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A Guide to The Role of Protein in Your Diet

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Protein is an important part of a healthy diet. It’s the building block of your cells and therefore is utilized in every system of your body. There is a lot of nutritional disagreement about protein and the amount of protein that a person needs in their diet. Some people believe that the standard American diet, is too high in protein, while others strongly believe that the average person is not getting nearly enough protein in their diet for health.

The truth probably sits somewhere in the middle. The key is likely to make sure that you’re eating quality protein, that you’re getting protein from a variety of sources, and that you’re balancing your protein with a good healthy dose of plants (veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds).

It’s also imperative that you pay attention to not only what you put into your body, but also how your body responds to it. There are sure fire signs that you’re not getting enough protein. This report strives to take a look at:

  • Why protein is so important to your health and wellbeing
  • Understanding the different types of protein
  • Sources of protein – meat isn’t your only option
  • Determining how much protein you need to reach your goals
  • How to know if you’re not getting enough protein
  • How to get more protein
  • Great protein smoothie recipes
  • And much more!

Let’s get started. There are 4 main sections of this. Click any of the links below to jump to each section.

Part #1: What is Protein and Why Does Your Body Need It?
Part #2 Understanding the Different Types of Protein
Part #3 How Much Protein Do You Need?
Part #4 How to Know If You’re Getting Enough Protein

Part #1: What is Protein and Why Does Your Body Need It?

The human diet is comprised of many different types of nutrients. We need vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and fat. We also need protein. In fact, without protein, we cannot survive. Protein is the foundation of your body and health. Every single cell in your body needs protein. From your DNA to the enzymes in your body and your bones, your body uses protein at every level.

Healing

There are actually a few different ways that protein helps your body heal. When talking about muscle repair (such as after a hard workout), your body needs hemoglobin. This is a protein that carries oxygen to the tissues in your body. It also needs both myoglobin and elastin to make the muscle repairs. They are the two primary proteins in the fibers of your muscles.

Additionally, protein plays a key role in your immune system. Antibodies are a blood protein produced in response to and counteracting a specific antigen. Antibodies combine chemically with substances that the body recognizes as alien, such as bacteria, viruses, and foreign substances in the blood.

In laymen’s terms, this means that your immune system, when it senses a foreign body such as a virus, puts together a response – and this response, called an antibody, is a protein.

Energy

Protein also makes up enzymes. Enzymes have a number of important tasks in your body. One of them is to break down food in your digestive system. When food is broken down, it’s converted to energy for your cells and tissues. Many enzymes also need specific vitamins and minerals to function in your body. And we’ve already mentioned that hemoglobin is a protein that carries oxygen to your cells and tissues. Oxygen is required for your cells to make energy.

Hormones

The function of a hormone is as a messenger. Different hormones send different chemical messages to your organs. For example, progesterone tells the female uterus to begin preparing for pregnancy. Adrenaline and cortisol are hormones that shift your body’s systems to support fight or flight in a stressful situation.

Metabolism

They also send chemical messages between your nerve cells and regulate your metabolism. The more balanced your hormones, the better your overall health and wellbeing. For example, insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels, is also a hormone. And guess what…? Your hormones are protein-based.

Skin, Hair, Nails, Bones and Blood

Your bones are made up of protein, calcium, magnesium, and phosphate. Strong bones, beautiful skin, hair and nails all require a good amount of protein to create and maintain. Collagen is one example of a skin protein. And your blood, as mentioned, is protein and iron – hemoglobin.

“Hemoglobin is the protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues and returns carbon dioxide from the tissues back to the lungs. Hemoglobin is made up of four protein molecules (globulin chains) that are connected together.” (Source: Medicinenet.com)

Muscles

Finally, your muscles are comprised of muscle fibers. Myelin and elastin are two muscle-based proteins, and at a cellular level your muscles and tissues are protein as well. Each cell in your body contains DNA coding for protein.

