Protein 101 – What Is It, and How Much?

I know there is TONS of information out there about protein. You’ve probably heard people tell you to eat more protein, or to eat less protein, maybe to eat lean protein, blah blah blah – everyone seems to think they are the expert! It’s enough to make anyone want to bury their head in the sand and avoid all the confusion!

protein-examples

Basically, protein is an organic macronutrient (meaning it contains carbon and our bodies require it in large amounts (grams vs milligrams). So proteins are comprised of chains of amino acids (stick with me chemistry-haters, this won’t last long), which are all comprised of Carbon, Oxygen, Hydrogen and Nitrogen. Depending on the number and types of amino acids, and how they are folded and bound, the protein will take a certain structure and function. I’m not going to bore you with all the details about amino acids and protein types, but you do need to know why protein is so important for your body (and it’s not just about muscle-building either).

When our body has a constant supply of the right amino acids (found by breaking down protein), it uses those amino acids to perform certain functions in the body. Actually, protein provides the largest range of functions than any other bodily component.

There are 5 major functions of protein in the body:

  1. Growth & Repair: Proteins are made and consumed by the body to build and repair tissues. If we are growing (or pregnant or nursing), we need to intake more protein to account for the extra growth (usually at least 25g/day extra). Proteins are used to build tissues (muscle, organs, white blood cells, red blood cells, etc).
  2. Energy: The body is constantly using carbohydrates, fat and a little bit of protein for energy. It isn’t perfect, so there will always be a percentage of each being utilized. If there are no immediate carbohydrate or fat stores available, the body will break down muscle to use protein as energy.
  3. Building Important Components: Amino acids from proteins are used by the body to create things like enzymes (used to metabolize nutrients), neurotransmitters (for nerve and brain communication), hemoglobin (for oxygen transport in the blood), hormones such as insulin and thyroid hormone – for metabolism, and of course – antibodies!).
  4. Fluid Balance: Some proteins reside inside cells and help maintain a fluid balance by attracting H2O and also help maintain the balance of Sodium outside the cells, and Potassium inside the cells.
  5. pH Balance: Proteins are also critical in helping keep the body’s acid-alkaline balance in check. The essentially act as a buffer. When there is too much acidity in the body, the protein will pick up excess Hydrogen ions (H+), keeping the pH of the body around the ideal 7.4.

Quality of Proteins

I’m MOST concerned about whether or not your body is getting a good balance of the required amino acids. You can eat all the protein we want, but what is the source, and is our body actually absorbing it? What about vegetarians or vegans?

Vegetarians and Vegans can definitely get adequate amounts of protein – but they need to be more knowledgeable and ensure they are constantly eating a broad range of foods that contain the essential amino acids for their bodies to build proteins, since they are mainly consuming incomplete proteins (meaning they do not contain all the required amino acids the body needs). There are a lot of interesting reads on food combining – but you should be aware that you do need to intake a variety (grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables) to ensure you are getting everything you need.

How Much Protein Should You Eat?

Protein intake amount is the subject of a lot of debate. The US Government recommends that adults intake 0.8*Bodyweight (in kg) of protein, and the World Health Organization puts it at half of that. My personal belief is that both of those are too low, however I also believe it depends on a person’s goals (bodybuilding), genetics, digestion, quality of food, age and gender, health, and exercise habits. Obviously if you are an athlete, you need a heck of a lot more than a grandma who is half your weight and walks gently  30 min/day. I personally consume about 90 – 100 grams/day, which is about 90-100% of my lean body mass. I recommend people intake a minimum of 0.6*ideal bodyweight (in lbs), and up to 0.8. If you are looking to build muscle (gain weight), then you may need more, but you need to remember that any unabsorbed or unused protein WILL be converted to fat and stored. So if you are increasing your protein intake, you should be balancing those calories or exercising more to demand that your body use the protein.

If you are really unsure, then ask a nutritionist, or play around with it yourself – but ensure that you are getting QUALITY proteins, and maintaining a balanced, wholesome diet to promote good digestion 😉

If you’d like to read more details – check out my personal blog here

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