You’ve heard the term – but how much do you really know about protein? We’ve seen it be the major player in a lot of the “low carbohydrate lifestyles.” But what does it really mean to you?

Protein is classified as a nutrient that is a part of every cell and tissue in our body (muscle, bone, skin, etc.). Protein is made up of different sequences of amino acids (the building blocks of protein) that, when eaten, is used to help replenish the protein stores (amino acids) in our body that have been depleted or broken down because of a variety of reasons (exercise, injury, etc.). Most adults get more protein than they need which contributes to excessive calorie and saturated fat intake. However, our body does not store amino acids for later use, so it is important that we “feed” it daily.

There are two different sources of protein:

  1. Animal – beef, chicken, fish, milk, yogurt, etc.
  2. Plant – beans, lentils, nuts and seeds (to name a few)

There are also two different TYPES of protein (or amino acids):

  1. Essential – those amino acids that are NOT made by the body and therefore are essential that we get them from our diet
  2. Non-essential – those amino acids that ARE made by the body. These are still a part of our dietary intake as well

With a lot of the high-protein/low carb diets out there these days, you may also have heard the term – “high quality” or “complete” protein. By definition, these are protein foods that contain all 20 of the amino acids. Complete proteins include the animal products (meat, eggs, dairy, etc.). But there is one “grain” that is considered a complete protein – quinoa (which is technically a seed).
On the other side of the fence are the “incomplete” proteins. As you may have guessed, these are foods that are missing one or more of the 20 amino acids. The beauty of this is that you can combine incomplete proteins to “form” a complete protein. For example: the classic beans and rice combination. The amino acids that rice is missing are found in the beans and visa versa. What we’ve also learned is that you do not have to eat incomplete proteins at the same time to realize the benefit of the two…they can be eaten at different meals but still have the same effect.

Okay, okay – so what’s the purpose of eating protein anyway? Again, eating a balanced variety of protein in appropriate amounts helps to replenish what’s lost or broken down during our daily activities (think rebuilds muscles/tissues), makes up the enzymes that are involved in chemical reactions in your body and is also a component in hemoglobin which carries oxygen to your blood.
Including protein in with your meals also helps to provide us with the “longevity” from our meal. When we discussed carbohydrates last month, we mentioned making sure to include foods with the carbohydrates to slow down the increase in blood sugar – protein does just that. It fills us up, but also keeps the blood sugars from spiking when added to the carbohydrates. For instance, even just eating an apple can increase the blood sugar at a quick rate, but adding peanut butter or an ounce or so of nuts along with the apple will slow that sugar down…and you’ll feel fuller for a longer period of time instead of just an hour or two.

Finding the right amount of protein that you need daily varies depending on who you talk to, but a good rule of thumb (for the average healthy person) is found in a simple calculation: take your weight in pounds and divide by 2.2 – this will give you your weight in kilograms. Now take your weight in kilograms and multiply by 0.8 – this will give you your approximate grams of protein requirements for the day. Example: 130 lbs / 2.2 = 59 kg x 0.8 = 47.2 grams of protein per day. If you are especially active and participate in strength training, you might try multiplying by 1.0 to increase your protein intake just a touch. One point to keep in mind is that since we don’t store amino acids for later use (as mentioned previously), whatever is “extra” is processed out of the body (urination), so going overboard with protein can unnecessarily tax the kidneys over time.

Make sure to include different protein sources throughout the week – meat one day, eggs another, cottage cheese on Wednesday, lentils on Thursday, etc. Any way you look at it, protein is a much needed nutrient for the body…just not too much needed.

Author Bio

Melinda Lund, MS, RD has been a dietitian for over 12 years and currently practices in an outpatient clinic with a local hospital in Springfield, MO. She also maintains a private practice (Lund Nutrition Therapy, LLC) where she focuses on teaching clients to eat “Real Food” and encourages them to get back to basics and get back into the kitchen! She lives out in the country with her husband, 7-year-old son, a neurotic dog, and a flock of egg laying hens. She’s currently in the process of writing a children’s book focused on a little boy and his super smart hen who take all kinds of “food adventures”!