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Complete Macronutrient Guide Part 3: Protein

January 26, 2017

Should You Be Eating More Protein?

Dakota Howe, B.S. in Food and Nutrition

     Proteins are referred to as the “building blocks of life” – aside from water they are one of the most abundant nutrients in the human body and can be found in every one of our cells1. Protein is made up of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen and contains four calories per gram. Unlike carbohydrates and fats, proteins are the only macronutrient that contain the molecule nitrogen. Nitrogen is crucial for a number of bodily functions including protein synthesis and the creation of amino acids that make up our DNA2.

     In general, people are under the impression that the more protein they eat the more muscle they will build. Today, protein supplements from powders to bars claim to increase muscle mass and promote weight loss. High protein and low carbohydrate diets are popular amongst consumers today and are marketed towards increasing muscle mass and decreasing overall body fat. While protein is a crucial component of our diets, it is important to recognize that just because you eat a diet high in protein it does not necessarily mean that you will build muscle. In order to build muscle mass you must engage in regular exercise and weight lifting along with eating a healthy diet and meeting your daily protein requirements. In fact, on average Americans already consume a diet high in protein and tend to meet their daily protein needs through the foods they eat. Therefore, purchasing supplements such as protein shakes and protein bars is not necessary for everybody3.

The Breakdown of Proteins

     Proteins are composed of long chains of amino acids that get broken down when consumed and digested in the body. There are two different kinds of proteins, complete and incomplete. Complete proteins are found mainly in animal based sources of protein and contain all of the essential amino acids4. Incomplete proteins are found mainly in plant-based sources of protein and do not contain all of the essential amino acids1.

     Amino acids are crucial to the construction of proteins. In total there are twenty amino acids - nine are essential and eleven are non-essential. Our bodies cannot produce essential amino acids; therefore we must get them by consuming protein rich foods1. Animal based sources of protein are typically complete proteins that contain all of the nine essential amino acids. Examples of foods with complete proteins include: chicken, fish, beef, eggs, milk and Greek yogurt.

     Incomplete proteins contain non-essential amino acids; this means that our bodies can produce them on their own. Most plant-based foods are incomplete proteins and are made up of non-essential amino acids. Therefore, it is not completely necessary (unless you are vegan or vegetarian) to consume foods with non-essential amino acids each day in order to meet your daily protein needs. However, we should still consume these foods for other health benefits, for they are typically high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Examples of plant-based sources of incomplete proteins include: rice, oatmeal, beans, grains, nuts, nut butters, seeds, fruits and vegetables1. In general, incomplete proteins are lacking one or more of the essential amino acids, so when paired with one another they provide the body with all of the essential amino acids making a complete protein – these are referred to as complementary proteins. However, quinoa and soy based products such as tofu and soy milk contain all nine of the essential amino acids, making them the only plant based sources of protein that are complete on their own. Examples of complementary proteins include:

  • Brown rice and beans
  • Whole wheat bread and almond butter
  • Fruit with peanut butter
  • Oatmeal with nuts and fruit
  • Hummus with vegetables and/or pita bread


Functions of protein in the body

     Protein and biological functions- Protein serves several biological functions in the human body and is a necessary component of our diets. To start, protein molecules play an important role in the creation of our DNA and can be found in every cell in the human body. Protein is what makes up our hair, skin, nails, bones, cartilage, organs and muscles. Additionally, protein is crucial for the transportation and storage of certain molecules like hemoglobin and ferritin, as well as the creation of enzymes, hormones and blood. Additionally, protein helps to increase the rate of chemical reactions in the human body like the digestion of carbohydrate and fat molecules5. Consuming protein is also important for immune health. Antibodies are formed by proteins in order to destroy bacterial and viral antigens, ultimately helping to prevent infection, illness and disease6.

     Protein and muscle mass- Protein also plays a very important role in muscle repair and maintenance. It is commonly advertised that if we eat a high protein meal or have a protein shake after a workout then we will get bigger and stronger. While this statement is not completely accurate, it does hold some truth. Our bodies need protein in order to grow and after a workout, especially one with heavy weight lifting, our muscle tissues get broken down and need protein in order to rebuild. When we consume the proper amount of protein our bodies are able to repair and rebuild muscle tissue. That is where the idea of consuming high protein meals after a workout stems from. However, the timing of protein intake is not as important as making sure that we consume the proper amount of healthy protein sources throughout the entire day3,4.

