When you hear the phrase “the big three,” perhaps certain historical legacies or some Ivy League football teams come to mind. When it comes to nutrition, that expression refers to the three primary macronutrients needed to promote health and physical wellbeing: fats, carbohydrates and proteins. These substances help sustain human growth, metabolism and bodily structural repair. In order to ensure a healthy, balanced diet, protein intake is just as important as monitoring calorie and sugar consumption.
What Is Protein?
Though you might have been taught that protein is only for those who are trying to build muscle, it’s actually a critical building block for long-term health. Proteins are essential for transporting molecules, breaking down toxins and rebuilding internal structures within the cell systems.
Technically, there are three types of proteins: complete, incomplete and complementary. Each type is made up of amino acids. Amino acids are chains of beneficial molecules that, when arranged in specific patterns, create protein. Complete proteins contain almost all of the essential amino acids, while incomplete proteins may only have one. The complementary proteins are those that, when combined, have all the amino acids.
In order to get enough proteins, it’s important to eat a diet that’s rich in amino acids. Healthy foods such as nuts, seeds, fish, poultry, lean meats and legumes can help boost essential amino acid levels, promoting more protein formation.
What Are the Benefits and Functions of Protein?
Protein doesn’t just support internal functions. It also helps you stay in shape, whether you spend hours at the gym or not. A protein-rich diet can:
- Speed up recovery after exercise or injuries
- Reduce loss of muscle
- Help you maintain a healthy weight
- Curb hunger and keep you fuller for longer
Aside from these benefits, protein also:
- Serves as a visceral building block, helping reconstruct bones, muscles, cartilage, skin and hair.
- Repairs tissue after a tear.
- Oxygenates red blood cells, which supply the body with oxygen and nutrients.
- Digests foods to make new enzymes, cells and chemicals.
- Regulates hormones and cells during puberty.
How Much Protein Is Enough?
About 15% of a person’s body weight is comprised of protein. If your diet is lacking this macronutrient, it could lead to malnutrition. Additionally, you may develop a protein deficiency if you have an eating disorder, a genetic condition, cancer, irritable bowel syndrome or difficulty absorbing nutrients. Protein deficiencies are also common in people who are ill or women who are pregnant.
A lack of protein could lead to swelling, brittle hair, skin lesions, loss of muscle mass or tone, or stunted growth. The FDA suggests that adults consume 50 grams of protein per day. Children ages 4 to 13 should eat 13-34 grams per day. In other words, 10-35% of daily calories should consist of some type of protein. Many factors may affect a person’s daily value, however, such as age, gender, activeness and overall health.
How to Consume Protein
If you’re curious about getting an accurate, specialized body analysis, talk to a dietician or nutritionist. Otherwise, here are some tips that might help balance your protein consumption:
- Eat a variety of complete, incomplete and complementary proteins to ensure you’re getting adequate nutrition
- Trim the fat from meats, avoiding processed options to minimize sodium intake
- Grill instead of frying or cooking in oil
- Try plant-based protein
- Incorporate fiber into your diet
Especially with the growing popularity of vegan and vegetarian diets, it’s important to achieve a balanced level of protein. Some plant-based foods have more amino acids than others, but the following products contain a decent amount of protein per serving:
- Tofu or tempeh
- Amaranth and quinoa
- Ezekiel bread and other sprouted grains
The Bottom Line
Even if you’re meticulously counting carbs and calories, protein plays an essential role in your dietary and structural makeup and should not be ignored. Many Americans may eat a substantial amount of this macronutrient, but others could benefit from a supplement or meal swap for higher content. Protein might not need much introduction, but it should have a place at your dinner table.