Protein is such a hot topic in the nutrition, wellness, and fitness world. It seems many people are so concerned about getting adequate protein in their diets, and I am here to tell you I guarantee that you are! Throughout this post I am going to explain what protein is, what it does for us, how much we REALLY need, and where to get it. So, let’s get started.
Protein is the second of the three macronutrients (check out my last post on carbohydrates here) found in foods from both plants and animals. It is largely made up of many smaller units called amino acids. If you remember your high school biology class, you might recall your teacher stating that amino acids are the "building blocks of protein." These amino acids fall under 2 categories: essential and non-essential. Simply put, essential amino acids cannot be made by our bodies, meaning we must get them from the foods we eat. Nonessential amino acids have the ability to be synthesized by our bodies; therefore we don’t need them from our diet every day.
So, why is protein so important? When we digest protein-rich foods, our bodies break down these proteins into individual amino acids which circulate in our blood stream until they are needed to produce important molecules (i.e. enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, antibodies). Protein also helps replace tired or worn out cells and aids in growth and repair, specifically within our skin, hair, nails, muscle, bone, and internal organs. This is one of the reasons protein is talked about so heavily in the fitness world. People who are more physically active (think: athletes, bodybuilders, weightlifters) often require more protein in their diet to keep up with their body’s demand, specifically for muscle repair and growth. People constantly (!!) ask me how much protein they need. As a general recommendation this is what I suggest:
0.8-1 grams/kilogram (g/kg) actual body weight for a healthy adult
(Example: A person who is 60 kilograms (132 pounds) would require a minimum of 48-60 g of protein per day.)
Keep in mind that this is the minimum requirement for basic protein synthesis. There are many other factors to consider when calculating protein needs, such as a person’s daily activity levels. Someone who is much more physically active might thrive on a higher protein diet. If you gain nothing else from this post please try and remember 1) not to compare what other people are doing and think you should be doing the same and 2) each and every person requires a diet that should be individualized for their specific needs and body!
That brings us to our next question: what foods contain protein!? I mentioned above that protein can come from plant and animal sources. Thus, MOST foods contain some amounts of protein. If we are eating a balanced diet from a variety of foods, chances are we are getting adequate amounts! Some common sources are listed below.
Plant sources: Grains, vegetables (yes, vegetables do contain protein), beans, peas, nuts, seeds, soy products
Animal sources: eggs, dairy products, meats and poultry, seafood
Below are a few quick examples of the protein content within certain foods:
2 tablespoons peanut butter = 8 grams protein
1 egg = 6 grams protein
1 cup black beans = 12 grams protein
1 medium chicken breast = 26 grams protein
¼ cup almonds = 8 grams protein
1 cup lentils = 17 grams protein
While I understand everyone has certain financial constraints, I do recommend that people purchase high quality animal sources of protein when able. Look for trigger words on labels such as organic, grass fed and finished, free range, and wild caught. Research shows potential health benefits of choosing organic versus conventionally grown foods such as greater nutrient content, higher omega-3 fatty acids, less pesticide residue, and smaller occurrence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. But, what about the cost? I encourage you to research where the closest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group is in relation to where you live. Also, there are always seasonal pop-up farmers’ markets, even in big cities. For all my Atlanta people, check out this list of yearly farmers markets. Buying from these groups or markets are generally less expensive and you will be simultaneously supporting local businesses! Do some digging and let me know what you come up with!
Xx, Mary Claire