When most people think of protein, they think of muscle.
They’re not wrong. Protein, as part of a balanced diet and coupled with the proper exercise, helps develop bodies that are leaner and have more muscle mass.
That, however, is just one of protein’s benefits.
In terms of overall health and wellness, protein benefits your immune system, every bit of tissue in your body, energy regulation and blood oxygenation. People who get the right amount of protein tend to feel less hungry and consume fewer calories and have improved bone density, better brain function and sleep, and lower blood pressure.
There are more than 10,000 kinds of protein, so you don’t always have to go the red meat route.
How Does Protein Work?
Protein, fat and carbohydrates are the three major macronutrients that make up your diet. Found in literally every cell of the body, the many kinds of protein have roles in many important functions, including:
- Promoting growth in children and pregnant women
- Staving off unhealthy bacteria and viruses
- Repairing and creating cells
- Distribution of molecules throughout the body
In simplest terms, there are three broad categories of function impacted by the 20-plus kinds of amino acids carried into our bodies by the protein we consume: structural (tissue, cell linkage, etc.), biochemical (breaking down fat, for example) and informational (circadian clock proteins, e.g.).
Are You Getting Enough Protein?
You are probably getting enough protein, but it’s easy to believe protein deficiency is a huge problem based on the number of protein supplements and protein-boosted food products that are front and center in supermarkets around the country.
The fact is, you should be getting roughly 10 to 35 percent of your calories from protein. Americans average around 15 percent. To be within the recommended percentage on the FDA’s basic guideline of 2,000 calories per day, that means 200 to 700 calories (or 50 to 175 grams) of protein.
A good barometer to consider grams of protein is one that measures each kilogram of body weight. Among adults, those with a sedentary lifestyle need the least, older adults a bit more and adults involved in active physical training the most.
The breakdown is 0.8 gram per kg of body weight for sedentary adults, 1 gram for those looking to stave off aging-related muscle loss and 1.2 to 1.7 for regular exercisers.
At the average adult weight for the US male (195 pounds/88 kg) and female (168/76), here’s the breakdown of protein requirements:
Category Men Women
Sedentary 70 grams 61 grams
Aging 88 grams 76 grams
Training 106-150 grams 91-129 grams
Where Should You Get All This Protein?
That’s an important question. Vegetarians, for example, will need legumes to reach a complete protein profile. If you’re getting all your protein from red meat, you’ll likely be consuming too much fat.
Indeed, many Americans get protein from sources that are also rich in fat (burgers, cheese, whole milk, etc.). There are better choices, including:
- Lean beef or pork
- Skinless chicken
- Low-fat dairy products (including yogurt and cheese)
- Legumes such as beans, peas and lentils
- Fruits and vegetables such as cherries, avocados and leafy greens
For the most part, you want complete proteins, which are proteins providing a near-complete amino acid profile. Animal proteins are best in that regard, though soy and quinoa are also considered complete proteins.
Choose Supplements Carefully
The label on a healthy supplement shouldn’t be comparable to a candy bar. Look for fewer than 200 calories, 2 grams of fat and 5 grams of sugar per serving. If powders are your thing, vegans have hemp-, pea-, rice- and soy-based products to choose from; whey- and casein-based powders are derived from milk, with the former considered faster acting and recommended after a workout and the latter the time-release protein.
Don’t Be Too Late
For many Americans, the biggest meal of the day is dinner, however, protein is better consumed steadily throughout the day.
Snacking on nuts, for example, is a good way to get protein on board between meals. Shifting some protein to breakfast is another good habit to adopt. Also, if you’re looking for the perfect post-workout protein boost, studies have shown low-fat chocolate milk to be better for recovery and future performance than sports drinks.
Rarely is an all-or-nothing approach like a high-protein, low-carb diet a good idea for a long-term health plan. Protein alone won’t give you all the nutrients you need, and without exercise it won’t even effectively build muscle. In fact, if you’re ingesting too much protein for the calories you burn, it will store as fat.
Protein is a vital ingredient in a healthy lifestyle, but it’s not the only one. Please see the accompanying resource for more information about protein as an essential nutrient.
Author bio: Dr. Myur S. Srikanth is a board-certified bariatric and cosmetic surgeon at the Center for Weight Loss Surgery. He has been performing bariatric surgery exclusively since 2000 and has performed over 4,000 weight loss surgeries. Dr. Srikanth performs nearly every operation that is currently available to treat obesity.