Everyone loves protein. Or at least they think they do. Protein is one of the most well-known and popularly discussed nutrients. It’s on magazine covers, food packages, and even your grandma probably has a lot to say about it. So people know that protein is important, but what makes it so great? There is so much conflicting information out there that it’s time for some real talk about protein. Here are some facts about this macronutrient and what it can do for you.
What does protein do?
Proteins have varied and important jobs, which is one reason they get so much attention. It is true that we can use protein for energy, but its biggest roles in our body are structural and chemical. Our muscle, hair, skin and nails are built of protein. Also, all enzymes in our body are proteins. Enzymes are the molecules responsible for catalyzing or speeding up chemical reactions in our bodies. Enzymes have thousands of crucial functions in our body, including digesting food, transporting oxygen in our blood, and allowing muscles to work properly.
How much do we need?
In the U.S., most people consume enough protein, and many of our diets actually provide much more than we need. The recommended dietary allowance for healthy adults in the U.S. is 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men. These values are averages based on the Institute of Medicine’s (IOM) recommendation for .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. Since protein needs vary by age, activity level and health status, the IOM guidelines also state that a healthy range for most people is 10-35% of your total calories from protein.
Protein recommendations certainly aren’t one size fits all and some people do need more. Children and teens have increased needs to support their rapid growth and development. Older adults also require larger amounts of protein to make up for muscle mass lost as a natural part of aging. Trauma patients such as those recovering from surgery or a serious accident need extra protein to help their bodies heal. Pregnant and breastfeeding women must take in more protein to support a healthy pregnancy and baby. Athletes are another group that may need more protein to build new muscle.
Where does protein come from?
Animal products are high in protein, because their bodies are made of the nutrient just like ours. Foods like dairy, eggs, fish and meat have high amounts of protein. When choosing animal foods, it’s important to keep the whole picture in mind. Just because a food has tons of protein doesn’t mean it’s completely healthy. High protein often means high fat (especially in meat) and this can quickly add up to excess calories. Processed meats can also be salt traps which can cause problems for people with heart or blood pressure conditions.
Don’t forget the veggies! While animal foods generally have higher amounts of protein per serving, plant foods can also pack a serious protein punch. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (and many other health science organizations) agree that a vegetarian diet can provide all the protein you need for a healthy body throughout the lifecycle. Soy products, beans and nuts are typical go-to sources. However, vegetables themselves can add up to meet your needs. Spinach, asparagus, beet greens and bok choy are some of the most protein dense veggies out there according to analysis by the World’s Healthiest Foods organization.
What exactly IS protein?
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. There are 20 amino acids and they are each categorized as essential or non-essential. This wording can be confusing, but there’s a simple explanation. Essential means that we must obtain these amino acids through foods in our diet because the body can’t synthesize them on its own. On the other hand, non-essential amino acids are made from other molecules in the body.
You may have heard of complete protein foods. These are foods that contain all of the essential amino acids. Vegetable proteins often get a bad rap because there are few individual plant foods that offer complete protein. No need to worry, though. Experts agree that eating a variety of plant foods over the course of the day should cover your protein needs. It’s not necessary to eat them all in the same food or meal.
Can you get too much protein?
In this case, too much of a good thing is possible. The recommendations for protein are pretty low when you consider the typical American diet. You can get your entire days’ worth with an omelet for breakfast and a turkey sub for lunch. A little extra protein isn’t harmful for most people especially when it comes from healthy sources like chicken or tofu. Yet, excessive intake of protein over time has been associated with weight gain, certain types of cancer and extra stress on your kidneys.
What’s the deal with high protein diets and powders?
Diets such as Atkins or protein crash diets focus on foods high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Like most extreme diets, you lose weight due to the severe restriction of many foods and ultimately a reduction in calories. While you might lose weight initially, it will come back when you reintroduce foods later on. You’re also likely missing out on vitamins and minerals from the eliminated food groups such as fruits and veggies. A better plan to lose weight is to focus on lean proteins at every meal and round out your diet with whole grains and lots of produce.
Protein powders and shakes are also extremely popular. Most of these products are made of either whey protein (from milk) or soy protein. While either type will give you a good hefty dose of protein, they can also come with unnecessary ingredients. These items often have added sugars and artificial preservatives. Most people are able to meet their needs with a normal diet and skip the expensive powders and shakes. If you do have increased protein needs and choose to supplement, make sure to check the label carefully to know what you’re getting with these products.
Now that you’re a protein expert, it’s time to eat! Here’s are some examples of foods that are good choices for protein.
Plant protein sources:
Tofu – 10g per 4 oz serving
Lentils – 9g per ½ cup serving
Peanut Butter -8g per 2 tbsp. serving
Chickpeas – 7.5g per ½ cup serving
Peas – 4.5g per ½ cup serving
Beet Greens- 4g per 1 cup serving
Animal protein sources:
Salmon – 25g per 5oz serving
Chicken – 24g per 4oz serving
Yogurt – 11g per 8oz serving
Cheddar Cheese – 7g per 1oz serving
Egg – 6g per large egg
Raina Goldstein Bunnag has a bachelor’s degree from Boston University and is currently a master’s candidate in nutrition and public health at the University of North Carolina. She keeps abreast of the latest health news and will be addressing relevant wellness topics each month. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see covered in the column, please send her an email at [email protected].