Now that you know how protein impacts your body, and we’ve really only scratched the surface of that topic, it’s time to move on and discuss the different types of protein. After that we’ll be able to discuss where to get your protein, as well as how much you need to achieve your personal health goals.

Part #2 Understanding the Different Types of Protein

When it comes to protein, things can be quite complicated. In fact, there are up to 50,000 different proteins in the human body. They’re made from sequences of what are called “amino acids,” so let’s take a look at what an amino acid is and then explore the differences in types of protein.

What is an Amino Acid?

An amino acid is a single molecule. The molecules are programmed by your DNA. For example, if you call one amino acid A, one B, one C and so on then your DNA can organize them in a number of combinations. Each combination is a different type of protein. That’s why there are so many different proteins.

There are 21 amino acids:

  • Histidine
  • Alanine
  • Isoleucine
  • Arginine
  • Leucine
  • Asparagine
  • Lysine
  • Aspartic acid
  • Methionine
  • Cysteine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Glutamic acid
  • Threonine
  • Glutamine
  • Tryptophan
  • Glycine
  • Valine
  • Proline
  • Selenocysteine
  • Serine
  • Tyrosine

Now among those amino acids there is a categorization of amino acids that are called “essential amino acids.” Essential amino acids are those that your body cannot synthesize or make on their own. They HAVE to be consumed by the food that you eat. There are nine of those essential amino acids. They are:

  • Histidine
  • Isoleucine
  • Leucine
  • Lysine
  • Methionine
  • Phenylalanine
  • Threonine
  • Tryptophan
  • Valine

Some of those essential amino acids may sound familiar to you. For example, around Thanksgiving there’s often talk of Tryptophan and how sleepy it can make you feel.
Not to complicate things even further, but within those nine essential amino acids there are further classifications. And this is important. You know that essential amino acids come from food. The next order of amino acids tells you what type of food the acids come from, so let’s go there next. Once you have all of this information, you can then balance and plan your diet accordingly.

Understanding Complete and Incomplete Proteins

You now know that your body creates proteins based on your DNA and that there are up to 50,000 different types of protein and combinations possible. You know that protein is essential for every process in your body – from your immune system to your reproductive system and everything in between, including your metabolism and ability to burn fat and build muscle.

You also know that there are 21 amino acids, the building blocks of protein, and that nine of them are derived from the food that you eat. There are also what are called complete and incomplete proteins.

Complete Protein

“A complete protein (or whole protein) is a source of protein that contains an adequate proportion of all nine of the essential amino acids necessary for the dietary needs of humans or other animals.” (Source: National Library of Medicine – https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002467.htm)
Complete proteins generally come from animal products. You can get complete proteins from meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Quinoa, spirulina, hemp, buckwheat, and chia seeds are plants that do provide a complete protein.

Incomplete Protein

An incomplete protein then, as you might have guessed, is a protein that does not have all of the nine essential amino acids. These come from plant based sources. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a food source that doesn’t have some protein in it. Carrots have a bit of protein as do grapes, apples, spinach and so on. Plants are living things and they need protein to survive. So you do get protein from plants, you just don’t get a complete protein.
You can, however, combine certain plants to get a complete protein. For example, beans and rice provide a complete protein. Nuts, seeds, and beans are a few plants that are high in protein. Other plant-based protein combinations that can provide a complete protein include spinach and almonds, hummus and whole grain crackers or bread. These combinations are important for vegetarians and vegans. Your body not only needs a good deal of protein; it needs complete protein.

So now you know that animal products are a great source of complete proteins and that plants can provide incomplete proteins and some combinations of plants can work together to provide a complete protein. The next question is, “How much protein do you need?” Let’s look at that next.

Part #3 How Much Protein Do You Need?

We have to start this conversation about the amount of protein you need in a day with a bit of controversy. Different entities have opposing opinions on how much protein a person should consume for optimal health.

