There are several posts that cover so-called nutritional “basics” and I want to extend this series to all food groups. So today, we are continuing this with the benefits of protein.
What is Protein?
So, before we dive into the topic of how protein is beneficial for us, let us start by covering what protein actually is. Protein is one of the three known macronutrients (the other two are carbohydrates and fat). “Macro” refers to the fact that protein is a nutrient that we need in high amounts. Protein is found throughout the entirety of our bodies. You will find it in our skin, hair, muscle, bones, tissue, and almost all other areas. Protein also provides you with energy, is important for your mood and cognitive function, and supports the immune system.
Protein is made from 20 different kinds of so-called amino acids. Because we do not store amino acids, our body can make protein in two different ways: Either from scratch or by modifying already existing ones. There are nine amino acids that are essential. This means, that our bodies cannot make them ourselves, so we need to derive them from food. These nine are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
What are the Benefits of Protein?
As you have just seen, you can find protein throughout the entirety of our bodies. So, naturally, they are also involved in a lot of chemical processes within our bodies. But protein is so much more than that and it has some amazing benefits.
Satiety and Thermic Effect on the Body
First of all, protein is great for satiety. It has also been shown to reduce the hunger hormone “ghrelin”, whilst at the same time boosting the hormone that makes you feel full. Protein is therefore a great source to be added to any meal in order to keep your blood sugar levels stable, but also have them rise slowly and gradually (something I believe is one of the best things we can do for our health). What is quite interesting and cool is that protein actually has a higher thermic effect on the body than fat or carbohydrates. This means that you burn more calories trying to digest protein in comparison to carbohydrates or fat. This does not make either carbohydrate or fat a “bad” food group – please be aware that we definitely need all three in order for our bodies to thrive.
Good for Muscles and Bones
Protein is awesome for our muscles. It helps to maintain muscle mass and can promote growth as well when done in combination with strength training. This is also the reason why people who exercise a lot need a higher protein intake than people who do not. We will cover the adequate amounts further below. Long-term studies have also shown that protein can have some key benefits to bone health. People who eat adequate amounts of protein tend to lose less muscle mass when aging, and also have a lowered risk of osteoporosis and arthritis. Also remember that muscles and bones tend to weaken with aging, so eating adequate amounts of protein can prevent some of these weaknesses, especially when combined with strength training.
When you have an injury in the body, you definitely need to increase your protein intake. Protein is the main building block of your tissue, skin, and organs. So it makes sense that protein is an excellent supporter in aiding repair after injury and speeding it up.
Lowers Blood Pressue
Protein has been found to lower blood pressure levels. High blood pressure levels go hand in hand with some of our common Western diseases – heart attacks and strokes. Higher protein intake may help in preventing this.
Different Protein Sources
Now that we have covered the benefits – I am sure you are asking what are some of the different types of protein sources? Remember when I said above that there are nine amino acids that are essential to us humans? Protein is in a lot of different foods, but the main distinction is between “complete” and “incomplete” protein sources. Complete protein sources contain all nine of the discussed amino acids.
Complete Protein Sources
Most animal products are a complete source of protein, such as chicken, beef, fish, or dairy products, including eggs. There are also a few plant-based sources that contain complete proteins. Quinoa, amaranth, hemp seeds, and soy products are among those.
Incomplete Protein Sources
Incomplete protein sources are nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, and whole grains. All of these usually miss at least one amino acid group towards the “complete” status. If you follow a primarily plant-based or vegan diet, this is something to be aware of. However, it is actually quite easy to make a complete protein out of several incomplete ones. If you combine legumes with grains, nuts, or seeds, you have yourself a complete protein!
Just a quick word on the quality of the protein used. The closer to nature the products are sourced, without any added chemicals or antibiotics, the better. This means choosing grass-fed over industrialized meats, and wild-caught fish, rather than farmed (or, in fact, organic fish. You can only label something organic if you know what it has been fed and that means organic fish has been raised in a farm fish tank).
You should also be careful with so-called lunch meats because they often contain a lot of salt, which can alter the effects of lowering blood pressure 😉. Processed meats have also been associated with a higher risk of cancer. The reasons are not entirely clear just yet, but they may be linked to the way and the ingredients used in order to establish said “processed” status. With soy, be aware that soy is allowed to be genetically modified. Non-GMO labels (or organic) are not allowed to contain genetically modified crops.
How Much Protein Should You Eat?
The recommended guideline for healthy adults is around 0.75gr per KG. So, if you weigh 80 KG, your protein intake should be about 60 gr. daily. If you exercise regularly and a lot, this increases to ca. 1.2 – 1.5 gr. per KG day for women and up to 1.5 – 2 gr. per KG for men (please take these recommendations as a guideline only). We can only use a certain amount of protein per meal, so for best results, it is recommended to split your protein intake equally throughout the day.
I hope you found this overview and insight helpful!! If you want to learn more about some of the other food groups that we have covered so far, check out: