You probably have a general idea of what protein is. You know it helps build muscle, and you get a lot of it from meat, but what exactly is protein and why do we need it?
What is Protein?
Protein is one of the 3 macronutrients we get energy from (the other two are carbohydrates and fats). Proteins provide the same level of energy per gram (17 kJ) as carbohydrates, while fats provide a whopping 37 kJ per gram.
Protein is made from a collection of building blocks called amino acids. While there are many unique amino acids, there are 20 common amino acids that your body needs. These are then broken down into 3 categories, essential, non-essential, and semi-essential.
Essential (meaning you must get them from food)
Non-essential (meaning your body makes them)
Semi-essential (meaning your body can normally produce them but production can be limited/insufficient under certain conditions, in which case you’d need to get them through diet)
While it is easier to get protein from meat and animal products, you can get proteins from some grains, legumes, nuts, and other vegetables.
It should be noted that you can get all essential amino acids from most good animal source proteins, but non-animal sources are missing a few of these essential building blocks.
Why Do We Need Protein?
We know that protein is necessary for building muscle. That’s why you’ll see bodybuilders chugging protein powder and eating mass amounts of meat. But is that all protein is good for?
The true function of protein is to support growth and maintenance of the body. While muscle uses a lot of protein, it’s needed by your organs, hair, skin, blood, and much more. Protein is broken back down into amino acids to support the production of hormones, co-enzymes, cellular repair, and other necessary functions to support life.
When it comes to building muscle, protein helps build muscle tissue, and repair any tissue damaged during physical activity. Therefore protein is important for recovering post-workout and for seeing results (though don’t be deceived into thinking protein is the be-all and end-all of building muscle).
Protein is also great for satiety, meaning feeling full or satisfied. Unlike carbohydrates, fats and protein are far more satisfying to the brain. Protein will keep you feeling full longer, making it easier to eat less often, which has been proven beneficial for weight loss.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
Since muscle growth uses so much protein it’s understandable that more active individuals will need more protein in their diet. Babies and children also need more protein because they are busy growing.
Here is Health Canada’s guideline for the grams of protein you’ll need each day based on your weight.
|Age||Recommended Dietary Allowance g/kg/day|
|1-3 years old||1.05|
|4-13 years old||0.95|
|14-18 years old||0.85|
|19 and older||0.8|
Example: You’re an adult (19+) and you weigh 73 kg (161 lbs.). You’ll need to get 58.4g of protein a day (0.8 x 73 = 58.4).
Too Much Protein
Your body can’t store extra protein so there is a risk of getting too much. Excess protein is broken down into amino acids and processed by the body and excreted in urine. While this typically isn’t too serious of a concern, it can put extra stress on the liver and kidney, which can be problematic for anyone with poor kidney or liver health. Excessive protein can also be a carcinogen, especially if it is in supplement form so be wary of this.
Not Enough Protein
Not getting enough protein will lead to protein-energy malnutrition. While there are many cognitive and physical impairments that can arise from prolonged malnutrition, the largest concern is death.
Protein-energy malnutrition is too common around the world, and results in 6-million deaths annually (most of which are in developing nations).
Malnutrition can be a problem on vegetarian or vegan diets if proper care isn’t taken to get all essential amino acids.
Sources of Protein
Eggs are considered the perfect blend of protein. It isn’t surprising that the thing that creates life would have the perfect composition of amino acids. That’s why eggs will always be one of our go-to sources of protein.
If you can get the best blend of amino acids from eggs why wouldn’t you just eat eggs all the time? Why branch out and diversity? Why is it important to get protein from a wide range of source?
Well, just because eggs are a good source of protein, riboflavin, and potassium, there are a lot of other nutrients that eggs don’t have that you need. By getting protein from wild salmon you’re also getting omega-3 niacin, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12. If you get protein from a vegetable like spinach you’re also getting vitamin K, folate, fibre, manganese, and more.
It is important to mix up the foods you eat in general. It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to get more protein, vitamin C, or fibre. By eating a wide range of good whole food you’re giving your body the best balance of nutrients, and balance is key to a healthy life.
Click here to discover healthy sources of protein.
Protein is essential for life. It not only helps muscle growth but also repairs cells and produces hormones. With a widely diversified diet, you can get all of the protein you need to live a healthy, high-performing life.