Last macronutrient of the three! If you have stuck with me over the past couple weeks then I hope you have gained enough knowledge about carbohydrates and dietary fats to understand what kind of role each play in a healthy lifestyle and what some of the healthy & unhealthy examples are. Last up is Protein!
It doesn’t matter what kind of diet or lifestyle you lead, all humans need protein. It can get tricky finding quality sources and consuming an adequate amount though, especially if you are participating in certain eating styles like intermittent fasting or a vegan/vegetarian diet. Below you will learn how to hurdle these obstacles and much more about why protein is so important for our survival and growth.
What is protein?
Protein is a macronutrient necessary for building muscle. It is mostly found in animal products but can also be found in other products like nuts & legumes. Each gram of protein contains 4 calories per gram making it just as calorie dense as carbohydrates. Chemically speaking, all protein is made up of nine essential amino acids (we will refer to them as EAA’s), and amino acids are made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen. If one of these nine essential amino acids is missing, then the protein isn’t considered a complete protein. They are considered essential because our body cannot produce these on our own, so we must consume them through food and supplements. These nine essential AA’s are: leucine, isoleucine, lysin, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, valine, and histidine.
Roles & benefits of protein
Protein has multiple purposes and benefits. From building muscle and strong bones, increasing metabolism & burning fat, and even surpassing hunger and increasing satiety. Check out the list below for plenty of reasons to put a few extra bites of protein on your plate each meal.
1. Increase of muscle mass and strength
Protein are the building blocks of your muscles. When we strength train, an adequate amount of protein in our diet will help our muscles recover faster and stronger than before. If you are on a weight loss program then extra protein in your diet will help in preserving your hard earned muscle while still burning fat. Higher protein intake not only aids in building muscle, but also repairing muscle more quickly after an injury.
2. Great for bone health
Long term studies show people who have eaten an adequate amount of protein each day have greater bone mass as they age. As we age, our bodies do in fact whither away in many areas. Bones are one of those areas and protein can help prevent this. There are also fewer cases of fractures and bone related medical conditions such as osteoporosis.
3. Increases fat burning and metabolism
When you eat, metabolism is increased. Not by how frequent you eat like the old meal frequency myth says, but it’s the amount of food and what kind of food you eat that increases your metabolism due to the thermic effect of food (TEF) digestion creates. Protein creates a higher TEF than fats or carbohydrates. The difference in the amount of calorie (energy) expenditure is small and the results may be minuscule at first, but over time the small impact may lead to a big change.
Another way a high protein diet can help you burn fat is the increased muscle mass paired with strength training protein will provide. The more muscle we have on our bodies, the more calories our bodies burn each day due to the demand of calories we require to keep this muscle around. So protein helps us build more muscle, more muscle burns more calories and helps us workout more intensely for a longer period of time (burning even more calories), and both lead to a greater calorie expenditure and possible deficit at the end of the day. Resulting in potential fat loss.
Pro fat burning tip: For healthy, affective, and consistent fat loss while retaining muscle, restrict no more than 500kcal from your daily expenditure. If you are considered to be obese (+30% fat of your total body mass) a 1000kcal calorie deficit at the end of the day should be your top end deficit (we can use the fat on our bodies for fuel). Too much of a calorie deficit at the end of the day may increase muscle loss and negatively affect energy levels, hormones, mood, and plenty of other variables you would like to be operating smoothly.
4. Reduces appetite, hunger levels, and cravings
Some macronutrients (primarily carbohydrates) increase the feeling of hunger and appetite because of the increased secretion of a hormone called ghrelin (the "hunger hormone") and suppression of an appetite suppressing hormone called leptin. Protein does the opposite, decreasing the secretion of ghrelin postponing the feeling of hunger until you actually need the fuel. The feeling of hunger doesn’t always equate to the need of more food to perform. Understanding this and occasionally fighting the feeling is important for weight loss and avoiding overconsumption. Another reason for the extended period of satiety is the fact that proteins from meat take longer to fully digest, so they remain in your stomach for longer. Both of these facts lead to a reduction in appetite & hunger and an increase in satiety.
5. Keeps you stronger for longer
Just like our bones weaken as we age, so do our muscles. Some people are even plagued with muscle deteriorating/weakening illnesses. Illness or not though, increased protein intake will slow the process of age related weakening of muscles. High protein intake coupled with consistent activity over ones life will greatly enhance the affect of long lasting, healthy muscles.
Healthy examples of protein:
Protein rich foods come with all different nutrient make ups. Some with a high fat content, low fat content, nutrient dense, and also not so nutrient dense. So they are not all equal, but they all do provide a good serving of protein. Check out the notes on a few of these examples for additional info.
**Organic doesn’t always mean its 100% antibiotic & hormone free. In America, organic means the animals themselves aren’t being shot up with hormones and antibiotics, the food they are fed may very well still be full of them though. Making the animals…well, not the healthiest. In Europe, organic means both the animal and the food are hormone and antibiotic free. Be aware of this and do your best to locate your local farmer to ensure the quality of your animal products.
Vegans/Vegetarians and protein intake
If you are like many people in the world today following a vegan/vegetarian diet, then consuming an adequate amount of protein may be a concern of yours. Above we learned a complete protein is made up of nine EAA’s. Unlike animal products, not all grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes are a complete protein by themselves, so it is important to understand which foods to pair together to be certain you are covering all of your amino acid bases and making a complete protein on your plate. This way you will be reaping all of the benefits of protein like your carnivorous friends (give or take a few micronutrients like vitamin D and B12).
How much is enough & the bottom line
Like the previous two blog posts on macronutrients, everyone is different and has different nutritional requirements. An athlete would most likely require much more protein than someone who lives a more sedentary lifestyle due to the need to repair and build muscle. A good window to shoot for would be 15-25% of your diet to consist of protein. The top end being the athlete or the injured person. A moderate to high protein intake can have multiple benefits to your health regarding muscle & bone preservation, fat loss, increased metabolism, and building muscle. Get creative and try adding some of the healthy examples above and reap the benefits!
About the author Cole Monahan
Small town boy from Lenoir City, TN learns about the importance of mental, physical, & spiritual health in his late teens and turns international model at 21. After traveling the world and becoming a certified personal trainer/nutritionist, he is now on a mission to use his platform to educate the world about living a fuller, healthier life.