Let’s talk about PROTEIN
By: Sarena Candelaria, NDTR
Protein has become an abundantly popular nutrient in the health realm over the years. Protein shakes, protein cake, protein balls, donuts, pancakes, oatmeal… protein is advertised everywhere we look. Is protein really the focus of a healthy diet? What even is protein, and do you need more of it? If these are questions that you have asked yourself, feel free to read on to learn a bit more about this popular macronutrient.
To start, let’s talk about what protein is. Along with fat and carbohydrate, protein is one of the three macronutrients that our bodies need to function. Protein is found in every cell of the human body, from your organs and muscles to your hair, skin, and nails. It is also used to make enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and many more tiny molecules that are essential for our body to survive.
Protein’s structure is made up of smaller molecules called amino acids that are linked together in a chain. There are two types of amino acids: nonessential and essential. Nonessential amino acids are produced by the body while essential amino acids are obtained through the foods we eat, so there is no doubt that maintaining protein in your diet is important. However, it is a balance of fat, protein, and carbohydrate that your body utilizes best.
So, how much protein does a person really need? Well, protein requirements vary from person to person and are based on weight, height, and activity level. The recommended daily allowance for protein for the average person starts at 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day. Protein requirements can increase with age or if someone wants to increase muscle mass. Athletes who endure rigorous training can need between 1.2 grams to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Regardless, protein intake should only make up 10-35% of an individual’s daily calorie intake. With a well-balanced diet, it can be easy to meet daily protein needs. High-protein diets are widely popular and promoted as an easy way to lose weight because lean sources of protein are known to keep you fuller for longer periods of time and 1 gram of protein clocks in at only 4 calories; but it is important to keep in mind that many of these diets, while increasing protein, decrease your intake of carbohydrates and fats, and usually prohibit the consumption of many calorie-dense foods. When eliminating foods that are processed, high in fat, and/or high in sugar, and consuming more whole foods and lean sources of protein, you are automatically decreasing your calorie intake and encouraging weight loss.
Protein shakes and other protein products are HUGE on the market right now and a lot of them are advertised for weight loss or muscle building. Needing protein shakes or supplements can vary from person to person based on lifestyle and physical activity. The best way to meet protein or any other nutrient needs is through food first, and if those needs can’t be met through meals and snacks, THEN we look into the need for a supplement. However, protein shakes and supplements work very well for individuals who frequently workout at a high intensity for long durations of time and need protein to replenish and recover. Protein supplements can also help those who are needing to increase their protein for muscle building and can’t meet those requirements through food. Individuals who often skip meals throughout the day can benefit from a protein shake to supplement their nutrient needs for the day, but not as a meal-replacement. Protein shakes and supplements should not be used as meal-replacements for weight loss as many of these supplements are calorie-dense and can come with a lot of added sugars. If you are able to meet your daily calorie and protein needs through your meals and snacks, adding in a protein shake or supplement will likely lead to unnecessary calorie intake. Remember that lean sources of protein may be low in calories, but they are still calories and excess calories is what can lead to weight gain.
Wondering what foods you can incorporate into your diet to make sure you meet your daily protein needs? There are animal-based protein sources and there are plant-based protein sources! The only difference is that animal proteins are considered “complete” proteins because they contain all of the essential amino acids that we talked about earlier. Plant proteins are “incomplete” proteins because they are missing one or two of the essential amino acids needed to make a complete protein chain. But this doesn’t make them less efficient! As long as you are eating a variety of plant proteins throughout the day, your body will have the amino acids it needs to create complete proteins. See the list below for foods that can help you meet your daily protein needs.
Animal-based Protein Sources:
Plant-based Protein Sources:
- Soy products (tofu, tempeh, edamame)
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peas)
- Whole grains (brown rice, quinoa, oats, buckwheat)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Seeds (hemp seeds, chia seeds, flaxseed)
Being aware of your protein needs is important, but it’s key to keep in mind that as long as you are eating a variety of foods and maintaining a balanced diet, your nutrient needs should be met. If you are otherwise concerned that you are not meeting your nutrition needs, contact Sara Rima, RD!