Additionally, your genetics, gender, activity level, age, and your goals impact the amount of protein that you should consume. So we’re going to offer some guidelines for differing goals. However, it’s also very important to pay attention to your body. For example, if you follow a guideline to lose weight and you find that you are low energy and perhaps getting sick more often, then you might increase your protein intake and see how your body responds.

Let’s start with a general rule of thumb about protein.

Generally speaking, adults should get 10% to 35% of their day’s calories from protein. That’s about 46 grams of protein for women, and 56 grams of protein for men. Just to give you an idea about how much protein is in a particular food know that…

• A cup of spinach has 0.9 grams of protein.
• A 3 oz. piece of meat has around 20 grams of protein.
• A cup of whole almonds has 30 grams of protein.

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. This is the bare minimum you need to maintain health and not get sick. If you exercise or are sick, you’ll need more protein.

Let’s look at the calculation quickly so you can do the math yourself.
One kilogram is 2.2 pounds. So if you weigh 180 pounds, that’s about 78 kilograms.
Multiply that by .8 grams and you need 62 grams of protein a day. This is to maintain your health and is the bare minimum.

If you’re not into managing the calculation on your own, you can use this handy calculator http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/fnic/interactiveDRI/

What Is Your Goal?

The amount of protein that you eat can and should vary depending on your goals. For example, if you want to build muscle and get stronger, you should, at the very minimum, double the RDA. But what if you want to lose weight, gain weight or have some other goal?

Lose Weight

If your goal is to lose weight, then there are a few considerations. They include:
How you’re losing weight. Are you losing weight through diet alone or through exercise and diet? If exercise and diet, then double the RDA or use the calculator provided, and choose the appropriate activity level.

If you’re doubling it, then that means at least 20 percent of your calories should come from protein. It’s important to point out that several studies have found that the magic weight loss number for protein is 30 percent of your calories from protein and you’ll see this number come up again.

Regardless of whether you try 20% or 30%, try to choose lean protein sources. Keep in mind that nuts, beans, and seeds are good sources of protein. It doesn’t all have to come from meat.

Are you trying to lose weight through diet alone? Make sure that you are getting the minimum amount of protein in your diet and make sure it’s coming from low calorie sources. However, if you get hungry while you’re dieting, then instead of eating more low calorie carbs, try increasing your protein.

Generally speaking, increasing your protein intake while reducing your starchy carb intake will result in weight loss. The goal is to lose body fat while maintaining your lean muscle. Protein can help you do that. Protein is more filling so you’ll not only feel full faster, you’ll stay full longer. That helps prevent cravings and helps you stick to your diet.

Gain Weight

If your goal is to gain weight, then increase your protein intake. Start with 2x the RDA, or around 20-25 % of your daily intake. You might add a protein shake to your daily intake. You can also swap out your snacks for full-protein snacks like nuts and seeds, yogurt, and nut butters.

Maintain Weight

Maintaining your weight is about being aware of how much protein you’re consuming each day in combination with how much of other foods you’re consuming. And again, it does depend on your activity level. If you’ve lost weight by eating a diet that is 35% protein, you may find that dropping that intake to 30% protein will help you maintain it as long as you continue to exercise and steer clear of starchy carbs.

Get Stronger

Many fitness nutrition experts recommend a ration of 30/30/40 for fitness. That is 30 percent protein, 30 percent fat, and 40 percent carbs. However, carbs don’t mean bagels and pasta. It means carbs from veggies, whole grains, and fruits.

As you’ll notice from these different goals and protein recommendations, there are a few commonalities. Regardless of your goals, you want to:

  • Consume lean sources of protein
  • Pay attention to your body – how are you feeling, sleeping, etc…
  • Adjust your protein intake depending on your health and activity level
  • To improve health and reduce or maintain weight, consume fewer starchy carbs
  • Vary your sources of protein – you don’t have to rely solely on animal sources

There are risks to getting too much or too little protein. The risks of too much protein are generally related to digestion. Too much protein can slow down your digestion. It can also be a strain on your kidneys. However, the biggest downside to eating too much protein is that you’ll gain weight and, generally speaking, people who get too much protein in their diets do so at the expense of eating vegetables and whole grains.

