While you may watch your calories, sugar and salt intake, you should also make sure you are ingesting enough protein. It plays a key role in the creation and maintenance of every cell in our bodies. It fuels our cells and powers our bodies.
Protein is found throughout the body—in muscle, bone, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue. It makes up the enzymes that power many chemical reactions and the hemoglobin that carries oxygen in your blood. At least 10,000 different proteins make you what you are and keep you that way.
According to Harvard, protein is made from twenty-plus basic building blocks called amino acids. Because we don’t store amino acids, our bodies make them in two different ways: either from scratch, or by modifying others. Nine amino acids; histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine known as the essential amino acids, must come from food. It is also considered a “macronutrient,” meaning that you need relatively large amounts of it to stay healthy.
Nancy Waldeck, chef and dietitian at Thomas F. Chapman Family Cancer Wellness at Piedmont, points out that our bodies do not store protein.
“It is important for individuals to consume protein every day. Daily protein intake plays a role in keeping your cells in good shape and should be part of your daily health maintenance plan.”
Here are 9 reasons why protein is important for your body:
- Protein is required for the growth and maintenance of tissues. Your body’s protein needs are dependent upon your health and activity level.
- Enzymes are proteins that allow key chemical reactions to take place within your body. Bodily functions that depend on enzymes include digestion, energy production, blood clotting and muscle contraction.
- Amino acid chains of various lengths form protein and peptides, which make up several of your body’s hormones and transmit information between your cells, tissues and organs.
- A class of proteins known as fibrous proteins provide various parts of your body with structure, strength and elasticity.
- Proteins act as a buffer system, helping your body maintain proper pH values of the blood and other bodily fluids.
- Proteins in your blood maintain the fluid balance between your blood and the surrounding tissues.
- Proteins form antibodies to protect your body from foreign invaders, such as disease-causing bacteria and viruses.
- Some proteins transport nutrients throughout your entire body, while others store them.
- Lastly, protein can serve as a valuable energy source but only in situations of fasting, exhaustive exercise or inadequate calorie intake.
Wondering what the best sources of protein are?
Many people look to supplements to increase the amount of protein they consume, but most people can get the protein they need each day from foods. The foods you eat also provide other essential nutrients.
Both plants and animals provide good sources of protein. It’s important to be aware, however, that while many plants provide protein, most do not provide all of the essential amino acids. Meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, quinoa, and soybeans are all sources of complete protein, which means they provide all nine essential amino acids.
Many different foods that come from plants, including fruits, legumes, seeds, nuts, whole grains, cereals provide protein. However, since plant proteins are not complete proteins, it’s important to know which amino acids these foods provide, especially if you do not eat meat or dairy. You must make a point to eat a variety of plant protein to ensure that you get all of the essential amino acids.
As a rule of thumb, if you get half your protein from animal sources, those complete proteins mean you can get the rest of your protein from plant sources without worrying about how complete those plant proteins are. Plant protein is lower in saturated fats than animal protein, so there’s a health advantage to increasing the proportion of plant sources.
It’s necessary to eat a variety of foods even if you eat foods delivering complete protein. While protein is an important nutrient, there are many nutrients that are equally important to maintaining good health. A healthy diet is crucial to maintaining good health, and so is regular communication with your primary care physician.
The benefits of consuming a protein-rich diet are:
- Speeding recovery after exercise
- Reducing muscle loss
- Building lean muscle
- Helping you maintain a healthy weight
- Curbing hunger
If you’re leaning more toward a plant-based diet, here are a few examples of plant based protein that you can incorporate in your daily diet.
Tofu, Tempeh and Edamame
Soy products are among the richest sources of protein in a plant-based diet. The protein content varies with how the soy is prepared:
- Firm tofu (soybean curds) contains about 10 g of protein per ½ cup
- Edamame beans (immature soybeans) contain 8.5 g of protein per ½ cup
- Tempeh contains about 15 g of protein per ½ cup
You can try tofu, as a meat substitute, in a favorite sandwich or soup. Tofu is also a popular meat substitute in some dishes, such as kung pao chicken and sweet and sour chicken. These soy products also contain good levels of calcium and iron, which makes them healthful substitutes for dairy products.
