You know the term “protein” and that it’s very important to have enough of it in a healthy diet. But what else do you know?
In this installment of Simple Food Terms Explained, we look at the commonly used term “protein” and figure out exactly why this is such as important component to our health.
What is protein?
Protein is one of the three nutrients found in food that the body needs in large amounts. It is essential to the functionality of the body, along with carbohydrates and fat.
Chains of amino acids make a protein, and the human body can produce 13 of the 22 that it needs to survive. Essential amino acids refer to the nine amino acids that the body cannot produce, and food is the only way to consume them. Animal products are complete proteins because they include all nine of the essential amino acids. Plant proteins contain these compounds as well, but may lack a few, which demonstrates the need for a varied diet.
Why do I need protein?
Protein is an important component of every cell in the body. For example, hair and nails are mostly made of protein. Your body uses protein to build and repair tissues. You also use protein to make enzymes, hormones, and other body chemicals. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.
The body does not store protein like it does fat and carbs, so it has no back-up to draw from when it needs more. This means that you should consume adequate protein every day to replenish your stock.
How much protein do I need?
Many people believe that increasing protein leads to an increase in muscle, but the truth is that only exercise builds muscle, not protein. The body needs adequate protein to function well, but exceeding that amount does not lead to an increase in strength.
The amount of protein each person needs is relative to their calorie needs. Protein should make up around 10%-35% of your daily calorie needs, so on a 2,000 calorie diet, you could eat 100 grams of protein to satisfy 20% of your calories. The more active you are, the more calories your body needs, and consequently, your body will need more protein.
What are healthy sources of protein?
Protein can come from both plant and animal sources, but animal sources contain the most complete protein due to the essential amino acids. Fish, lean meats, milk, and eggs will provide the body with all of the amino acids it needs to function well.
For vegetarians, other protein sources include nuts, seeds, tofu, beans, and legumes. If you are consuming many plant-based proteins, include a variety of sources to meet your body’s essential amino acid needs.
Can I eat too much protein?
High protein diets are trending for weight loss now because they produce results very quickly. Doctors are not sure whether these diets are safe long-term, though. Because of the lack of data, researchers have been unable to compute a maximum amount of protein, but they do not suggest overshooting the guidelines long-term. The body excretes excess protein anyway, which makes a very high protein diet solely a more expensive way to eat.
If you are considering a high protein diet, make sure that it is not too high in saturated fat, and don’t leave out carbs or fat. Eat plenty of fish, lean white meats, and plant proteins instead of fatty red meat, and consume healthy fats like olive oil, avocados, and fatty fish.
Protein is essential for life as a human, and a healthy diet includes both plant and animal sources. Every meal should include a small amount of protein to keep you satisfied throughout the day, but a diet too high in protein is expensive and unnecessary. All three macronutrients, carbs, fats, and protein, are equally important to stay healthy and satisfied, so be sure to keep your meals balanced with all three.