What is protein and why is it important? Proteins are large and complex molecules that are found in the cells of all living things. While we associate protein most with muscle mass, it is actually an essential part of all tissues found in the body - including bones, blood, and hormones. In this way, protein plays an important role in our healthy body function and can be an especially critical partner in fitness regimes. Proteins primary role is to aid in the growth, build, and maintenance of body tissues, however it also serves other important tasks such as acting as an enzyme and hormones, helping to maintain fluid and electrolyte balance, strengthening immune systems, and even serving as an energy source.
How much protein do you need? The RDA (recommended daily amount) of protein for the average adult is 10-35% of daily caloric intakes. Protein needs are typically higher for individuals who are within stages of growth and development - such as children, adolescents, and pregnant and/or lactating women. Protein needs are also higher for physically active people as well as for those who follow a vegetarian and/or vegan diet.
What makes up protein? Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. There are a total of 20 amino acids in our bodies, 9 of which are classified as "essential," which must be obtained from food as our bodies are unable to produce them. While animal meats and dairy products have traditionally been considered the primary source for proteins, you can find it in a variety of other food sources too. Plant based proteins have become increasingly popular over the last decade for a variety of reasons, such as a the desire to implement healthier dietary habits, to complement lifestyle goals, reduced cost, increased access and availability, etc. For individuals relying solely on plant proteins (such as vegetarians and vegans), it is important to know the complementary protein combinations that are able to provide them with essential amino acids.
Here are some examples of animal proteins as well as vegetarian (plant based) proteins, including those complementary protein combinations that will provide essential amino acids.
Animal protein sources:
Ground beef, lean - 3oz. = 22g protein
Chicken breast, skinless - 3oz. = 28g protein
Salmon - 3oz. = 22g protein
Tuna - 3oz. = 22g protein
Shrimp - 3oz. = 18g protein
Cottage cheese, 2% - 1 C = 28g protein
Low-fat yogurt - 8oz. = 13g protein
Skim milk - 8oz. = 8.8g protein
Vegetarian protein sources:
Quinoa - 1 C = 8g protein
Buckwheat - 1 C = 6g protein
Hempseed - 2 Tbsp. = 10g protein
Oatmeal - 1 C = 5.4g protein
Brown rice - 1 C = 5g protein
Black beans - 1/2 C = 7g protein
Chia Seeds - 2 Tbsp. = 4g protein
Peanut butter, creamy - 2 Tbsp. = 8g protein
Almonds - 1oz. = 6g protein
Collard greens - 1 C = 5g protein
Tofu - 3.3oz. = 7g protein
Examples of complementary vegetarian protein combinations:
Brown rice + lentil
Brown rice + beans
Peanut butter + whole wheat bread
Corn tortilla + beans
Tofu + broccoli
Spinach + nuts + beans
Almonds + lentil soup
Bottom line - while studies have found that most Americans easily meet their recommended daily amount of protein, it is important to ask, "Am I obtaining quality protein?" A healthy diet should supply lean protein that is low in saturated fat and salt, empowering your ability to obtain essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals and support healthy body function. Studies show that a well-balanced diet of lean proteins, complex carbs and healthy fats not only supports healthy body function, but also reduces risk of disease. Understanding the important role protein plays in growth and development, muscle and tissue repair and recovery, and our ability to perform and recover optimally is an important part of empowering a healthy life!
Power up with Protein!