By Silvia Carli
Protein is perhaps the most discussed nutrient in the fitness world and even the wellness world. It’s difficult to achieve any wellness goal without protein—whether it’s glowing skin or building muscle. But, what is protein and how does it work in the body?
Read through these frequently asked questions, and you’ll be more knowledgeable on this topic than most people.
Protein is one of the three main macronutrients in your diet, along with carbohydrates and fats. It is a part of the structure of pretty much every organ and tissue in the body. These include skin, hair, nails, and blood vessels.
The importance of protein goes beyond your muscles. For example, it’s necessary for the creation of hormones and enzymes. So, even your bodily functions, like digestion, depend on it.
It is a large molecule made up of several units or building blocks called amino acids. There are altogether 20 amino acids that the body needs to build protein. Amino acids can be classified into two groups: essential and non-essential.
The human body itself can produce non-essential amino acids. So, they don’t necessarily need to be in your diet. There are, however, 10 essential amino acids that you must include in your diet, as your body cannot produce them. These are lysine, methionine, threonine, leucine, isoleucine, valine, phenylalanine, tryptophan, histidine, and arginine.
These amino acids are sequenced together to form chains. The order of amino acids in a sequence is incredibly important. Even one change in an amino acid can lead to a completely different molecule. In fact, you can link an incorrect amino acid sequence to certain diseases.
The problem is that the body doesn’t store extra amino acids at the end of the day. So, you need to eat a consistent amount and the correct types of amino acids every single day. This is why it’s important to learn how much you need, as well as the best sources.
In your diet, not all sources are equal. People often bombard vegans and vegetarians with the question, “Are you sure you’re getting enough protein?” While this is mostly a misconception, there is a small grain of truth here.
There are two types of protein that are found in the human diet—complete and incomplete. Most plant-based sources are considered incomplete. By contrast, animal sources are generally complete, meaning that they have all the essential amino acids.
Incomplete sources lack some essential amino acids. For example, while legumes are the best sources of plant protein, certain types like lentils and peas lack certain essential amino acids. Rice also lacks some essential amino acids.
Fortunately, certain combinations of foods can make up a complete protein. For example, rice and beans, or lentil soup and bread, complement each other. In other words, these combinations create complete amino acid profiles. Where one food lacks an amino acid, it is found in the other.
This leads to the most important question of how much you really need in a day. According to the National Academy of Medicine, you need at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. So, if you weigh 52 kg, you need a minimum of 42 grams every day.
However, the exact daily requirement depends on a myriad of other factors. These include age, physical activity, and other health issues or conditions you may have. Therefore, the NAM provides a broad range—10% to 35% of daily calories from protein. For building muscle, the estimate goes up to about 1 gram per kilo of body weight.
It is important to note, however, that there is a lot of misinformation regarding its intake. There is this notion that the more you consume, the better. As with all things, there can be too much of a good thing. The consumption of excessive amounts has been linked to increased risk of kidney stones and kidney problems.
Watch this video to calculate the requirements for highly physically active people:
For the average person, natural dietary sources are sufficient. There are plenty of animal and non-animal sources.
Some of the best animal sources include:
When it comes to animal proteins, it is important to note that you need to consider the whole package of nutrients. For example, while red meat is a good source, it is also high in saturated fats. One way to reduce fats is to choose organic, grass-fed animal products wherever possible.
While most plant sources are incomplete, there are a few complete options:
If you’re consuming other incomplete plant protein sources like legumes, it is important to pair them with other sources. Generally, legumes combined with grains like rice or wheat makes a complete protein.
Sometimes, when you need to hit a certain fitness goal, it is difficult or inconvenient to rely entirely on your diet to get enough protein. So, consider healthy supplements.
Fortunately, companies have come up with creative ways to help you to increase your intake. For example, protein bars and powders are very convenient.
Before buying them, however, it is important to learn about their ingredients. Believe it or not, you should avoid many protein bars because they are packed with sugar. So, choose low-sugar protein bars instead. There are also different types of protein powder available in the market, produced from various plant and animal sources.
Protein is one of the most important nutrients in the diet, and it should be given special attention as you plan your meals and snacks. It is best to obtain it naturally from your diet. But, supplements are great when you need a boost in a pinch.