Protein has been in the spotlight for a long time, especially since carbohydrates have been increasingly shunned with the rise of the keto diet, Atkins diet, South Beach Diet and more. While public favor for different nutrients may fluctuate periodically, the reality is that each nutrient is important for overall health, and all should be included as part of a balanced diet.
All About Protein
So what’s so great about protein? Do you need to be drinking smoothies with protein powder or snacking on protein bars? Just because a dieting trend is popular doesn’t mean you have to follow it, of course. Then again, more protein in your diet may be a smart move. Before making any changes, first review the following basic facts all about protein.
What is Protein and What Does it Do?
Protein is an essential macronutrient (like carbohydrates and fat) made from 20 different amino acids, which are composed of nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Our bodies can make some amino acids, but there are nine essential amino acids that must come from food. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, hundreds of amino acids link to form long chains, and the sequence of that chain determines the protein’s unique function.
Considered a vital building block, protein is found in every cell of the body. As for function, protein:
- Is a growth component for muscle, bones, skin, cartilage and blood
- Helps make enzymes and hormones
- Plays a role in tissue repair
- Protects the body from bacteria and viruses
- Helps blood clot
- Impacts vision
Note that protein, by itself, does not build muscle. Exercise builds muscle, and protein supports that growth.
One reason that protein is popular is that it helps increase resting metabolism and fosters a feeling of fullness, so that greater protein intake can lead to reduced overall calorie consumption, which supports weight management or weight loss.
Unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body does not store protein, so it must be continually replenished through diet.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
The National Academy of Medicine recommends that protein should make up 10-35 percent of your daily total caloric intake. The Recommended Daily Allowance is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 7 grams per 20 pounds of body weight. So a 150-pound person should get approximately 54 grams of protein per day. Athletes or committed exercisers can increase amounts to 1.1 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of body weight.
Despite the prevailing emphasis on protein, there is not a widespread deficiency in the United States. In fact, for average Americans, protein comprises approximately 15 percent of their daily total calories. Many more Americans consume twice the amount that they really need.
And more isn’t better, given that the body does not store protein. Just like carbohydrates and fat, extra protein gets converted and stored as fat. Plus, excess consumption of protein can lead to:
- Kidney stones
- Bone loss
- Liver problems
- High levels of calcium in the blood and urine
Sources of Protein
If possible, consume protein through natural foods, versus relying heavily on processed foods and powders, which should only serve as occasional supplements. Also, be mindful of fat intake, as many high protein foods, such as red meat and nuts, also have a high fat content, which adds calories.
Animal-based protein sources include:
- Red meat and pork
- Dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese)
Plant-based sources of protein are:
- Nuts and nut butters (peanut butter)
- Beans and legumes (lentils, peas, edamame, etc.)
- Whole grains (wheat, rice, oats, quinoa, etc.)
- Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, potatoes, asparagus, avocados, artichokes)