Updated: May 19, 2022
"When life gives you lemons, ask for something higher in protein!"
Protein is found throughout the body—in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue. It makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.
Out of the twenty amino acids, our bodies can make eleven (non-essential amino acids) but we need to obtain the others (essential amino acids) through our diets.
Protein is one of three essential macronutrients in food, and a key ingredient for building and repairing cells and tissues. Getting enough protein in your diet helps to support your immune system, maintain good digestion and metabolism, regulate hormones, and keep your skin healthy.
It's also crucial for building and maintaining muscle mass and helping your muscle recover after a workout to grow back stronger. Including plenty of protein in your meals can help stabilize blood sugar and appetite and aid weight loss and fat burning, according to dietitians.
How Much Protein Should I Be Consuming?
According to the National Academy of Medicine, the RDA (Recommended daily allowance) for protein is 0.8g/kg body weight for a sedentary individual. However, for active individuals, numerous studies suggest an intake of approximately double the RDA, ranging between 1.2 to 2g/kg of body weight.
The amount of protein you need varies depending on your size, age, and activity level. A general recommendation is .36 grams per pound of body weight daily for the average person — at least 58 grams per day for a 160 pound person.
Physically active people and athletes should get at least 0.5 to 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily. For an active 160 pound person, that's a recommendation of between 80 grams to 128 grams per day.
Up to a gram of protein per pound of body weight, or 1.6 grams for athletes, is considered safe and healthy, according to research. Having too much protein long-term may cause issues with digestion or kidney health.
Quality and Quantity of Protein
When it comes to a healthy diet, a lot of emphasis is placed on the quantity of protein in food, but not so much on the quality. The terms "complete" and "incomplete" protein refer to the quality of protein in a food and the types of amino acids it includes. Amino acids are the units that make up all proteins, and the human body can produce several of them on its own. The rest have to come from diet.
Of the approximately 20 known amino acids, nine of them—histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine—cannot be made or modified by the body and must come from food.
These nine are called essential amino acids. The rest are called "nonessential" not because they lack importance, but because the body can produce them or synthesize them from other compounds independently.
Animal products, such as chicken, eggs, dairy, and seafood, tend to be complete proteins made up of all nine essential amino acids, but there are a number of complete proteins that are plant-based as well, including quinoa, buckwheat, and soy.
Incomplete proteins tend to be plant-based and are either low, or lacking, in one or more of these amino acids. Examples of incomplete protein are rice and vegetables.
A number of common plant-based foods are complete proteins already, including quinoa, buckwheat, and soy. Eating a variety of nutritious foods helps ensure that you're getting a significant amount and quality of protein. Legumes such as lentils, beans, edamame/soybeans as well as nuts, seeds and whole grains are good vegetarian sources of protein.
Protein in Foods
You can meet your daily protein needs through a variety of food sources. Plant-based protein sources include legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Animal-based proteins include meat, fish, dairy, and eggs.
Including a variety of sources in your diet can help you get complete proteins, or the right combination of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) for optimal health.
Here's how many grams per serving are in common food sources of protein.
It’s All About the Protein “Package”
When we eat foods for protein, we also eat everything that comes alongside it: the different fats, fiber, sodium, and more. It’s this protein “package” that’s likely to make a difference for health.
To call out a few examples:
A 4-ounce broiled sirloin steak is a great source of protein—about 33 grams worth. But it also delivers about 5 grams of saturated fat.
A 4-ounce ham steak with 22 grams of protein has only 1.6 grams of saturated fat, but it’s loaded with 1,500 milligrams worth of sodium.
A cup of cooked lentils provides about 18 grams of protein and 15 grams of fiber, and it has virtually no saturated fat or sodium.
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Research on Protein and Health
Available evidence indicates that it’s the source of protein (or, the protein “package”), rather than the amount of protein, that likely makes a difference for our health. You can explore the research related to each disease in the tabs below, but here’s the evidence-based takeaway: eating healthy protein sources like beans, nuts, fish, or poultry in place of red meat and processed meat can lower the risk of several diseases and premature death.
Protein Foods and the Planet
Just as different foods can have differing impacts on human health, they also have differing impacts on the environment.
Protein is a key part of any diet. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, whereas incomplete proteins are missing one or more. However, not all protein “packages” are created equal. Because foods contain a lot more than protein, it’s important to pay attention to what else is coming with it. Also, Just different sources of protein can have differing impacts on human health, they also have differing impacts on the environment.
About the authors:
Madur & Anitha Jagannath are certified Nutrition Consultants, in addition to their professions in technology and human resources. When Madur started feeling lethargic and slowing down, he started exercising regularly, became conscious of healthy eating habits and nutrition. He is an avid runner and does half-marathons often. At Voyage to Wellness, they attribute our reputation to the lasting customer relationships they have developed throughout the years. They believe in health & wellness and being fit, at all stages of people's lives.
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