protein can be a good target. Depending on your age, sex, and how active you are, this could be anywhere from 15% to 25% of your caloric intake. Offering a broader range, the Food and Nutrition Board considers it acceptable for adults to get anywhere from 10% to 35% of their daily calories from protein sources.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans — updated every five years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture — offers some helpful guidance as well. This source recommends that someone following a 2,000 calorie diet should consume 5.5 ounces or 156 grams of protein-rich foods each day.
If you’re an athlete or someone interested in following a high-protein diet, speak with your doctor or a nutritionist before making any major changes. Depending on your body’s needs, simple tweaks like adding protein shakes into your routine might help you get the nutrients you need to stay healthy.
But it’s not strictly about how much protein you get. You should be making quantity and quality considerations.
The Importance of Varying Your Protein Routine
When it comes to quality, consider where your protein is coming from and the overall nutrition package that food source delivers. In general, you should aim for protein sources that have fewer carbohydrates and saturated fats and higher quantities of vitamins and minerals.
For instance, processed deli meats contain more saturated fats than many other sources of protein. You don’t necessarily want your daily protein intake bundled with higher levels of fat, though — especially when you can easily supplement your diet with a wide variety of lean, protein-packed plant-based foods. So, while deli meat is certainly a reliable source of protein, in that it’s a complete protein, it shouldn’t be your only source.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans lists varying the protein sources we consume as one of the key components of a healthy eating pattern. It recommends choosing nutrient-dense foods from both plant and animal sources.
Opt for whole foods that offer protein along with other micro- and macronutrients rather than highly processed foods that may have been stripped of some nutritional value. Here are some lean, nutrient-dense, protein-rich foods to add to your plate:
- Legumes like beans and peas
- Low-fat dairy products
- Peanuts and tree nuts
- Whole grains
- Quinoa and other seeds
Comparing our eating habits to the recommended weekly intake of a variety of protein sources, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans pinpoints a few eating habits we could get better about:
Males aged 14 to 70 eat more meat, poultry, and eggs that is recommended.
Males and females between ages 9 and 30 aren’t getting as many nuts, seeds, and soy products as is recommended.
Adults and children across the board aren’t reaching the recommended intake of seafood.
If any of those describe you (and the last one certainly does!) consider adjusting your weekly meal plan for a more balanced diet.
This was a lot of info to pack in, we know! But, just like how those sneaky little amino acids can bulk up your muscles after a workout, all of this extra protein knowledge is building your brain. And, since knowledge is power, our hope is that the nutrition facts we’ve covered here will empower you to make healthful eating decisions.
So, to review — why do we need protein again? Well, it’s one of the three macronutrients that our bodies rely on to function normally. It promotes the growth and development of the systems that keep us strong and healthy. Honestly, we’d be in a pretty sad state without it.
Most Americans are consuming a suitable amount of protein every day. Unless we’re becoming more active or building muscle mass, most of us don’t really need to increase our protein intake. We simply need to improve our approach. The important thing to remember is that protein is packaged along with other nutrients, and some sources deliver higher nutritional value than others.
Animal proteins are complete proteins since they provide all of the essential amino acids we need. However, certain animal sources can have health side effects that are unrelated to the protein itself. For instance, higher levels of saturated fat found in some meats may increase blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Most men tend to rely too heavily on meat, poultry, and eggs for protein.
Plant-based proteins don’t deliver all the amino acids we need, so it takes a bit of extra effort to get the right combination. However, herbivores and omnivores alike are urged to incorporate a variety of whole-food plant sources into our diets. In particular, kids and adults under 30 could add more soy products, seeds, and nuts into their diets.
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