There are bigger risks to not eating enough protein and we’ll take a look at those next.

Part #4 How to Know If You’re Getting Enough Protein

Before we dive in and talk about whether you’re getting enough protein in your diet, it’s important to point out a few groups of people who are at risk for not getting enough.

Pregnant and Lactating Women

The body needs extra nourishment, calories, and yes… protein during this time in a woman’s life. Not only does her body need extra nutrition to manage the extra load on her body, the fetus also needs nourishment. Generally speaking, pregnant and lactating women need about 70-75 grams of protein a day.

Athletes

Athletes need additional protein to repair muscle and tissue damage incurred during exercise. For example, a runner goes for a long run and as part of that exercise they experience small muscle tears (which are natural and normal).

To repair those tears and become stronger, protein is required. It’s even more important for athletes that do any type of strength training. The amount of additional protein that’s required depends on the type of exercise, the intensity, and of course the age and gender of the athlete.

“The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that although athletes only need about 1 gram of protein per kilogram to maintain muscle mass, they require 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram to build muscle mass; this is equivalent to about 0.64 to 0.82 grams of protein per pound of body weight each day.” (Source: http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/much-protein-athlete-require-3995.html)

Sickness/Illness

When you’re sick, it’s often a good idea to make sure you’re giving your body a little extra nourishment. However, nourishment for the common cold is much different than it might be for someone who has a chronic illness or is dealing with something more serious, like cancer. In fact, cancer and chronically ill patients have a much higher need for protein. Having enough protein is important for healing, fighting infection, and having enough energy.

Beyond these three potential situations, there are times when you may not be getting enough protein. If you’re dieting, a vegetarian, or just super busy, you may fall below your daily protein requirement.

Signs You’re Not Getting Enough

  1. You’re getting sick too often. Sure, everyone gets one or two colds each year. However, if you find that you’re sick more often than usual or you get sick after a big workout, then it’s a good sign that you’re not getting enough protein.
  2. You’re exhausted. Your body needs protein to thrive and survive. If you’re chronically tired, take a look at how much protein you’re consuming. It also makes sense to look at what else you’re eating. Starchy carbs, for example, can cause blood sugar fluctuations that can lead to fatigue.
  3. You’re always hungry. If you find that you’re always hungry, try fueling with protein. It leaves you feeling full longer and helps balance your blood sugar levels.
  4. You’re craving meat. If you’re craving meat, there’s a very good reason why – you need protein. Now, you don’t have to eat meat to get protein. Remember that beans and rice in combination provide a complete protein.
  5. You’re sore. If you have sore and achy joints or muscles from exercise or illness, try increasing your protein intake by a few grams.
  6. Hair, nails, and skin are suffering. These tissues need protein to stay healthy and strong. They’re also one of the first signs that you’re not getting enough protein.
  7. You’re healing from illness or injury. We talked about the fact that an athlete who undergoes a strenuous workout needs extra protein to heal those damaged tissues. The same is true if you’re healing from an injury, illness, or surgery. A broken arm requires extra protein. A surgery, even a minor surgery, puts stress on your body. You need a little extra protein.
  8. You’re under chronic stress. Stress puts a heavy burden on your body. If you’re under chronic stress, please make sure you’re eating nutritiously and getting enough nutrients, including protein.

If you recognize any of these signs, symptoms, or issues in your own health and wellbeing, then the solution is relatively simple. You’ll want to add a bit of protein to your daily diet and then assess how/if things improve. Keep in mind that some symptoms may improve within a day or so, other symptoms may take a bit longer.

Tips to Get More Protein in Your Diet

If you’re not sure you’re getting enough protein in your diet and you have weight loss or health goals that require more protein, then there are a few simple steps that you can take.

  1. Eat breakfast. If you are a breakfast skipper, simply adding this meal to your day can help ensure you’re getting enough protein. If you aren’t an “eggs and toast” kind of person, you can get protein from nut butters, whole grain hot cereal, yogurt and fruit, or even a simple smoothie.
  2. Swap snacks. Eat nuts, yogurt, cheese, and other protein heavy snacks instead of carbohydrate heavy snacks.
  3. Eat more vegetables and grains. When we think about protein we often focus on eating meat, dairy, and eggs. Yet as mentioned, there are many veggies that are high in protein, including beans. And grains like quinoa and spelt are high in protein. If you’re looking to increase your protein and improve your health, then explore alternative sources of protein.
  4. Protein at each snack and meal. Make a commitment to eat protein with each snack and meal. It’ll help you consume less because it’ll fill you up faster and keep you full longer.
  5. Greek yogurt. This handy little snack is packed with protein. It makes a terrific snack or even a good breakfast with fruits, nuts, and/or seeds. Top it with a bit of granola for crunch.
  6. Protein powder. There are many different types of protein powder to try. Some powders are strictly vegan. They’re made from rice protein, pea protein, hemp protein and so on. There are powders that are also exclusively soy. Make sure you don’t have a soy problem before you try this route.
    Whey protein is popular because it’s relatively inexpensive, it’s a dairy protein, and many people find it to be more palatable than other protein powders. And then there is egg white protein to consider as well. You can put protein powder in smoothies, on your yogurt, or just mix with a glass of water and have as a snack or post-workout supplement.
  7. Eat protein at the right times. In addition to consuming protein with each meal, (and again, we’re not saying you have to eat meat at each meal – protein comes in many different forms), you also want to make sure you’re getting protein when you most need it.

The best/most important times to consume protein include:

  • Post workout – help your body begin the repair process by consuming protein within 30 minutes of your workout.
  • Before and after surgery – If you’re going to have surgery, try to bulk up on protein before your surgery and then again afterwards. It’ll help you recover more quickly.
    However, if you’re going to be completely sedated or on opioids while in the hospital, then it’s important to know that your digestion slows down dramatically on these drugs. Try to avoid heavy protein like beef.
  • When you’re sick or under severe stress – Illness and stress take a toll on your body’s tissues. You need extra protein and nourishment to help combat the effects on your system.

Okay, so you now know that protein is imperative for your health. You have some signs and symptoms so you know if you’re not getting enough protein, and some suggestions on how to add more protein to your diet. Let’s wrap it up with a few great protein smoothie recipes.

Two Protein Smoothie Recipes to Try

Smoothies are one of the easiest ways to get a full supply of vitamins, nutrients, and protein. Any smoothie can be made with a scoop of protein, but the following recipes are designed specifically for those scoops of protein.

Orange Pineapple Crush

Ingredients:

  • Half cup orange juice
  • Half cup of milk (can use coconut, almond, or soy milk)
    • Cup of frozen pineapple
  • 1 banana
  • 1 scoop protein powder

Place all items in a blender and blend until smooth.

Mocha Magic

Ingredients:

  • Half cup of milk (can use coconut, almond, or soy milk)
  • Half cup of cold coffee
  • Banana (Frozen bananas work best if your blender can handle it)
  • 2 Tbsp. of cocoa powder
  • 1 scoop protein powder

Place all items in a blender and blend until smooth. Enjoy!

In Conclusion

Protein plays an important role in your health and wellbeing. Determine your goals and evaluate your current protein intake. Discover if you’re getting enough for your personal health needs and make adjustments as necessary. Remember to pay attention to your body. It sends signals when it’s not getting what it needs. Finally, have fun with protein. There are so many different sources of protein that boredom shouldn’t be a problem. Embrace variety and enjoy the health benefits.

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