While you’re definitely no stranger to protein, the dietary nutrient may have more roles in your body than you even know. Protein has enjoyed a surge in popularity in recent years due to the many high-protein diets touted for weight loss. But what exactly does protein do for your body and why do you need it?
Walk down various aisles at the grocery store and you’ll see food after food item with “added protein”. But what are the best real food sources of this nutrient, versus packaged? And where do protein shakes fit into the equation – should you include them as part of your daily dietary plan?
Read on to find out all about this intriguing super-nutrient and how it plays a ginormous role in your weight loss efforts and overall wellness…
What Is Protein, Anyway?
While being familiar with the term, you may be fuzzy on the actual definition of protein. It’s more than just a nutrient… it’s actually a macronutrient. The “macro” means that your body requires large amounts of it (versus micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, in which your body only requires small amounts).
The other two macronutrients (or macros) in your diet are carbohydrates and fat, and your body can’t make them. You therefore have to get all of your macros through the things that you eat. But whereas your body stores fat and carbs, it doesn’t store protein – so it’s even more essential that you replenish it each and every day!
Protein Benefits: Building Blocks of Life
You’ll often hear the term “building blocks” when describing proteins, because they make up most of the cells in your body, being completely essential to life. Here are some of the major functions of proteins…
- Helps build and repair new cells and tissues
- Makes enzymes, hormones and other body chemicals
- Building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and blood
- Promotes proper growth and development in children, teens and pregnant women
- Makes antibodies to fight disease and protect the body
Proteins and Amino Acids
While proteins help build cells, the building blocks of proteins are called amino acids. Your body requires 22 different amino acids in order to make the proteins that you need. These are split up into two categories, essential and non-essential.
Many of the amino acids you require are “non-essential”, meaning that if you don’t get them from food, your body can manufacture them from fats, carbs and other amino acids But 10 of them are essential, which means you can’t make them yourself, and they have to come from your diet.
This is very important in regard to the types of proteins you get in your diet. Animal-based proteins (meat, fish and dairy) are absorbed more efficiently into your body – therefore, they’re considered higher quality proteins. This is because these types of proteins often have amino acid combinations that are similar to the human body.
The protein that you get from plants will still be beneficial, but some have limited amounts of amino acids, making them less complete protein sources. However, quinoa and hemp are complete proteins, providing all essential amino acids. Soy is also a complete plant-based protein, but you may wish to avoid it for these reasons.
You can also combine plant proteins to make complete proteins (and you don’t have to do this in the same meal). Focus on getting a variety of different plant proteins throughout your day, for the most health benefits. Some protein combos to get all the amino acids you need include brown rice and peas, black beans and rice, whole wheat bread and peanut butter, lentils and almonds, and hummus (which has chickpeas and tahini).
How Much Protein Do You Need Per Day?
The amount of protein that you need each day is not “one size fits all”, although there’s a recommended daily amount for most adults that you can use as a guideline. The FDA recommends that healthy adults get about 50g of protein per day, as part of a 2,000 calorie diet.
But keep in mind, the exact amount you need may be higher or lower depending on your age, weight, activity level, health status, gender, and whether or not you are pregnant. To get a more detailed analysis of your protein needs, try this free macro calculator to determine how many macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat) you should eat to lose or maintain weight.
More examples of recommended daily intakes for protein include:
- Pregnant or nursing moms: 40 – 70g per day
- Children ages 1 to 3: 13g per day
- Children ages 4 to 8: 19g per day
- Children ages 9-13: 20 – 35g per day
Best Sources of Protein
When determining the best way to get protein into your diet, always aim for fresh, whole food sources as much as possible. Packaged items with “added protein” will never offer as many health benefits and may contain additives and chemical ingredients that may negatively affect your health in the long-term.
The one exception to this rule is meal replacement shakes. Especially for those with busy lifestyles, clean protein shakes are an exceptional way to ensure you get enough protein (along with additional essential nutrients). Plus, they can be incredibly helpful for weight loss (more on that in this article)…
Good Whole Food Sources of Protein
Fish is not only a great source of lean protein, but many types of fish are chock full of healthy omega-3 essential fatty acids – which support a healthy heart.
Great choices: Wild salmon, trout, sardines, tuna, anchovies, herring.
Lean beef and poultry products are also a great source of protein along with other essential nutrients. But don’t be scared of the dark meat and even the skin from time to time, as these include iron and collagen – an essential protein for healthy joints and skin. Aim for organic, free-range options as much as possible to avoid antibiotic use, GMOs and pesticides.
Great choices: Chicken and turkey breast, chicken liver and other organs, grass-fed beef, duck, lamb.
Raw, unprocessed dairy ingredients provide the most health benefits and are also a great source of protein.
Great choices: Organic full-fat milk and cream, unsweetened yogurt and kefir, grass-fed butter and unprocessed cheeses in moderation.
Though unsuitable for low-carb diets, beans and legumes are a powerhouse of nutrients and are also packed with protein and fiber.
Great choices: Black beans, chili beans, lentils, white beans, and black eyed peas make flavorful additions to salads, soups and stews.
While nuts and seeds are an amazing source of healthy, unsaturated fats that benefit your heart, they’re also a great source of fiber and protein.
Great choices: Pecans, almonds, walnuts, macadamia nuts, cashews, sunflower seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds and hemp seeds.
Not that you know how to get more high-quality protein into your diet every day, find out how the nutrient may actually benefit your weight loss efforts. How does protein support your healthy appearance? Find out in this article on Protein and Your Weight Loss Goals!