Lentils are a great source of protein. Red or green lentils contain plenty of protein, fiber, and key nutrients, including iron and potassium. According to Medical News Today, consuming all types of plant based foods has associations with a reduced risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions.
A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2019 found that people who eat more healthful plant foods have a lower chance of dying from cardiovascular disease and all causes. Plant based foods often provide a wide range of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and may contain antioxidant properties. Antioxidants work against free radicals, which are compounds in the body that may contribute to inflammation and cancer.
Lentils add essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber to the diet. They also provide protein and are an excellent replacement for meat in meals. When a person replaces meat in the diet with a high fiber food, such as lentils, they decrease their risk of heart disease.
Additionally, lentils are also great for digestion, regularity and satiety as the high fiber content in lentils also helps keep the digestive tract healthy, which in turn, prevents constipation and promotes regular bowel movements.
The three main types of lentils available in the United States of America are:
- Brown lentils: These have a mild, earthy flavor, hold their shape well, but will become mushy when overcooked. These work great in soups and as a stand-alone side. They range in color from light brown to black.
- French green, or Puy, lentils: These have a peppery taste and a crunchy texture that can make for a satisfying salad.
- Red lentils: These are common in Middle Eastern or Indian cuisine and are actually brown Masoor lentils after the removal of their hulls.
Cooked lentils contain 8.84 g of protein per ½ cup and are an excellent source of protein to add to a lunch or dinner routine. They can be added to stews, curries, salads, or rice to give an extra portion of protein.
A bowl of chickpeas is something you can never go wrong with! They are an excellent source of protein, which has a variety of health benefits, ranging from weight management to bone health. They are a great choice for those who avoid animal products.
Chickpeas are also high in dietary fiber, especially a soluble fiber called raffinose. The good bacteria in your gut breaks this down so your colon can digest it slowly. Studies have found that eating more chickpeas can help make bowel movements easier and more regular. According to Healthline, a 1-ounce (28-gram) serving of chickpeas provides about 3 grams of protein, which is comparable to the protein content in similar foods like black beans and lentils.
Chickpeas are also known to keep the appetite under control as they are packed with protein and fiber. Protein and fiber work synergistically to slow digestion, which helps promote fullness. In addition, protein may increase levels of appetite-reducing hormones in the body.
People haven’t been raving about chia seed puddings for nothing. Chia seeds are among the healthiest foods on the planet. They’re loaded with nutrients that can have important benefits for your body and brain.
A little bit of history for you about these powerful seeds;
Chia seeds were an important food for the Aztecs and Mayans back in the day. They prized them for their ability to provide sustainable energy. In fact, “chia” is the ancient Mayan word for “strength.”
Despite their ancient history as a dietary staple, chia seeds became recognized as a modern-day superfood only recently. In the past few years, they have exploded in popularity and are now consumed by health conscious people all over the world.
These tiny seeds pack a powerful nutritional punch; they contain fiber, protein, fat, calcium, manganese, magnesium and phosphorus. They also zinc, vitamin B3 (niacin), potassium, vitamin B1 (thiamine) and vitamin B2.
Chia seeds are a great source of antioxidants and are high in quality protein, much higher than most plant foods. They also have a good balance of essential amino acids, so your body should be able to make use of their protein content. Protein has various health benefits as mentioned earlier and is by far the most weight loss friendly dietary nutrient.
Spirulina is an increasingly popular superfood. It is considered a complete source of high-quality protein and is often compared to eggs for the amount of protein per gram. The protein in Spirulina is highly usable and has a net protein utilization rate of between 50-61%.
