We have talked a lot about low carb and low fat diets, and recently even discussed high fiber diets, but we have not discussed protein quite as much. The truth is that there are some conflicting opinions about protein in the nutrition world, so it is important to look at all sides of the situation when deciding what diet is right for you or your family. We typically think of protein diets as being for bodybuilders and muscle-y dudes who are in the gym every day. However, there are several different types of people who would likely benefit from a higher protein diet, and you may be one of them. Keep reading to learn more about who a high protein diet is a good fit for, what the benefits might be, and how you can consume more protein without living on protein shakes!
What Is Protein?
Before we delve into the ins and outs of a protein-rich diet, we need to understand what protein is and why it is important that we get enough of it on a daily basis. Protein is a macronutrient, along with carbs and fats, meaning that it should make up a significant portion of your diet. It is made up of amino acids, and nine out of twenty-two amino acids are classified as “essential amino acids” because your body cannot produce them, but it does need them to remain healthy. Any of these essential amino acids must be consumed in your foods, and protein typically contains a lot of these. Animal products, like eggs, dairy, meat, fish, and poultry, are typically considered to be “complete proteins” because they contain all the essential amino acids in a good balance for your body to use. However, other foods like vegetables and legumes can be combined to create a complete protein amino acid profile. Especially if you are vegan or vegetarian and do not consume animal products, you need to pay special attention to the amino acids in your protein sources to ensure that you are receiving a good mix of all the essential ones.
Why Is Protein Important?
Protein has a few functions within your body. It is best known for muscle repair and maintenance, such as in the case of the bodybuilders. This is absolutely true that your body needs those amino acids to repair torn muscles and build more muscle. Amino acids are truly the building block of your muscles, so your body cannot build them without sufficient amounts of protein. You may not know, however, that the protein also helps rebuild hair, bones, and skin tissues, so even if you are not a bodybuilder, eating enough protein can help your body restore itself regularly.
Protein also has a few other lesser-known functions. For instance, messenger proteins help your body’s cells and organs communicate amongst themselves, keeping your hormones balanced. One example of this is insulin, which helps regulate your blood sugar. Also, many enzymes are constructed of proteins, and these help facilitate chemical reactions. You can think of lactase, an enzyme that helps break down the lactose found in dairy products. Proteins also function for transportation and storage in your body. Hemoglobin is a protein that carries oxygen to your cells, for instance. With all of these functions and more, you can imagine all the different processes that would suffer or break down if you had a protein deficiency.
How Much Protein Do I Need?
Speaking of deficiencies, how much protein does an individual really need? The recommended allotment requires a little bit of math, but we will help you out with that. Doctors suggest about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (0.36 grams per pound). This translates to about 56 grams per day for the average man with a sedentary lifestyle, and about 46 grams for the average woman with a sedentary lifestyle. This 46 grams (recommended for women) in reality looks like about 7 ounces of salmon or 7 eggs, so a man’s would be about 8 ounces of salmon or 8 eggs, to estimate loosely.
The tough part here is that everyone needs different amounts of protein based on a few different factors. Lifestyle is definitely one of the top ones: if you are constantly working out with weights, then you will need more protein than someone who does not work out or focuses more on cardio workouts. As we get older, many scientists recommend a little more protein to account for natural muscle loss. Most experts say that we should be getting significantly more than this recommended amount for an “optimal” lifestyle. However, your exact need will be different than someone else’s, so we recommend consulting your healthcare professional or nutritionist before making any significant changes in your diet.
Who Needs More Protein?
We have briefly mentioned a few reasons why you may need more protein. Yes, bodybuilders definitely do fall into this category. Tearing muscle tissue in resistance or endurance training needs a good amount of protein to build back up again, so if you have recently started “bulking season” then you should absolutely increase your protein intake to stay healthy and see better results.
If you are attempting to lose weight and not having much luck, then some studies suggest a higher protein intake could help you. The main reason for this is that protein sources typically make us feel full, so you will likely stick to your lower calorie goals if the calories you do consume are high in protein. However, you must make sure you are paying attention to what you are eating here. Don't just pile on the bacon, but instead stick to lean protein sources and even some non-meat proteins like beans and legumes, for the best results.
Another group who could benefit from more protein is those who are over 50. There is some natural muscle loss that starts to occur at this age, and you can help combat that by consuming more protein.
Also, if your current diet is protein-deficient, then you could definitely benefit from adding a little protein. If you are currently consuming a lot of carbohydrates, empty calories, or sugary foods, then proteins can provide more substance for your diet, and help your body function more smoothly. Most protein sources also contain other vital nutrients that you may not be getting if your diet is low in vegetables, meat, or dairy. Vegans and vegetarians are more prone to being protein-deficient and may have to take supplements and pay extra attention to consuming more protein. Though it may be slightly more difficult, it is in no way impossible to keep a high protein diet without consuming animal products.
How Do I Get More Protein?
The most “complete” protein source, as we mentioned earlier, is undoubtedly going to be from animals: eggs, poultry, fish, and meat, to name the most common. The health factor of all of these depends on how they are cooked and what the makeup of the individual product is. We recommend sticking to lean meats like chicken and avoiding those fatty cuts of beef or pork (think bacon). While those are high in protein, they counteract those benefits with fat. Grass-fed animals are typically better for you as far as protein content goes.
For non-meat sources, you can find a lot of protein in leafy, dark green vegetables like spinach and chard. We also love grains that are high in protein, like quinoa, hemp seeds, and chia seeds, all of which we carry here at Bob’s Red Mill. These serve as an amazing base for the rest of your food, instead of turning to rice or bread, which are slightly less nutrient-rich. Soy is one of the most common protein substitutes for vegans and vegetarians and has been used in recipes from buffalo chicken wings to tofu dogs. These all have a great kick of protein that you can enjoy, whether you are vegetarian or not! We also mentioned other legumes (such as peanuts, lentils, or any type of bean), which are also high protein sources that do not come from animals. With all of these sources, you can definitely achieve any protein levels that you want; you just need to pay attention to the amino acid profiles to ensure that you consume a good balance of them all. We always recommend varying your foods as much as possible, especially if you are substituting or avoiding certain foods. This way, you are more likely to get all the nutrients and vitamins that you need for a balanced diet!
Even if you are not a bodybuilder, and do not plan on becoming one anytime soon, a protein-rich diet could benefit you in many ways, by helping you maintain a healthier weight, repair your muscles, or even just ensure that all of your inside processes are working correctly. There are so many good sources of protein out there that we advise trying all of them (that could take quite a while) and let us know which ones are your favorites! We have a large selection of nutritional protein powders made from many of these sources that you can try in all kinds of flavors.