Quick question: Why do you need protein?
Typical answer is it helps to build and repair muscle.
That’s part of it but protein confuses quite a lot of people including:
- How much do I need?
- What are the best sources?
- Can I consume too much?
- Should I be using Whey protein?
- Why was the ending of How I Met Your Mother so terrible?
O.k, there’s not a lot I can do about that last one but I’ll help give you a better understanding about protein and how you need it and also how much you should look to consume.
What Is Protein?
There still seems to be a lot of confusion out there about what protein actually is and how it helps us. Just posing the question can lead to confusion similar to this…
I won’t lie, this hurt a bit to watch, I loved my walkman…
Ok on to protein..
Macronutrients are essentially nutrients that provide calories or energy. And we need these nutrients for growth, metabolism and other body functions. We call them ‘macro’ in that they are large and we need them in large quantities.
What Makes Up Protein?
We’re going to get a bit technical but that will help give you a better understanding of the whole protein issue.
Proteins are polymer chains which basically means “many parts” and these parts are called Amino Acids that are linked together by peptide bonds.
Think of proteins like a pearl necklace and each pearl being an amino acid.
There are 21 amino acids. 9 which are essential in that we must get them from our diet because our bodies do not make them. They include:
* yep amino acids are included in pop culture!
The non essential amino acids mean they are naturally occurring in that the human body can synthesize them for itself and does not need them provided by the diet. They include:
- aspartic acid
- glutamic acid
Break It Down Now
When we eat, our stomachs contain hydrolchoric acid which break down larger proteins into smaller peptides. This is crucial because these individual amino acids need to be in their singular version to be digested and utilized.
The proteins need to be in their individual amino acid form by the time they reach the small intestine. This is where real digestion takes place. When we refer to the “Gut” we are referring to the small intestine.
If peptides of 3 or 4 amino acids still remain together it is in the small intestine that they will finally be broken down into the individual amino acids.
The individual amino acids are then truly absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract for the various functions required by them for the entire body.
So Why Do We Need Protein?
Alright what are some of these functions that amino acids and protein are involved with?
Let’s take a look:
1. Growth (especially in children, teens and pregnant women)
2. Tissue Repair
3. Immune Function
4. Making essential hormones and enzymes
5. Energy when carbohydrate is not available through gluconeogenesis
7. Preserving lean muscle mass
related to number 6 this is a pretty interesting picture..
As you can see these are some very key areas. Besides water proteins are the most abundant kind of molecules in the body.
Protein is found everywhere in the body, like actually everywhere.. it’s in every cell in the body and is the major structural component of all cells in the body.
Along with the obvious muscle proteins are found in body organs, skin and hair. Protein is needed to form blood cells and when they are broken down into amino acids they are used as precursors to:
- nucleic acid
- immune response
- cellular repair
- and other molecules essential for life
See protein isn’t just for having sweet pecs and big guns..
Where Is Protein Found?
Once again there are a few categories here. Complete and non-complete.
Complete proteins have all of those 9 essential amino acids that we require and we generally find this in:
- some vegetarian sources like:
- black beans
- pumpkin seeds
- turnip greens
- black eyed peas
It becomes a little tougher for vegetarians to find these complete proteins outside of this list. You can combine incomplete protein types of foods together but you don’t know for certain if you are getting the full range of amino acids.
How Much Protein Do We Need?
I’m glad you asked!
And as usual the answer to this question is it varies. It depends on how active you are, your amount of lean muscle, if you’re male or female etc but i’ll try to narrow it down.
If you are Sedentary, in that you do very little activity and sit at a desk all day the rule of thumb is around 0.8 grams of protein/Kg of body weight or 0.36 grams/per pound of body weight
If you are active there has always been the understanding that you need higher protein intake. There has been an idea of 1-2 grams per pound of body weight for a long time and it’s not a bad framework however there has been research that concluded the optimal amount of protein for athletes is 1.8 grams of protein/kg of body weight or 0.8 grams/pound of body weight.
Mark Sisson from Marks Daily Apple looks at studies involving different protein requirements for different situations.
Protein requirements will go up depending on things like age as the elderly are in need of higher protein as their muscle mass declines with age. They should look for 1.0-1.3 grams/kg of body weight or 0.5-0.6 grams/lb of body weight
Injured People are going to require some more protein to heal wounds and rebuilding lost or damaged tissue at around the rate of 1.5 grams/kg of body weight or close to 0.7/lb of body weight
Protein Burns Calories
Protein has what they call a “thermogenic effect” in that just the act of eating and digesting it burns calories. Your body turns into an assembly plant more or less when protein arrives as it takes a lot of systems to digest it and all of those require energy.
You’ve heard of the meat sweats i’m sure.. and that is showing you a thermogenic response . Usually around 10% of the energy in the food you eat is used to digest and process that food but for protein it is upwards of 30%
So if you ate a piece of meat that was around 200 calories worth of protein about 40-70 of them will be used for digesting it.
There is convincing evidence about the ability of consuming protein to increase this calorie burning effect along with keeping you feeling full compared to diets low in protein.
You have all heard of whey protein even before you really knew what it was, Ill prove it…
(fun fact: There is the idea that this nursery rhyme had to do with Mary Queen of Scots and her fear of religious reformer John Knox. But that’s for a whole other blog..)
Curds and whey are what come about from cheese production. The whey is the liquid material left over from the making of cheese.
The liquid whey can be dried and then used to make protein powders. Whey contains a large amount of amino acids especially the branch chain amino acids (BCAA) leucine, isoleucine and valine.
This can have positive effects for muscle building especially after intense exercise. Protein synthesis is higher with whey protein due to the fact it takes less time to digest and can be absorbed by the muscles quicker than whole food.
Whey protein is something you should research more to see if it is right for you but it is definitely NOT a requirement in the pursuits of getting fit and healthy.
Rule Of Thumb (Or Palm)
With all the recommendations with how protein you should consume you need to incorporate habits that are the easiest and ones you are most likely to stick with.
This is where your palm comes in handy. Aiming for a portion of protein that is the size and width of your palm is a great rule of thumb for getting the amount of protein specific to your body.
Men tend to be bigger than woman with bigger hands and palms and that translates nicely into the protein portion they should get. In turn a womans palm size in turn is more reflective of the the requirements of her body.
For each meal then you want to shoot for one palm sized portion of protein.
If you are very active in the gym, playing sports or looking to gain more lean muscle you can aim for two palm sized portions with each meal.
This is not an exact science but again it’s a simple reference to make your meals less complicated.
Wrapping It Up
As you can see there is more to protein than meats the eye but hopefully you have a bit better understanding of this big subject. Feel free to comment below regarding protein or how you incorporate it into your daily meals.
And if you like this please share it with someone who might enjoy the information as well and make sure to sign up for the email newsletter below. Ill also send along my free guide on getting started with healthy eating!
P.s Hope you caught the meat joke in the first line. If you didn’t think it was funny i’m blaming it on the meat sweats…
P.P.S what is a tuffet??