Spirulina is also known to be a favorite food for vegetarians and vegans because it is one of the best plant sources of iron. Even for those who consume meat, it has a highly absorbable form of iron that is gentle on the digestive system. The easiest way to consume this superfood would be to add a teaspoon of it in your smoothies or purchase it in capsule form from your nearest wellness store.
Other plan based foods that are known to be rich in protein are quinoa, peanuts, almonds, hemp seeds and dark-colored leafy greens.
If you’d like to mix things up and consume protein from both, plant based foods and meat, here are a few options for you:
The amount of protein content in a chicken breast without skin is 53 grams and contains 284 calories. Chicken breast is especially popular among bodybuilders and those who want to lose weight. Its high protein and low calorie contents mean you can eat more chicken without worrying about consuming too many calories.
Tuna is a rich source of protein and omega-3 fats. Three ounces (85 grams) of cooked yellowfin tuna packs about 25 grams of protein and only 110 calories. It’s also a good source of B-vitamins, plus minerals like magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Since it’s quite rich in omega-3 fats, it’s also known to be a good food to fight inflammation.
We recommend purchasing fresh tuna instead of canned tuna (in brine) as the latter contains lower amounts of protein and a higher number of calories.
Like most other animal foods, eggs have high quality protein that contains all the amino acids. The average egg contains about 6–7 grams of protein. However, the protein content does depend on the size of the egg.
Here’s how much protein different sizes of eggs contain:
- Small egg (38 grams): 4.9 grams of protein
- Medium egg (44 grams): 5.7 grams of protein
- Large egg (50 grams): 6.5 grams of protein
- Extra-large egg (56 grams): 7.3 grams of protein
- Jumbo egg (63 grams): 8.2 grams of protein
Most of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in eggs are found in the yolk. However, egg whites contain at least 60% of the protein in an egg.
Eggs are definitely one of the most nutritious foods that you can eat. They contain a nutrient called choline which many of us lack in our diet. Choline is important for many processes in the body. In fact, a lack of it may affect brain and heart health, and has been linked to an increased risk of neural tube defects during pregnancy.
Aside from their nutrient value, eggs have also been linked with numerous health benefits, including benefits related to weight loss and weight maintenance. Eggs have been shown to promote feelings of fullness, which can help prevent you from eating too much at a time, making them weight loss friendly.
Truly an eggcellent food wouldn’t you say?
Other non-vegetarian foods that are high in protein are halibut, shrimp, tilapia, turkey breast, dried fish and cod. Dairy products like milk, cheese and greek yogurt are also known to contain high amounts of protein.
Now that we have wrapped up the food section, let’s talk about supplements that contain protein.
Protein powders come in various forms. The three common ones are whey, soy, and casein protein. Whey is the most commonly used, because it’s a water-soluble milk protein.
If you’re wondering when can one use protein powders, here’s your answer according to WebMD:
- When you’re growing. A teenager needs more protein to fuel their workouts because their body is still growing and uses more protein in general.
- When you’re starting a program. If working out is new to you and you’re trying to build muscle, you’ll require more protein than you normally would.
- When you’re amping up your workouts. If you normally work out for half an hour a few times a week.
- When you’re recovering from an injury. Athletes with sports injuries frequently need more protein to help them heal.
Wondering about the benefits?
- Protein helps boost metabolism because a lot of energy is spent digesting and metabolizing it. It also helps you build muscle, which burns more calories than fat.
- Protein shakes are a convenient way to increase your daily protein intake. This can help boost fat loss, especially from around your midsection.
- Protein shakes consumed during a weight loss diet can help prevent muscle loss and metabolic slowdown. This is particularly effective in combination with strength training.
If you’re trying to figure out which protein is the best, then it’s worth knowing that whey, casein and soy contain all the essential amino acids your body needs. However, different types of protein have different effects on the body.
The exact type of protein powder you have in your shakes should not make a major difference for fat loss. Some studies show an advantage for whey, but the evidence is mixed.
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