Protein has been in the nutritional hot-seat for years.
Some believe in eating a diet almost entirely of protein, while others suggescutting out animal protein to reduce the risk of disease caused by saturated fat and inflammation.
As a result, you may either be overdoing your protein intake, or consuming an inadequate amount and failing to meet your body’s nutritional requirements.
So what exactly is protein?
Protein is one of three macronutrients (the other two being carbohydrates and fat), that provides the body with energy in the form of calories. Protein is vital to human survival as it is involved in many different processes within the body. Proteins are composed of many smaller components called amino acids. There are roughly two dozen amino acids, which combine in different ways to form numerous types of proteins with various functions.
Of these amino acids, there are 10 that are “essential” (including tryptophan, phenylalanine, leucine and others), that you can only get from food. Without an adequate intake of essential amino acids, the body’s functions are compromised, leading to a loss of health, energy and vitality.
What does protein actually do for your body?
Below is a brief list of some of protein’s most important functions:
• Needed for the growth and development of all body tissues.
• Acts as an energy source for the body, providing more constant and stable energy than carbohydrates, as well as an increased metabolism through a more complex digestion process.
• Major source of building material for muscles, blood, skin, hair, nails and internal organs (heart, brain, kidneys, liver, etc).
• Helps maintain blood sugar and regulate fat-burning process.
• Component of hormones and neurotransmitters, which control many body functions such as growth, sexual development, mood and metabolic rate.
• Regulates fluid concentrations and acid-base balance in the blood and tissues.
• Transports fats, fat-soluble vitamins, and steroid hormones in the blood.
• Active in the immune system as antibodies and antigens.
So what happens if you don’t get enough protein?
You may have noticed feeling tired and sluggish with inadequate amounts of protein. Other undesirable effects include:
• Edema (fluid retention/swelling)
• Thin/brittle hair, nails and skin
• Slow metabolism
• Hunger, even after a meal
• Poor wound healing
How much protein do you actually need?
Women need around 8-12 grams of protein per meal, where men need around 15-25 grams per meal depending on levels of activity. To give you a frame of reference, three ounces of chicken is about 25 grams of protein! So you can see how easy it is to go overboard with a 6 oz. chicken breast.
What are your best sources of protein?
Protein can be found in a variety of foods, to include vegetables. Certain foods have a “complete” level of protein because they provide all ten essential amino acids. Some of these foods include:
• Plain yogurt
If you’d rather focus on plant-based sources of protein, here are some options:
• Legumes – lentils, chickpeas, hummus and black beans, to name a few.
• Nuts and nut butters (i.e. almond butter)
• Vegetables – spinach, artichoke, asparagus, beets and mushrooms, to name a few.
• Grains – oats, quinoa, amaranth, barley, Salba-brand chia, millet
• Tofu or Tempeh
• JuicePlus+ Complete shake (ask me for info)
So take a look at your meals and snacks and see where you can add more of these foods into your daily plan. My professional and personal recommendation still lies with the Balanced Plate approach (see graphic above) - where 1/4 of your plate is protein, 1/4 is whole grains, and 1/2 your plate is comprised of fruits and vegetables with small amounts of healthy oils and fats.
If you still have questions, or if you subscribe to a different “plate”, please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear what works for you, and what doesn’t, because we all have unique bodies with varied preferences and lifestyles.