Protein Basics

Protein Basics

Protein: you hear a lot about it and you know it's important. Learn why it's essential to good health and good eating.

Protein – What It Is and What It Does

Proteins, along with fats and carbohydrates, are the macronutrients that form the basis of our diets. Once consumed, some people associate protein only with helping to build muscle, but keep in mind that's not all it does for us. In our bodies protein performs a range of duties, from building new cells to regulating metabolism to helping cells communicate. Proteins help shuttle oxygen throughout the body in the form of hemoglobin, as well as build muscle.

Dietary protein provides us with energy (calories). Like carbohydrates, protein contributes 4 calories per gram, versus 9 calories per gram in fats and 7 calories per gram in alcohol.

For many people, upping the amount of protein in the diet may help manage weight and improve body composition — learn more about Protein & Weight Loss.

Amino acids – The Building Blocks of Proteins

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. Our DNA directs the body to join various combinations of amino acids into a variety of sequences and three-dimensional shapes for an arsenal of over 2 million different proteins, each serving a unique function. Our bodies can make some of these amino acids, but there are nine that are considered "essential amino acids" because we must consume these through our diet.

Protein – Daily Intake Required

While our bodies can store fats and carbohydrates to draw on when needed, we do not have a storage pool of amino acids. We need a fresh source each day in order to build the body proteins we need. If the body is missing a particular amino acid to form the protein it needs, it will pull that amino acid by breaking down existing muscle protein. If we consistently lack certain amino acids we will lose muscle weight, energy and, eventually, fundamental functions.

Protein - What You Need to Consume

The amount of protein you need depends on your weight and health. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for protein for the healthy individual is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 3 to 4 grams per 10 pounds, and two to three servings of protein-rich food will meet the daily needs of most adults. Athlete's protein intake recommendations may be higher.

Protein – Where You Find It

Protein, and the essential amino acids our body needs, can be found in an abundance of foods and beverages, including both plant and animal sources. Here are the main sources of dietary protein:

  • Meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, and fish are complete sources of protein because they contain all 9 essential amino acids. Some animal protein sources—most notably some cuts of red meat and whole dairy products—can also be high in saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels. Learn more about lean sources of animal-based protein.
  • Soy, often in the form of tofu or soy milk, is a popular plant-based source of protein since it, like animal-based protein, contains all 9 essential amino.
  • Nuts, seeds, beans, peas, and whole grains can be terrific sources of protein. One thing to keep in mind with these plant sources of protein is that not all plant proteins are equal. With the exception of soy and some believe quinoa, plant foods do not contain all 9 essential amino acids. To consume all essential amino acids, plant foods are used to complement each other with their amino acid profiles. For example, beans tend to be low in one amino acid that grains have plenty of, so combining these foods forms a complete protein, like beans and rice. Learn more about complete plant proteins and vegetarians and protein.

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