Certainly even those starting their health and wellness journey are aware of the main food groups and they understand that they need protein on a daily basis. However, while most people know that it is important, they do not quite understand why or what protein does for our bodies. Protein is an essential macronutrient that is needed every single day and it becomes even more important the more active we are and the older we get. Proteins come from a variety of sources, both animal and plant based, such as meat, milk, fish, soy, eggs, beans, legumes, and nut butters, just to name a few.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which are the main building blocks of our muscles, bones, skin, tissues, and organs. When we consume protein, our body breaks it down into individual amino acids during digestion and then uses these amino acids to create new proteins throughout the body. Our bodies need sufficient amount of protein daily to function efficiently, especially if we are exercising and wanting to build muscle; otherwise, the body will have to break down muscle to obtain the amino acids that it needs to function. Exercise also puts stress on our muscles, thus requiring protein to help repair and rebuild muscle. This recovery time is important and shouldn’t be overlooked!
Consuming the right amount of protein combined with other key nutrients can increase your fitness success, whether you are trying to lose weight or gain muscle. It is always recommended that you obtain your protein from actual food sources, rather than depending entirely on supplements such as shakes and bars. Protein supplements are pre-wrapped, convenient, and easily available, but just remember that they are not magic. Real food always works better. I prefer to use these as additional sources of protein for snacks, especially if I am unable to meet my daily protein intake from my meals and food alone.
So how much protein should we be eating? Try to aim for about 1 gram of protein per pound of your body weight. You do not need tons of protein to build muscle, but you do want to make sure that you are getting a sufficient amount for your activity level and to reach your fitness goals. When you consume about one gram per pound of body weight, it helps repair broken-down muscle, helps you feel satiated, and assists with weight loss goals since dietary protein can help preserve muscle mass as you are losing fat. If you are vegan, you may need to need a little more as some plant-based proteins are incomplete, lacking certain amino acids, so you will want to focus on eating a variety of protein sources to ensure your body gets what it needs. If you unsure what foods will give you complete proteins, I always recommend working with a registered dietitian!
As the saying goes, more is not always better….sometimes it is just more. It is possible to eat too much protein. It is not typically an issue for people, but if you are getting more than 30% of your daily calories from protein, you are consuming too much. It will most likely cause minor side effects, however if you have a pre-existing kidney or liver problems, it could cause more critical side effects. Also, it should be noted that adding massive amounts protein in your diet won’t accelerate your progress. That extra protein that you are taking in will not convert into extra muscle, but just like any macronutrient, protein contains calories and too much of it can cause you to gain body fat, which is important to keep in mind if you’re trying to lose weight and/or build muscle.
A common mistake for people trying to lose weight and gain muscle is cutting out or highly reducing carbohydrates. I know that many people follow the keto diet and have had success with losing weight, but I believe that complex carbohydrates like grains, fruits, and vegetables are an important source of energy and essential for muscle recovery. It really is best to include them alongside protein to optimize your health and fitness success. Carbohydrates digest into glucose which feeds your brain and fuels your muscles. So instead of eliminating this macronutrient from your diet, try focusing on building balanced meals and snacks; aim for filling your plate with protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates.
Last but not least, let’s discuss age-related muscle loss, called sarcopenia. It is a natural part of aging. After you hit your thirties and forties, you begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% of muscle mass per decade. Less muscle means greater weakness and less mobility, both of which may increase your risk of falls and fractures. Good news is that it is not gone forever! Therefore, the best means to build muscle mass, no matter your age, is resistance and strength training and eating your protein. Protein is king when trying to build muscle and as you get older, it becomes even more essential that you nourish yourself with enough to help prevent the loss of muscle mass. Just remember that although declining muscle mass is part of aging, it does not mean you are helpless to stop it!
Now you know how protein works…let’s talk about three important benefits of protein!
Feeling Full Longer
If you are finding yourself constantly feeling like you are hungry throughout the day, you are probably not eating enough protein. Protein helps you feel full for a longer period of time. Therefore, if you are trying to minimize unhealthy snacking, look for snacks that are higher in protein, and make sure each meal has sufficient amounts of protein!
Protein Boosts Your Metabolism
Protein can help increase your metabolism, which can aid in burning calories more efficiently. This is especially important for anyone trying to build muscle and lose fat. When you consume protein throughout the day, it helps you maintain your muscle mass, which is essential in maintaining your metabolism and burning calories throughout the day. As you can see, they all work hand in hand!
Protein Aids with Muscle Recovery and Growth
Not only does eating protein help prevent muscle breakdown, but it can also help build muscles. Combining regular activity and exercise with protein intake promotes muscle growth. Protein also plays a major role in muscle recovery after resistance and endurance exercise.
Finally, I think that it is important to note that it is necessary to eat a variety of foods in addition to protein. While protein is an important macronutrient, other macronutrients and micronutrients are equally important in order to maintain a balanced diet that will keep your body healthy. If you need help or more ideas on how to get more protein, I recommend consulting with a registered dietitian to identify healthy foods rich in protein to add to your diet.
Now go help those muscles and eat your protein!