What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when someone mentions protein? Is it body building or muscle growth? I’m almost positive it’s one of the two, but what most people don’t realize is that protein is important and essential for life. It’s the primary component of skin, nails, hair, muscle, bone, heart, and even our brain. It is also one of the most important molecules our body uses to maintain health at a cellular level.
What is Protein?
Protein is a macromolecule formed by a combination of amino acids. Amino acids are like letters of the alphabet and proteins are the words. When you combine different letters, they make a particular word that has a specific meaning.
Proteins are the same.
Amino acids are critical for protein synthesis and protein intake is important for amino acids.
Your body needs 20 different amino acids to function properly. Nonessential amino acids are made by the body itself while essential amino acids must be obtained from the food you eat.
What Are Amino Acids?
The basic structure of an amino acid is a single carbon, carboxyl group, hydrogen atom, amino group, and an R group.
Each amino acid has its own special R group that helps determine it’s function.
Non-essential amino acids are:
- Alanine, Arginine, Cysteine, Glutamine
- Aspartate, Glycine, Proline, Serine
- Tyrosine, Glutamine, Asparagine
Remember, non-essential amino acids are made in the body. They are not obtained by the food you eat.
Essential amino acids must be eaten through food such as meat, eggs, poultry, fish, legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
Essential amino acids and their role in the your body:
- Lysine: Important for tissue repair and the production of several hormones, proteins and enzymes.
- Leucine: Important for wound healing, metabolism, and glucose balance.
- Isoleucine: Important for immune function and hormone excretion.
- Tryptophan: Essential for increasing serotonin levels to regulate mood, pain, sleep, and appetite.
- Phenylalanine: Important for dopamine and norepinephrine.
- Threonine: Helps form connective tissues such as collagen.
- Valine: Supports brain function, muscle coordination, and calmness.
- Histidine: Provides support for myelin sheaths surrounding our nerve cells.
- Methionine: Important for skin, hair, and nails.
Multiple Health Benefits of Protein
There are many health benefits of protein intake, definitely more than
- Boosts Metabolism: Protein intake helps boost metabolism because the body requires more energy to break it down, digest, and store it.
- Helps Lower Blood Pressure: This is specifically aimed at plant-based protein such as grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. High animal protein can cause high blood pressure when mixed with an inactive lifestyle.
- Promotes a Healthier Diet: Protein helps curve unhealthy cravings by improving dopamine function. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that is affected by sugar intake.
- Helps Repair Damaged Tissue & Cells: Proteins are what gives your cells structure and protects the inside of cells.
- Prevents Certain Illnesses: High protein intake prevents muscle and bone loss, especially for adults 40+ years old. As we age, our muscle and bone strength weakens over time.
- Helps with Weight Loss: Protein helps reduce food cravings and keeps the body feeling full longer.
- Helps Build Muscle: This is important for people who strength train. Eating protein by itself doesn’t cause muscles to grow, it’s the stimulation of muscle tissue. Eating protein helps repair muscle tissue which then causes muscles to grow.
Animal VS Plant Protein
Animal vs plant protein is a huge topic for many people who are vegetarian or vegan. Animal protein will always be the easiest way to obtain protein in your diet, but it’s not always the healthiest.
Meat, eggs, dairy, fish, and chicken provide all 9 essential amino acids in adequate amounts.
Soy also supply the body with all 9 essential amino acids.
Plant foods including legumes, whole grain, nuts, and seeds have an adequate amount of some amino acids but are low in others. However, eating a variety of plant based foods in one sitting will supply the proper amount of protein.
Plant-based protein pairing examples:
Brown or Wild rice + Beans
Hummus + Pita Bread
Oatmeal + Almond Butter
If you are vegan or vegetarian remember that plant based protein has to be eaten in larger amounts to get the same grams of protein provided by animal foods.
For example, 3 oz of chicken has roughly 20g of protein and 1/2 cup of black beans has approximately 7g of protein. A person who doesn’t consume animal products will have to eat more in order to get the same amount.
BUT, do not eat a large portion in one sitting. Eat protein throughout the day with every meal.
Protein Supplements and Powder
In order to get more protein in your diet sometimes you do have to take supplements and powder, but do not rely on it long-term. It’s always best to eat real food. If you use protein powder, take it for a month or two then stop for a month before starting again. Give your body a break from it.
Adding 20g of protein powder to a smoothie is a quick way to get your daily protein. You can also have a great tasting protein smoothie at night to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Here’s what I add in my smoothies:
- Frozen blueberries
- Frozen banana
- Another fruit – whatever I have
- 1/2 Avocado – omega 6 fatty acid
- Spinach – always add a vegetable
- Cinnamon – good for blood sugar
- Nutmeg – balance hot/cold properties
- Pure peanut butter – protein
- Flaxseed (meal) – stimulates bowels
- Protein powder (sometimes)
This is where I buy my vegan protein. www.ambrosiacollective.com
How Much Daily Protein?
The old saying was to eat 1g of protein for every pound of bodyweight, but that would be too much for the average person. There’s several studies on this topic, but none shows a clear answer because there are many factors to consider.
With protein, you have to look at the “whole package”. Is the protein you’re eating primarily from red meat, processed meat, chicken, fish, legumes, or vegetables? And, are you an active or an inactive person?
For an inactive person who is overweight, aim at 70-80g of daily protein and decrease carbohydrate intake.
For an active person who is at their recommended weight, aim at 50-60g of daily protein.
Want to find out how much protein you should eat? Protein Calculator Here
In a nutshell, protein intake depends on your age, weight, and activity level.
- If you are overweight and have an inactive lifestyle, you need more protein, more vegetables, and less carbohydrates
- If you are over 60, you need more protein and less carbs. It doesn’t matter if you are at a healthy weight or overweight
- If you work out, you need more protein
- If you are pregnant, you need more protein
- Proteins are the building blocks for life and are made from chains of amino acids.
- Aside from building protein, amino acids are essential for chemical processes, tissue repair, immunity, skin, hair, and nails.
- Essential amino acids must be obtained by the food you eat, which is where protein comes into play.
- Plant-based protein include legumes, grains, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. A variety of the protein must be eaten in one sitting to all 9 amino acids.
- Animal based protein include red meat, chicken, fish/seafood, eggs, and dairy.
- Protein intake depends on your age, body weight, and activity levels.
Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition