When you consider protein, you may only think of it in terms of muscle growth and physical activity. But protein is responsible for so many important functions in the human body. Tissue growth and maintenance, energy production, digestion, blood clotting, and immune health—just to name a few!
What Is Protein?
When we talk about protein, we’re actually talking about proteins, plural. Proteins themselves are made up of amino acids connected in long chains like a string of beads. There are 20 different amino acids that help form the thousands of different proteins found inside the human body. Of those 20, nine are considered essential amino acids—meaning they can’t be made by the body and must be obtained through diet. Those essential amino acids can all be found in what are called “complete” proteins which include seafood, poultry, eggs, red meat, and dairy products, as well as soy and pea proteins. Proteins found in nuts, seeds, legumes, and vegetables, while not complete, are also vital pieces of the whole protein puzzle.
Benefits of a Protein-Rich Diet
Simply put, proteins are a vital part of keeping your body not just healthy but alive, and without them we wouldn’t survive. However, meeting or slightly exceeding your recommended daily intake of protein will also help keep you feeling your best. When you eat protein at every meal, you’ll find that it helps control cravings and keeps you satiated longer, helping you maintain a healthy weight and keeping your energy levels high. You’ll step off the blood sugar rollercoaster, boost your metabolism and increase fat burn, as well as improve muscle mass and strength. Sufficient protein will help regulate hormones, as well as alleviate PMS symptoms. You may also sleep better and see an improvement in your mood.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
Now that you understand just how much protein impacts the quality of your life and benefits your health, your next question might well be, “How much protein do I actually need?” While there is some debate on just how much protein we need each day, a largely accepted and simple equation may get you in the ballpark. Simply multiply your weight in pounds by 0.36; for example, a 150-pound individual would need 54 grams of protein per day. However, there are a number of factors that can influence that number including activity level and age. There are also different phases in our lives when we require more protein for growth, such as childhood and adolescence, pregnancy, heavy weight training, and to help stave off muscle breakdown as we age.
Are You Getting Enough?
While true protein deficiency is rare in the United States, you still may need a little more in your diet, better-quality sources, or have an issue with malabsorption, meaning you might be eating enough protein but your body isn’t digesting and absorbing it properly. Malabsorption is typically caused by an insufficient amount of pepsin (an enzyme) and hydrochloric acid (HCL) in the stomach, both of which are required for proper protein digestion. While age and poor diets high in processed food are common culprits, the regular use of antacids can also lower HCL levels.
Signs of protein insufficiency include:
· Increased hunger and cravings
· Brittle nails, dry skin, and hair loss
· Weakness and fatigue
· Frequent illness
· Slow wound healing
· Weakened bones and muscle loss
· Mood changes and insomnia
Diversifying Your Protein Sources
Even if you aren’t concerned about being protein deficient, including a wider variety of protein sources in your diet will go a long way in improving your health. Your protein sources shouldn’t only be red meat or protein powders. It’s also important that you consume protein throughout the day, rather than trying to meet your RDI in a single meal, as this doesn’t allow your body to optimize protein synthesis.
High-protein animal sources include:
· Chicken breast (30 grams per 3.5 ounces)
· Dark turkey meat (28 grams per 3.5 ounces)
· Wild-caught salmon (17 grams per 3 ounces)
· Greek yogurt (17 grams per container)
· Cottage cheese (13 grams per 4 ounces)
· Whole eggs (6 grams per egg)
As for plant-based protein sources, the sky is the limit. Some top contenders include:
· Lentils (18 grams per cooked cup)
· Tempeh (15 grams per 3 ounces)
· Hemp seeds (10 grams per 3 TBSP)
· Quinoa (8 grams per cooked cup)
· Steel cut oats (5 grams per ¼ cup uncooked)
· Spirulina (4 grams per 1 TBSP)
· Chia seeds (4 grams per 2 TBSP)
How to Get More Protein in Your Diet
In addition to adding a greater variety of protein in your diet, you can “sneak” extra protein boosts into your meals through small additions. For example, you can add spirulina to your smoothie or sprinkle hemp seeds on top. Try adding chickpeas into soup or steamed edamame on salad. If you tolerate dairy, swap your bowl of oatmeal or cereal with Greek yogurt, or enjoy a cottage cheese bowl for breakfast. If you eat eggs, you can even up their protein content by adding additional egg whites to a whole egg omelet without adding a ton of calories.
If you find yourself struggling to spread your protein intake out, consider eating smaller amounts of protein at your main meals while including at least a couple protein-rich snacks throughout the day. Some ideas include veggies and hummus, hard-boiled eggs, apple slices with almond butter, and hard cheeses like cheddar.
If you’d like to learn more about how to increase or diversify your protein intake, or are concerned that you may be deficient, please contact me. Together we can assess your individual needs and put you on the path to success.