An Intro to Protein

Protein is part of the macronutrient trio, and depending on who you ask, it may even be the most important one. Protein is made up of amino acids, and amino acids are considered the building blocks of life, so protein is not only the building blocks of muscle [which it is most commonly known for], but for our entire physical structure. The body is only able to produce some of these amino acids itself. There are 9 other amino acids - dubbed “essential” amino acids that we cannot produce and must be consumed via food.

What’s so great about protein anyway?

We burn calories from eating it. Just like carbohydrates, a single gram of protein carries four calories - but unlike carbohydrates, protein has a higher thermic effect. This thermic effect of food, also known as thermogenesis, is the production of heat in the body due to the digestion and metabolization of food. Simply put, this means that protein requires the body to expend more energy to digest it than any of the other macronutrients. This is another reason why fitness professionals emphasize eating more protein, not because they’re trying to get you jacked [unless of course, that’s your goal].

We burn more calories when we have more muscle. Then, there’s the fact that the more lean muscle mass you have, the more calories you will burn per day. Now it’s not as large of a difference as some people assume, but at rest you burn approximately 6-7 calories a day per pound of muscle - versus the 2-3 calories that you burn from a pound of fat. So to oversimplify: the more protein you consume, the greater the opportunity for lean mass [I say opportunity because you do have to actually put in physical effort in the form of resistance training in order to create muscle], which means you have the ability to burn more calories without doing more work. And aren’t we all trying to get more by doing less?

It keeps us from becoming brittle and frail. Perhaps you aren’t actively trying to gain muscle mass, because you “don’t want to look too bulky.” You still need to consume adequate amounts of protein to maintain what mass you currently have, and most importantly, prevent the loss of muscle. Remember sarcopenia? That tricky little thing where you can lose 3-5% of your muscle mass per decade once you’ve hit 30? Yeah. It’s a real thing. Not only do you need to preserve your muscle, you need your muscles to stay strong, and protein is key in aiding the repair of muscle fibers and and replenishing glycogen stores that are depleted during exercise.

We can even lose weight from it. You can even manage your weight by incorporating a bit more protein into your diet. Many people experience less cravings and late night snacking - that can be a huge calorie reducer right there. It can also help you feel more satiated, which can lead to less consumption of calories overall. But really, many types of high quality protein come in a natural, unprocessed form of whole foods - which as we know, is the best kind of food.

Protein deficiency is hard on the body. Lastly, without protein, we can experience many symptoms including loss of hair, brittle hair/nails, flaky or red skin, increased chance of bone fractures, decreased immune system, stunted growth [in children], and even symptoms of kwashiorkor such as edema.

How do I know how much protein is the right amount?

According to The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the recommended daily intakes [RDIs] for sedentary individuals is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram - or 0.35 grams per pound of body weight - per day, for general health. To calculate grams, multiply your body weight by appropriate value and unit of measure; then to calculate calories multiply this number by 4.

Ex: (Bodyweight = 150 lbs) x (RDI = 0.35 grams) = (52.5 grams) x (4 cal/gram) = 210 calories

For a lot of people, that number will seem very low, so for the sake of argument we will use it as a bare minimum. For a quicker way to calculate things, click here to check out a useful calculator that will let you play with different variables. If you’re someone who prefers to use an app - you’ll likely have the option to put in macronutrient percentages - shoot for no less than 15%, and experiment with how your body feels with different levels up to 30%.

Okay...now I know how much...but how do I know what to eat?

Believe it or not, while it’s easier to consume protein in the form of animal products, you don’t need to be carnivorous in order to up your protein numbers. Here’s a breakdown of animal and plant based products.

Animal Sources:

Animal based proteins are complete proteins, meaning that they contain all 9 essential amino acids. Examples of these are variations of: milk, yogurt, cheese, meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and whey protein powders.

Plant Based Sources:

There are tons of options out there for those of you who prefer a plant based lifestyle. Because most plant based options [including plant based protein powders] are incomplete proteins, you’ll need to pair grains/nuts/seeds together with legumes [and pea protein powders with brown rice protein powders]. Vegetables and some fruits do contain protein, however, the amount per serving is much lower.

Complete Proteins:

Soy proteins: tofu, tempeh, edamame

Grains: quinoa, amaranth, rice AND beans (together)

Incomplete Proteins:

Grains: Ezekiel bread, sprouted grains, steel cut oats, wild rice,

Nuts: nut butters, walnuts, almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts,

Seeds: hempseed, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds

Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, lima beans, black beans, green peas, peanuts

Vegetables: broccoli, spinach, asparagus, artichokes, sweet/potatoes, Brussels sprouts

This helpful chart will allow you to take all of the information above and apply it to your diet. Remember, just like fat and carbohydrates, balance is the best suiting diet. If you’re unsure of what that looks like for you, or you don’t have the time to figure out, sign up for Nutrition in a Nutshell.

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