Our bodies require nutrients in order to survive, function, and thrive.
We need large amounts of some - we call these macronutrients - and smaller amounts of others - we call these micronutrients.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals, and macronutrients include:
The food we eat contains a combination of any/all of the above. Each of these three macros provide energy, or calories, to your body, and each affects your body in different ways.
In this post, we’re looking a little closer at the basics of Protein - what it is, why you need it, and how to get enough.
What is Protein?
Proteins are made of amino acids. People can produce some amino acids, but must get others from food.
The nine amino acids that humans cannot produce on our own are called "essential" amino acids.
When you consume a source of protein, about a quarter of it ends up in your bloodstream as part what’s known as the free amino acid pool.
Each gram of protein provides your body with 4 calories of energy, and they are put to extremely good use. Typically, human bodies are around 15-20% protein - that is, our skeleton, connective, and muscle tissues are all made of protein, which helps up to understand our next question:
Why Do We Need Protein?
So. Many. Reasons.
Here’s one: the amino acids your body gets from breaking down proteins you eat are used for incredibly important things like creating muscle mass, rebuilding body tissues and assisting with basic bodily survival functions.
Here's another: we also use the proteins circulating in our bloodstream to make enzymes and hormones, and to power many cellular-level functions.
In fact, protein not only helps our muscles grow, it also helps our immune system stay strong, and our bellies stay satisfied.
That’s right, protein is the macro that studies show allows you to feel more full with less food.
If you are someone who is trying to lose body fat, eating protein can control your appetite, assist you in feeling fuller for longer, and thus help you to achieve the calorie deficit necessary for losing weight.
Getting enough protein also:
(Did you know? Cravings are different than hunger - cravings usually indicate a lack of something important in your diet, and that’s usually protein!)
All those free amino acids floating around your bloodstream come from the protein you eat; HOWEVER, if you aren’t eating enough protein, your body will borrow protein from another source in order to continue its function.
And guess where it borrows from?
So, if you are someone who is training to gain muscle, you need to be eating enough protein to build and repair your muscle tissues, and enough to prevent your body from borrowing muscle protein to feed its needs.
Similarly, if you are currently sick or injured, protein can assist in speeding your recovery.
The sneaky part is, there’s no place to store protein in your body, like there is for fat and carbs. This is one reason why eating enough protein throughout the day on a daily basis is super duper important.
How Much Protein, Exactly?
To be honest, this one sort of depends on who you ask. Your specific amount of daily intake will depend a compilation of factors like your age, gender, activity level, and physique goals, as well as other things like your overall health.
(Did you know? Folks with kidney problems can do more harm than good with large amounts of protein - always, always, ALWAYS communicate with your doctor!)
In general, understand that you need quite a bit of daily protein. So much so that it should be included in every meal and snack you have throughout every day.
Making an appointment with a Nutrition Coach to find your exact macro requirements can be a fun tool to deepen your understanding of how your body works and what it needs, so long as, like with any numbers related to food, you don’t get carried away, fixated, or obsessed.
Macros are a tool, not a doctrine.
As a very general rule of thumb, people need between 20-30 grams of protein per meal, from about 4 meals per day -- or roughly 80-120 grams of protein a day.
A helpful guide: Females can aim eat about a palm of protein with each meal; males, about two palms of protein per meal.
Sources of Protein
All food made from meat, poultry, seafood, beans and peas, eggs, processed soy products, nuts and seeds are considered part of the protein group, according to the USDA.
Most people eat enough food in this group, but it’s always worthwhile to explore leaner and more varied selections.
When it comes to choosing meats, aim for organic and grass-fed whenever you are able. Lean meats like chicken and turkey are better for your heart health than pork and beef, but that said, it’s important to eat what you enjoy.
Seafood is another great source of protein, as well as amazing vitamins and minerals that are good for your brain! Again, you’ll want organic and wild-caught whenever possible, and aim to eat lower on the food chain to steer clear of high-mercury fish.
High-protein meats and seafood include:
Vegetarian animal products like eggs, yogurt, milk, and cheese are rich in protein as well.
High-protein dairy foods include:
Besides animal sources, there are several alternative sources of protein, including soy, hemp and whey.
Vegan sources of protein include tofu, tempeh, beans, legumes, seeds, and nuts.
Many vegan sources of protein don’t contain a full amino acid profile (called a “complete protein.”) If you choose a vegan diet, make certain you are eating a variety of protein sources, include things like hemp and pea protein, and combine sources like beans and quinoa to fill in that protein profile.
Other sources of protein include certain vegetables and grains: spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, and quinoa all contain solid amounts of protein, for example.
Some other high-protein foods are:
The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that protein is an essential nutrient that we need for a lot of reasons.
Fortunately, there are many sources to make consistent consumption an easily reachable goal.
You owe it to yourself - and your health - to figure out which of the protein sources listed above are your favorite, go-to options, and then aim to get 1 or 2 palm-sized portions of it on your plate at every meal.
Your body, mind, and health will thank you, which means so will your soul.
Recipes to Try
Also Check Out:
To Coach Caryn of FitFood Coaching for her contributions to this blog post! xo