Why Do We Need Protein?
Protein is one of the three primary energy-providing nutrients we need to get from food. Even though we can break down protein to produce energy, our bodies prefer to use carbohydrates first and fats second. We typically only burn protein for energy as a last resort, when we run out of stored carbohydrate and fat. This is a good thing, since our bodies use protein constantly to maintain the integrity of our cells and systems, build molecules that perform essential functions, repair muscle tissue, keep our gut lining strong and healthy and make sure our heart can pump blood effectively throughout our whole body.
Why are proteins so versatile? Because every protein is a unique combination of building block molecules called amino acids. Our bodies need 20 different amino acids to build a wide variety of protein molecules, and nine of these we must get from food because our bodies are unable to build them on our own. Foods that provide all nine “essential” amino acids are called complete proteins. Meat, fish, eggs and dairy contain all essential amino acids, but so do many plant foods including soy, quinoa, pumpkin seeds, and potatoes!
At mealtime, protein foods help us feel fuller, longer, because they take more time for our digestive tract to break down and absorb (compared to simple carbohydrates on their own). A bowl of oatmeal is a lot more filling when topped with seeds and seed butter than with brown sugar and raisins, for example.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
The amount of protein we need depends on various factors like body size, activity level and whether or not we are injured or sick.
The general guideline for healthy adults not engaging in regular strenuous activity is at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. For Americans who are not necessarily used to knowing their body weight in terms of kilograms, this equates to about 0.4 grams per pound. Most research indicates that intake of protein higher than this is generally not harmful, and no upper limit for protein intake has been identified. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends between 10-35% of total calories from protein as appropriate for a balanced, healthy diet (50 grams to 175 grams for a 2000 calorie diet). Active people need more dietary protein:
Strenuous Activity: Upwards of 2 grams per kilogram (a little more than 1 gram per pound) a day.
Moderate Activity: Somewhere between 1 and 2 grams per day.
If you’re sick or recovering from an injury, you also have a higher protein requirement because your body is working hard to fight off disease, heal and create new healthy tissues. For a personalized recommendation and to ensure your diet contains an appropriate amount of protein, work with a registered dietitian (RD) who can guide you through food choices tailored to your lifestyle.
Importantly, our bodies are designed to use amino acids from protein continually, and perform best when we consume protein periodically throughout the day. For balance, aim to get a source of protein from all meals and snacks. Your portion size will be determined by your individual protein need.
1 Cup cooked oatmeal with 2 tablespoons 88 Acres Pumpkin Seed Butter, 1 tablespoon of chia seeds and 1 medium peach, sliced.
Nutrition: 460 Calories, 22g Fat, 56g Carbohydrate, 13g Protein (13g Fiber)
88 Acres Apple Ginger Craft Seed Bar
Nutrition: 180 Calories, 9g Fat, 23g Carbohydrate, 5g Protein (3g Fiber)
Burrito Bowl: ½ cup black beans and 1 cup brown rice, 1 cup romaine lettuce, ¼ cup salsa, and 2 tablespoons guacamole.
1 Cup Steamed Broccoli
Nutrition: 505 Calories, 12g Fat, 84g Carbohydrate, 20g protein (17g Fiber)
¼ Cup hummus, 6 whole grain crackers with sweet pepper and cucumber.
Nutrition: 280 Calories, 14g Fat, 33g Carbohydrate, 7g Protein (8g Fiber)
1 Cup bean-based pasta with 1 tablespoon pumpkin seed pesto and 1 tablespoon pumpkin seeds.
3 Meatless meatballs
1 Cup mini peppers
Nutrition: 445 Calories, 14g Fat, 55g Carbohydrate, 27g Protein (14g Fiber)
Daily Total: 1871 Calories, 71g Fat, 250g Carbohydrate, 72g Protein (55g Fiber)
*For 150 lb person who engages in moderate activity (recommended protein intake about 70 grams per day)
Where Do We Get Protein?Protein is found in pretty much all foods, from broccoli to turkey breast. Foods contain varying amounts and we categorize foods highest in protein as “protein foods” for that reason. Animal products, like fish, poultry, beef, eggs and dairy products contain high quantities of “complete” protein, meaning that the food contains all of the amino acids our bodies are unable to synthesize itself. Most healthy adults don’t have to worry about getting enough amino acids if they include animal protein in their diet.
Non-animal sources of protein include beans and legumes, seeds and nuts. Vegetarian sources of protein are often targeted as “incomplete” proteins, meaning that unlike animal products they do not contain all the amino acids our bodies cannot make. This is not necessarily true, however. Pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, quinoa, soy and even potatoes are considered complete proteins.
What Are The Benefits of Plant-Based Protein?Plant-based proteins offer a double benefit of fiber that keeps us satisfied, as well as phytochemicals, vitamins,minerals and minimal saturated fat and cholesterol. Decades of research looking into the health effects of various diets have shown that diets highest in plant-based protein sources are associated with the most health benefits. According to the Physician’s Guide for Plant Based Diets, this may be due to the inherent health benefits of plants, as well as limiting some of the unhealthier aspects of animal-based proteins.
What is The Best Way To Get Protein?
The highest quality sources of protein are those that provide amino acids that our bodies are easily able to absorb. An egg is typically referred to as a “gold standard” protein, because it contains all 20 amino acids, and all of the amino acids are easily absorbed and used by our bodies.
Even though most plant-based proteins contain phytochemicals that can prevent our bodies from easily using all of the available amino acids, these phytochemicals are important and contribute their own slew of health benefits. Benefits range from preventing disease to feeding gut bacteria and minimizing inflammation in the body.
No need to worry about the traditional instruction to combine incomplete proteins at each meal (rice with beans, for example). Our bodies are actually able to maintain a pool of amino acids that is replenished throughout the day. As long as you get a variety of plant-based protein sources in your diet throughout the day, you will likely consume enough protein and amino acids for optimal health.