It seems like everyone is pushing protein these days. High protein meals. Protein shakes. Protein bars. Protein supplements. There’s good reason for it. Protein is essential to having a healthy, strong body. It builds and repairs muscle. It’s a back-up energy source when our carb storage runs low. It’s important to healthy and normal hormone functions. I get it. Protein is awesome.
In my house, most of our favorite foods contain protein. We all love meat. Peanut butter could be its own food group. Nuts and seeds are a go-to snack. Cheese helps to hold us over when we can’t wait for the next meal. Black bean brownies and dessert hummus are two of my favorite treats. Greek yogurt with berries is so delicious it should be considered an indulgence. (But I’m glad it’s not!) I could go on. My point is, we don’t seem to struggle with getting adequate amounts of protein every day. But are we?
For the average active adult, protein should not be the primary food group. Carbohydrates should be. Protein should make up ~30% of your daily food intake. To put this into perspective, carbs should be about 40% and healthy fats should be 30%. This means that you probably don’t need to follow up each workout with a protein shake. If you’re trying to build muscle, increasing your protein intake by 5-10% a day is all that’s necessary. And, if you’re like me, it’s not too difficult to add extra protein into your day.
So what is a protein, exactly? Proteins are large amino acids linked together by peptide bonds. They sort of look like a string of pearls. There are 20 standard amino acids required by the human body. Nine are essential amino acids, meaning they cannot be synthesized by the body and must be taken in by food. 11 are non-essential amino acids, meaning they can be synthesized by the body in sufficient amounts. Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids. When you eat a complete protein, you are giving your body all the amino acids it needs to function but cannot produce on its own. Incomplete proteins lack some of the essential amino acids.
If you’re a vegetarian, you have more of a challenge since meat is the only source of complete proteins. To make sure you’re getting all the amino acids you need for your body to function properly, combine certain incomplete proteins to make up a complete protein.
- Red meat
Combine these Incomplete Proteins to get a Complete Protein:
- Grains & Legumes
- Grains & Nuts, Seeds
- Legumes & Nuts, Seeds
Keep in mind that combining incomplete proteins can add a significant amount of calories to your meal. If you’re a vegetarian and are trying to lose weight, this can be tricky. It is best for you to discuss your food intake with a registered dietitian or nutritionist to make sure you’re getting what you need in the correct amounts while still maintaining a calorie deficit. If you’re not a vegetarian, choose lean meat sources, keeping an eye on both the amount of fat and the type of fat.
FitTip: Make sure you consume adequate amounts of protein every day, particularly complete proteins as these contain important amino acids that our bodies require but cannot produce on their own. If you consume protein at each meal, you probably do not need to take a protein supplement even if you’re trying to increase your muscle mass. Our bodies do not store protein. Any protein we consume above the required amount is stored as fat. So get what you need and stop there. If you have questions about how much protein you’re actually eating and how much protein you should be eating, please consult a registered dietitian or nutritionist.