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Pro(tein) Memoria: What is Protein?

Protein is a very complicated macronutrient. Today, I go over some of the details regarding protein, where to find it, and how much you need.

Long time readers will remember that I wrote a piece on protein much earlier in my blogging, which can be found here. Today, I am going to be reviewing it, and going into further detail on what it is, what it does, and how much you should have.

Protein, like fat and carbohydrates, is part of what is considered a macro nutrient, or something you need a lot of per day to maintain your health. Once protein hits your stomach, it begins breaking down into what is called “amino acids.” If a protein is like a chain, than an amino acid is an individual link. When absorbed, protein can do a whole lot for your body. It acts like a building block for just about anything you can think of, from cells to blood compounds, and even signalling in your body.

Amino acids are another interesting molecule, because they themselves can be broken down into further units. The four units are as follows: the amino end, the carboxyl end, the side chain, and the alpha-carbon. Science jargon aside, the amino and carboxyl ends are what make the molecule an “amino acid” and allows multiple amino acids to join together, while the side chain is what makes it a specific amino acid. Depending on the arrangement of the amino acids, the chain can fold in certain ways, which makes the complicated molecule known as “protein.” The science community can delve further into this, but for right now all you need to know about dietary protein is that a protein can be broken into different compounds known as amino acids.

Most people tend to associate protein mainly with muscle building. Hell, there’s even been enough jokes in sitcoms where the ultra-muscle bound guy eats dozens of eggs and steaks and whatever else. That being said, how much protein do you really need? Do you need to start pounding down protein powder like a body builder, or should you be eating more meager portions?

The answer, like most other things in nutrition, depends on what context. Someone who is a severe burn victim will need more protein than a healthy adult. The recommended amount of protein for an average person is only 0.8g protein per 1kg lean body weight (or about 0.8g protein per 2.2 lbs). Most healthy Americans are good at getting more than enough protein. The answer changes based on if you’re still growing, are undergoing extreme workout routines, or have certain injuries/illnesses/conditions that require more protein per day. This equates to about 10-35% of daily caloric intakes in protein (per the Acceptable Macronutrient Density Range, or AMDR).

At this point, you might be wondering, what are some sources of protein? Some common ones people know about are eggs, milk, meat, and fish. However, not everyone chooses to eat animal products. Vegetarians and vegans might choose to get their protein in other ways, including nuts, seeds, and soy-based products like tofu.

Even mentioning non-meat products tends to worry people. Some people think that it’s difficult or impossible to get the same nutritional value from non-meat proteins when compared to meat. On one hand, many sources might be incomplete proteins (meaning they don’t have all the essential amino acids present) unlike meat. While this is true, there is a way to turn incomplete proteins into complete proteins by pairing them with other incomplete proteins. Rice and beans are both incomplete proteins, but when combined together they provide all the essential amino acids, making them complete. The same goes for peanut butter and whole-grain bread. Alternatively, many sources are enriched, or even bred, to be complete proteins.

At minimum, it’s recommended that women get at least 50g of protein, with men at a slightly higher 60g of protein per day. But what can happen if you eat too much protein? In normal body function, you can convert protein to fuel, but in doing so it creates waste that is harmful to the body. Luckily, the kidneys can remove the toxins. In people with poor kidney function, a high protein diet can worsen their function. The source of protein also matters, and what the protein is replacing. If protein is replacing foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, it can lead to issues like constipation. Protein sources that are high in saturated fat can also lead to health issues such as heart disease.

In summary: protein is a macronutrient that contains energy like carbs and fats. Protein is made of molecules called an amino acids, which can be used as building blocks in the body, or for fuel. Ideally, women should eat at least 50g, and men 60g of protein per day to maintain their health. High levels of dietary protein are fine in healthy individuals if they are picking lean proteins in addition to a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. Vegan sources of protein have not been shown to change hormone levels like many people online believe.

What are some of your favorite protein sources? Do you prefer vegan sources of protein to non-vegan proteins, or are you somewhere in between? Feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page!

By The Nutrition Punk

I am a dietitian living in Portland, Oregon. I write about a variety of nutrition and heath topics, with the goal of improving people's understanding of food and nutrition so they may be empowered against all the misinformation that is out there.

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