Protein: Why You Need It
You probably hear ALL THE TIME that you need to eat protein.
What's the big deal and why do you need it?
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the basic building blocks of life. Your body can make some of those amino acids by itself (nonessential amino acids), while others you need to get from food (essential amino acids). And some are conditionally essential, which means you may not always be able to make as much as you need, like when you're under stress.
Your body needs protein to make things like enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters, and antibodies to keep you healthy and functioning. Protein also helps replace worn out cells, aid in growth and repair, and transport different substances throughout your body.
Getting enough protein can aid in weight loss because protein is digested more slowly than carbohydrates, so it helps keep you feeling full longer. In addition, protein can help control body fat storage and can help use body fat to fuel cells. It also helps stabilize your blood sugar and aids in maintaining a healthy metabolism and immune function.
That's a lot of jobs!
So, how much protein do you really need each day?
Well, that depends.
An average, sedentary adult needs about .36g/lb of bodyweight for basic function. So, a 200-lb person would need about 72g of protein throughout the day every day.
That is just for basic function, not necessarily for optimal function or performance.
However, if you are exercising, like I highly recommend on this site, you will need more to rebuild and repair the muscle damage from the workouts (in addition to all the other functions). Depending on your workout type, intensity, and duration, you will need more protein. Somewhere between 0.64-0.9g/lb of bodyweight, or you can just round up to 1g/lb of bodyweight. Some professionals suggest even more than that, up to 1.5g/lb of bodyweight.
To figure that out for yourself, multiply your weight by your target amount in grams.
Back to our 200-lb hypothetical person, that would mean he/she would need to consume between 128-180g of protein every day. Or more!
That's a lot of protein!
So how the heck do you get that much protein?
1. Eat 1 serving (the size of your palm) of lean protein with each meal.
2. Eat a variety of foods: It All Adds Up. Realize that most REAL, whole foods contain protein, including fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
3. Add a scoop of protein powder to your green smoothie or consider a protein shake between meals/after a workout.
What counts as lean protein?
1. Lean Meat (beef, pork, lamb, wild game)
2. Poultry (chicken, turkey, duck)
3. Fish, Seafood, and Shellfish
4. Eggs and Egg Whites
5. Cottage Cheese and Plain Greek Yogurt
6. Cooked Lentils and Beans
7. Tofu and Edamame (soy beans)
9. Protein Powder
Again, these are NOT the ONLY sources of protein. You don't have to eat animal products or use protein powder to eat enough protein. However, the foods in this list are very concentrated sources of protein that will make hitting your protein goal very simple. The bottom 6 are all vegetarian sources, while the bottom 4 are all plant-based/vegan sources, assuming you choose a plant-based/vegan protein powder.
You don't have to eat animal products to get enough protein, but you may have to pay more attention to what you are eating so that you can keep your protein intake high enough.
Like I said before, it all adds up. Almost all foods from whole foods contain protein in various amounts.
For instance, let's say you have a taco salad for dinner.
2 c (100g) of romaine lettuce = 1.2g protein
1/2 c brown rice = 2.6 g protein
1/2 c black beans = 7g protein
1/2 c corn = 2.2 g protein
1/2 c chopped tomatoes = 1 g protein
2 oz avocado guacamole = 2 g protein
3 oz cubed extra firm tofu = 8 g protein
Total: 24 g protein
If you add 3 oz shredded chicken, you would add another whopping 22.7 g protein (or you could swap out the black beans and/or tofu for the chicken).
As you can see, it is completely possible to eat plenty of protein without eating animal products.
Obviously, consuming lean animal protein can be a very calorie-efficient way to consume protein.
However, the plant-based options will also include a wide variety of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and a lot of fiber, which the chicken would not provide.
There are trade-offs, so you will need to decide what works for you in terms of calories, nutrients, macros (if you count them), how you feel after eating, how your body reacts to certain foods, your moral stance on consuming animal products, time, cost, and more.
There are a lot of factors that go into healthy eating, so you will have to decide what is most important to you.
Next week I will focus on protein powder since it is a very quick, easy, and convenient way to supplement/boost your protein intake.
What are your favorite protein-rich foods/go to meals?
I love a big ol' heaping bowl of greens with beans, some rice (or quinoa or sweet potato), and LOTS of veggies!