For the second part of our macronutrient series we are going to move on to Protein. Now that I’m sure you have a nice big glass of water to sip on while you read this post, we’ll get right into it!
I feel like most people probably know that protein is important and a fundamental part of a balanced diet (whether you are paleo, gluten free, vegetarian, vegan, etc.), but I think it’s important to learn about why proteins really are so essential.
Protein comprises about 20% of our total body weight and is a component of our hair, nails, skin, eyes, muscles, and internal organs like our heart and brain (Haas 40). The body is so reliant on protein that if it is not getting enough, it will send out intense signals that you need to eat more of it (ever just absolutely CRAVE steak?)
Some of the important roles of Proteins include (Haas 60):
Enzymes– molecules that are the managers and catalysts for all living processes, such as digestion.
Antibodies– proteins that help fight infection (hello, immune system!)
Hemoglobin– proteins in the form of red blood cells that carry oxygen to the tissues of the body
Hormones– proteins that regulate our metabolism and almost every other function in our body (I know most people will be excited about this one)
Proteins are comprised of amino acids, which can be thought of as the building blocks of proteins. Some of these amino acids are essential, which means the body cannot produce them, and some are non-essential, which means the body is capable of producing them. However, just because the body is capable of producing an amino acid, does not mean that it is actually doing so. Therefore, we should still be focused on eating foods that are complete proteins (such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, chicken etc.) in order to obtain sufficient amounts of amino acids. If you are a vegetarian, you must be very conscientious about how you combine food in order to obtain adequate protein and all the amino acids.
Why is it so important to consume adequate protein?
Proteins are truly so important for our metabolism, structure, muscles, etc. In order to grow or maintain our body tissues we must have a constant supply of amino acids. This is particularly true during pregnancy as well as during times of healing or illness. In order to have sufficient energy, protein is also essential.
If you are concerned with weight loss (or maintaining muscle mass) making sure that you are consuming enough protein is vital. As shown by this study here: ajcn.nutrition.org protein is effective for weight loss strategies due to a few factors:
- 20-30% of the calories that come from protein are used to digest the protein itself. This compares to only 5-10% from fats and 0-3% from carbohydrates (not that these aren’t important as well, just for different reasons)
- Satiety- protein is extremely satisfying and making sure you are consuming enough can lead to overall calorie reduction
- Muscle mass- in this study, the higher protein diet group was able to preserve more lean muscle mass during weight loss. Even if you are not trying to lose weight and just maintain or actually gain muscle, protein will help you obtain these goals.
So how much protein should you eat?
Approximately 30% of your daily calories should be from protein. Some sources include:
Dairy (preferably raw) – IF tolerated
Legumes- IF tolerated
I believe it is extremely important to look at the quality of your protein. If you see above, I do recommend choosing organic and better yet, local, whenever possible. Try and stock up when you can buy grass fed beef or wild seafood on sale, and make sure you take a closer look around at your local stores- Costco now has a large variety of quality proteins. If that is still too expensive, choose leaner cuts of meat (as more toxins can be found in the fat if it is of lesser quality) and eat canned seafood (like wild salmon and sardines) just check and make sure they are in pure olive oil or water.
While protein is undoubtedly extremely important, it is only just part of a healthy overall diet. In this post I am mainly discussing the benefits of the macronutrient protein and the types of protein to choose, but it is also important to be aware that people can eat too much protein, and that’s not good either. Too much of anything will not allow you to reach your goals and could have health consequences down the line. It’s important to build out a plan with a practitioner or another expert if you are unsure how much daily protein you need.
Thanks for staying with me through this series! In the next few weeks we will cover fats and carbohydrates which are also both essential to building a balanced meal plan.
Question: Where do you primarily buy good quality protein?
- Haas, Elson M., and Buck Levin.Staying Healthy with Nutrition: The Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine. 21st ed. Berkeley: Celestial Arts, 2006. Print.