     Protein and energy- Protein can even be used as energy once our bodies run out of carbohydrate stores. Our bodies can convert protein into glucose; however, it takes twice as much effort to convert protein into glucose energy than it does for carbohydrates and fats. This means that protein is not the most efficient source of energy. In order for our bodies to convert protein into glucose it must break down muscle tissue– this should be avoided at all costs because it decreases our overall strength and power as well as increasing the risk for falls and injury, especially in older adults and the elderly. Additionally, if we consume more protein than is necessary for the biological functions previously listed, then any excess amount will get stored as body fat. Therefore, consuming too much protein will result in storage of fat molecules, not extra muscle5,6.

Protein intake recommendations

     It is recommended that 10-35% of our daily calories come from protein. This range is so wide because each individual requires a different amount of protein based off of their height, weight, and the intensity of their activity levels as well as their own specific goals3.

     Sedentary individuals of a healthy weight are recommended to consume between 0.4-0.65   grams of protein per pound of body weight. For example, this recommendation would work for people who hold office jobs and who participate in minimal to no physical activity in their free time.

     Endurance athletes and those who participate in moderate intensity physical activities should consume between 0.5-0.65 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. Moderate intensity physical activities include: powerwalking, jogging and swimming as well as those who hold physically demanding jobs that require you to be on your feet all day and/or preforming manual labor.

     High intensity physical activities that call for strength and power such as running, intense weight lifting and playing sports require people to consume more protein. It is recommended that people who participate in high intensity activities consume between 0.5-0.85 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

     Bodybuilders and power lifters who have the ultimate goal of gaining and maintaining muscle mass require even more protein. It is recommended that they consume between 0.7-1 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight3.

     Keep in mind that these numbers can and should be adjusted for each individual depending on one’s own lifestyle and specific goals. There may be some days that you are more physically active compared to other days; therefore your protein intake should increase for those specific days.

Healthy sources of protein

     It is important to always consume high quality, healthy sources of proteins in order to maximize the benefits. Processed deli meats, sausage and hot dogs are all unhealthy sources of proteins and should be consumed in moderate amounts due to their unhealthy ingredients, high amounts of processing and high sodium content. In fact, these unhealthy sources of protein can actually cause adverse health effects such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, type II diabetes, cancer and weight gain5. Examples of both healthy complete and incomplete proteins include:

Complete proteins:

  • Grass fed beef
  • Chicken
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Milk
  • Greek yogurt
  • Tofu
  • Soy milk
  • Quinoa

Incomplete proteins

  • Nuts
  • Nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Beans
  • Oatmeal
  • Brown rice
  • Pasta
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables

Complementary Proteins:

  • Brown rice and beans
  • Whole wheat bread and almond butter
  • Fruit with peanut butter
  • Oatmeal with nuts and fruit
  • Hummus with vegetables and/or pita bread

     Supplements such as protein powders and protein bars are currently a hot topic right now in the food and fitness industry. For the average person it is not necessary to consume protein supplements and purchasing them may be a waste of money. However, people who have the goal to increase muscle mass and size require large amounts of protein. For these people, hitting their daily protein needs with just food alone can be challenging. Therefore, in these instances consuming protein shakes and bars proves to be both necessary and beneficial. There is no doubt that protein supplements are convenient for those who have on the go lifestyles and do not always have enough time to cook full meals. It is quick and easy to just grab a protein shake and head on out the door or to your next appointment. If you constantly find yourself in a pinch for time or if you are trying to gain muscle mass then protein supplements might be right for you.

     Aim to purchase products with high quality ingredients and ones that are free from fillers and additives. For example, whey protein isolate and pea protein isolate are two of the highest quality and purest ingredients in protein supplements. They are both animal based and plant based protein bars and shakes out on the market today. Shop around, read the nutrition facts label and ingredient listing and find out which protein supplements work best for you and your lifestyle. If you are looking to purchase post-workout supplements then choose products with low amounts of sugar, carbohydrates and fats and at least 20 grams or more of protein per serving. Meal replacement supplements should be higher in calories and should also contain at least 20 grams of protein as well as a moderate amount of carbohydrates and fats and little to no added sugars. However, protein bars and shakes should only be supplemented when necessary and when you are in a rush or struggling to reach your daily protein needs3. Protein supplements should never totally take the place of eating real and wholesome healthy foods.



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