The functional purpose of protein is one that’s beneficial for our bodies, but how do you know if you’re getting enough? Tune out the ‘more is better’ message, and get to know what matters more to you.
The topic of protein can be a confusing one. One day, you might read an article about the latest high-protein diet fad and wonder if you should join in. The next, you may watch a documentary and question if you are actually eating too much protein.
If this resonates with you or if you are simply an active individual wondering what you need to know about protein, let’s answer a few basic questions.
First, what is the purpose and function of protein?
Protein acts as the “building blocks” of our bodies. Dietary proteins are essential for human health and responsible for things like immune function, enzymatic reactions, cell growth & development, transport and “communication” (as in the case of hormones).
This table provides a good overview of each of those “jobs” if you’re curious for some specific examples of each. It’s especially important post-workout for repairing and rebuilding muscle tissue.
Another more subjective reason for including protein is the satisfaction factor. It adds staying power to meals and snacks so you aren’t thinking about food again an hour later. Often times when people skimp on protein at breakfast, it has a cascade effect that can lead to increased cravings throughout the day along with a feeling of never being ‘truly’ satisfied.
So what does “complete” and “incomplete” mean, and why does it matter?
You may have heard the words “complete” and “incomplete” in regards to protein. These terms indicate whether or not a particular food contains all of the essential amino acids (complete) or only some of them (incomplete).
This is important to know because there are 20 different amino acids that we need. 9 of those are considered “essential”, which means that your body doesn’t synthesize them and must be consumed through food. If you eat a plant-based diet (and subsequently incomplete protein sources), it’s important to consume a variety of proteins to ensure you are getting each of those amino acids throughout the day.
So how do you know if you’re getting enough?
It’s very rare to see protein deficiency in any developed country (except in the clinical setting when patients are either unable or refusing to eat for extended periods of time, at which point nutrition support is initiated). Basically, if you are meeting your energy needs, you are likely meeting your protein needs too.
With that said, people who may find themselves a little low on dietary protein intake without even realizing it are those who follow a vegetarian eating pattern. However, it’s important to remember that it’s not difficult to meet your needs with a plant-based or mostly plant-based diet –
It just takes a little bit more planning.
It’s also important to know the difference between meeting protein needs for general health, and meeting protein needs if your goal is to build lean body mass and optimize a workout.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance or “RDA” for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight. So to calculate this, take your weight in pounds, divide it by 2.2 (to get your body weight in kilograms) then multiply that number by 0.8. This is the minimum amount of protein you should shoot for each day, but it’s not necessarily the optimal amount.
Working with a nutrition professional or registered dietitian can help you determine a protein range that will best meet your needs (based on things like activity level and fitness goals), but this can be a starting point. In addition to amount, there are two other important factors to consider: timing & variety.
- Timing: Spread out your protein intake throughout the day (as opposed to moderate amounts at breakfast/lunch followed by a huge steak at dinner). This helps promote muscle protein synthesis better than the alternative.
- Variety: Make sure you get a variety of sources especially, if you eat a predominantly plant-based diet so you can diversify your amino acid intake. All food provides different benefits so this is a good rule of thumb no matter what the macronutrient – there is no “best” choice.
So what are some of the best food sources?
Most people are well-aware that meat has protein, but some other options may surprise you. Here is a short list of where you can find it and about how many grams one serving contains:
- Chicken, 3 oz (20 grams)
- Siggi’s 2% Yogurt, 5 oz (15 grams)
- Tuna, 2 oz (14 grams)
- Cottage Cheese, 1/2 cup (14 grams)
- Red lentils, 50 gm serving (13 grams)
- Hemp hearts, 3 Tbsp (10 grams)
- Peanut butter, 2 Tbsp (8 grams)
- Black beans, 1/2 cup (7 grams)
- Whole wheat pasta, 2 oz (7 grams)
- Egg, 1 whole (6 grams)
- Old-fashioned rolled oats, 1/2 cup (5 grams)
But what about those supplements?
Supplements can be a great option for active individuals who have higher protein needs and find it challenging to meet them through food. From a volume perspective, it’s a lot easier to take in 20 grams of protein through a smoothie with some whey powder added in, than it is to consume a full plated meal.
However, it’s important to keep the “food first” mentality whenever possible. Supplements can be expensive and they don’t contain any magical components compared to food. The nutrients in whole food often work in synergy in the body, so by isolating single components, we may be missing out on some of the benefits of the original source.
As with all things nutrition, it’s important to assess what may be more appropriate based on your situation. There is no “best” protein source –
Just simply what works for you.
HEADER IMAGE: BROOKE LARK
Leanne Ray, MS, RDN is a Denver-based Registered Dietitian empowering women to sustain healthy lifestyles that are practical and realistic. By helping others find happiness and joy through delicious foods that don’t involve guilt or stress, she shares how healthy eating can involve satisfaction instead of boring, low-calorie diets. Visit her site to read more from Leanne.