Protein, like its controversy-mired counterparts carbs and fat, is a macronutrient. That means your body needs adequate amounts of it, and it provides much-needed calories (4 calories per gram, to be exact).
And in the Great Macro Debate, everyone pretty much agrees: Protein is really good for you.
So what is protein, exactly?
Protein is an essential macronutrient that provides amino acids, which are the building blocks of many body tissues.
It’s really important for proper growth, exercise recovery, strength building, and cell repair. And protein has tons of other health benefits too.
Grab a protein bar and put your learning cap on — it’s time to become a protein pro.
Proteins are made of long chains of amino acids — or, as you may remember them from middle school bio, “the building blocks of life.”
Humans use 20 different amino acids, but your bod can’t manufacture 9 of them. So you have to get these nine essential amino acids from food:
Other amino acids are conditionally essential, meaning you need more of them when your body is under stress (like when you’re sick or recovering from an injury).
Under a microscope, proteins look like tangled balls of string because these chains fold over themselves repeatedly, forming a matrix that is denatured (unwound) during digestion. This lets your body lop off amino acids and add them to your amino acid “bank.”
Your bod can then pull amino acids from this nutrient bank when it’s time to make new proteins.
Animal products are the amino acid kings
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for most plant-based protein foods. That’s why it’s *super* important to include a variety of protein sources if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. You don’t want to miss out on those precious aminos.
For the sweet, sweet gainz, obviously.
But really: Your body is constantly creating new cells and tissues and recycling the old ones. For this to work, you need protein from your diet — or, more specifically, those essential amino acids.
Your body uses amino acids to build new proteins for cell growth and repair, muscle recovery, and recovery from injury and illness. In fact, getting enough protein in your diet can help with all kinds of stuff.
Here’s a sampling:
- Diabetes risk. Although other factors (like weight and body fat) play a larger role in the development of diabetes, research suggests higher protein intake may slightly reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Cancer odds. Among people with breast cancer, those with the highest protein intake appear to have a slightly higher chance of survival, according to a 2017 study.
- Bone health. More research is needed, but a higher protein intake may be linked to better bone density — particularly in the lumbar spine. And um… that sounds pretty important to us when dealing with the WFH posture struggle.
- Muscle growth. Want muscles? Eat protein. Your body needs tons of it (and the amino acid leucine, in particular) to build new muscle.
- Weight management. Protein is more filling than fat and carbs (with the exception of our pal fiber), which is why high protein diets are often recommended for weight loss.
Amino acids are unique AF
Each individual amino acid has its own benefits too. Here are some examples:
- Leucine. This is the most important amino acid for muscle building. It’s what muscles crave.
- Lysine. This is a precursor to carnitine, which helps your mitochondria (the “powerhouse of the cell” — you know the drill) make more energy.
- Arginine. This amino acid may help with blood sugar regulation, and it’s important for wound healing. It’s also used as a supplement to help boost blood flow and energy production.
- Tryptophan. It won’t directly make you sleepy (exception: Thanksgiving turkey), but it does help your body make serotonin, which promotes good sleep and relaxation.
The FDA generally recommends that adults eat about 50 grams of protein erry day. Your specific needs may be a little lower or higher based on how many calories your bod needs.
You can also look at the recommended dietary allowances for protein based on your sex and age group:
If you want a more individualized way to calculate how much protein you need, you can base your intake on your weight and activity level. The protein recommendations based on activity level and weight would look something like this:
The USDA also offers a handy protein intake calculator.
Is protein deficiency really a thing?
Um, YES. In fact, there’s a name for it: kwashiorkor. It’s rare and typically occurs only in malnourished children living in low income countries. The condition is characterized by stunted growth and abdominal swelling.
Stateside, protein deficiency is super rare. But loss of muscle mass and getting sick all the time may be signs that you’re not getting enough.
Whether you’re a vegan, a carnivore, or somewhere in between, there are plenty of protein-rich options that can fit into your diet.
Wanna make sure you’re hitting your protein goals? Here are the protein-rich foods to chow down on:
Don’t overdo the processed meats
While it’s best to meet your protein needs by eating whole foods, protein powders definitely have their place.
Protein powder is a super easy and convenient way to make sure you’re getting enough of this vital nutrient. Some populations may need more protein, such as athletes, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, vegans or vegetarians, and older adults.
Supplementing with protein powder can also be helpful if you have trouble getting enough protein, which might happen if you have certain food allergies or intolerances or if you’re recovering from an injury or illness.
Before you get your protein shake on
If you’re taking meds (like antibiotics) or have medical conditions, get the OK from your doc first. Some protein powders can cause adverse reactions.
It’s also not a bad idea to double-check that your protein powder contains quality ingredients and has been verified by third-party testing.
It’s an exaggeration to say that eating too much protein can demolish your kidneys (unless you already have kidney issues). But there really isn’t any clear benefit to eating way more protein than your body needs.
If you’re trying to lose weight, upping your protein intake a little bit could keep you feeling full on fewer calories. Some low carb diets may be higher in protein, which can help provide similar weight loss benefits.
BTW, keto is actually not a high protein diet — it’s high fat, low carb, and moderate protein (the more you know 💫 ).
Most people who aren’t very active will get plenty of protein by aiming for 0.5 grams of protein per pound (1 gram per kilogram) of body weight.
It’s generally safe to eat up to 0.9 grams per pound (2 grams per kilogram), but there’s really no need to top off that much unless you’re doing some serious Lou Ferrigno-style workouts.
Is a low protein diet ever necessary?
SOME people, such as those with chronic kidney disease, may need to follow a low or very low protein diet. But don’t just decide to start a low protein diet without first consulting a medical professional or dietitian.
As far as meat goes, aim for a piece that’s at least the size of a deck of cards once it’s cooked. In the case of plant-based protein sources, aim for 1/2 cup.
Here are some other tips to help you meet that protein goal:
- Beans, beans, beans. Protein-rich and super versatile, beans are great in soups and salads, as a main dish or a side, and they make a great snack too. Hummus, anyone?
- Sprinkle seeds like confetti. Like beans, seeds can go with pretty much everything. You can even use seeds to make protein-rich crackers (or just buy seed crackers) for that aforementioned hummus.
- (Nut) butter it up. Nut and seed butters are a tasty way to add some extra protein to your meals. You can make energy bites, whip up a flavorful Asian-inspired sauce, or keep it classic on toast.
- Make Greek yogurt your BFF. Use plain Greek yogurt instead of mayo in chicken, tuna, or egg salad. Or add it to overnight oats or baked goods to level up your protein.
- Put an egg on it! A fried or hard-boiled egg is a tasty way to add an extra 7 or so grams of protein. Add eggs to salads, ramen, stir-fries, or sandwiches. Or simply scramble up eggs for brekkie.
If you still have trouble getting enough protein, add some protein powder or a ready-to-drink protein shake. This can give you an extra 20 to 30 grams of protein easily.
- Protein contains amino acids your body needs to make new proteins. There are 9 essential amino acids that you must get through your diet.
- Eating enough protein can also promote muscle growth and help with weight management.
- Aim for 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, depending on your activity level.
- Meat, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans, and certain grains are all great sources of protein. Protein powder is also a good way to get some extra protein if you’re having trouble getting enough from food.
- High protein diets aren’t typically harmful, but there’s also no benefit to eating way more protein than you need.