While well known for its role in rebuilding and repairing tissues broken down during exercise such as weight training, protein is much more than just the building block for muscles. In fact, it is a macronutrient that is essential for survival. It is required for building bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and pretty much every tissue in the body. Protein is also necessary for immune function, brain function, carrying oxygen into the blood, and all metabolic processes.
Protein is made up of long chains of amino acids that are not stored in the body the way carbohydrates and fats are. The body must get its protein on a regular basis from dietary sources. In the United States, most people get the majority of their protein from animal products such as meat, fish, and eggs. People who eat plant-based diets such as vegan and vegetarian must ensure that they are getting adequate plant-based protein to meet their daily requirement.
Protein rates higher on the satiety scale than carbohydrates and fats, which is one reason nuts, nut butters, and Greek yogurt are so frequently recommended as healthy snacks. Meals that include a healthy portion of protein also leave people feeling fuller for a longer period of time afterward.
Protein plays an important role in the regulation of hormones such as ghrelin, which it suppresses after a meal or snack that is high in protein. A lower level of ghrelin helps people feel more full and satisfied, making them less likely to snack in between meals.
Protein is critical for muscle growth as it helps to maintain or repair muscle tissue. In order to maintain your present muscle mass, you must eat more protein. If you are looking to build muscle mass, additional protein intake and exercise, such as strength training, is required. Consuming less protein may result in decreased muscle mass.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for a sedentary adult is 0.8 g per kg (about 2 lbs) of body weight. For example, a person who weighs 150 lbs (68k g) should consume 55 g of protein. It is important to remember that this is a suggested minimum, not necessarily the perfect amount for your needs.
Protein timing is typically associated with weight training to build muscle. There is one belief that there is a 30-minute anabolic window after strength training during which you must consume adequate protein to ensure maximal muscle gain. Another belief is that the anabolic window is actually 4 to 6 hours after training, while there are others who believe it is more important to feed your body protein on a regular basis than it is to time its intake so precisely. Most seem to agree that training in a fasted state, however, is not beneficial, so a protein shake prior to a workout is a good idea. With so many theories on protein timing, it is probably best to consult a fitness professional, registered dietician, or even your physician to determine what is best for your needs.
While it’s probably safe to say that eating too much protein, or anything for that matter, can potentially be problematic, there is currently no clear cut definition of how much is too much. The general consensus seems to be that most people can safely eat between 2 and 3.5g/kg of body weight daily. But each person’s situation is unique to their needs. Elite athletes and pregnant people, for example, have higher protein needs than elderly or sedentary people.
If you are eating a high-protein diet, it is important to be aware of some of the initial symptoms of too much protein:
Care/of has an excellent article How Much Protein is Too Much that can provide you with additional information about protein intake.
One of the easiest ways to add more protein to your diet is to start your day off with a protein-packed breakfast. Eggs are considered to be a complete protein. Try replacing your breakfast cereal or bagel with some eggs, or add in a healthy protein shake. Your body will thank you.
Swap out a processed, packaged, sugar-laden snack, with a handful of nuts to help meet your protein needs. For a healthy filling treat, try making your own personal charcuterie board – add in cheeses, mixed nuts, hummus, or nut butter!
Beans, peas, and lentils are high in fiber, rich in vitamins, and packed with protein. Beans and rice combine to make a complete protein, and hummus tastes great with just about any fresh crunchy vegetable.
The main difference between pasta and quinoa is that quinoa is naturally gluten-free and can be turned into a pasta, making it a great gluten-free alternative to pasta. It has fewer calories than pasta and is also a great source of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Eggs are considered to be a complete protein, meaning they contain all of the essential amino acids your body needs. Eggs are always an excellent choice of protein.
Hard-boiled eggs are easily transported, high in protein, filling, and make an excellent snack.
Protein shakes are a convenient way to add protein to your diet. They are easy to make, convenient to buy, and can be excellent sources of protein. It is important to read the label on any protein powder or shake that you are purchasing. Some products contain additives, fillers, and sugars to give them their delicious flavor. If it tastes just like ice cream, it might contain the same amount of sugar. Care/of has an excellent article on When to Take Protein Shakes that may be helpful as you consider incorporating protein shakes into your diet.
With a little planning it is possible to have protein at every meal and with every snack. Eggs, nuts, nut butter, seeds, grains, lean meats, fish, and beans are all excellent sources of protein. Get creative. You can always find a place to add a bit of protein to any meal.
Including nuts anywhere you can is always a good way to add some extra protein to your diet. Walnuts on your salad, pistachio crusted salmon, almond butter on apple slices. You can be as creative as you want to be. Nuts are high in protein and fiber, nutrient dense, and a great substitute for animal products if you eat a plant-based diet.
Greek yogurt contains approximately 17 g of protein per serving, compared to 9 g in regular yogurt. Double the protein – seems like a no-brainer.
Eggs are considered to be a perfect protein source. Two eggs contain 12 g of protein, and one egg contains all of the amino acids your body needs.
Poultry such as chicken, duck, and turkey are considered to be among the best protein sources in terms of their bioavailability. Two ounces of chicken contains about 13 g of protein! These protein sources are also considered complete proteins.
Whether it’s tilapia, mackerel, grouper, snapper, flounder, trout, or light tuna canned in oil, fish is an excellent source of protein that is also low in calories and packed with essential nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids. A 3 oz filet of Salmon has over 16g of protein! The American Heart Association recommends that all people eat two servings of fish per week.
Legumes are inexpensive, satiating, high in fiber, and rich in protein. Their texture tends to lend them to being “meat” substitutes in many dishes.
Hummus, which unless otherwise specified, is made from chickpeas. It is high in protein and fiber, and packed with nutrients. It has a relatively high protein content when compared to other plant-based foods, making it popular with those eating a plant-based diet.
Chia seeds are an excellent protein source that are also high in fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids, and contain several essential minerals and antioxidants.
Oats and oatmeal are nutrient-dense, high in fiber, and an excellent source of protein.
Getting adequate protein on a vegetarian diet may take some creativity initially, but it is very possible to have a protein-rich, palate-pleasing, plant-based diet that easily meets all of your nutritional needs. Nuts, beans, seeds, legumes, grains, green vegetables, nut butters, soy products, and milk alternatives are readily available and can easily become dietary staples.
Variety may be the spice of life, but it is also key in making food choices that will increase your protein intake in a healthy way. Consider multiple food sources, varied recipes, and don’t forget to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, low-fat dairy, and whole grains in addition to your extra protein.