So, What’s the Deal with Protein?

Protein is arguably the most discussed macro-nutrient. Many people think of it as “superior” when compared to carbohydrates and fats, but this is not the case.

Amino acids are the molecules that make up protein. The human body needs 20 of them. There are 11 nonessential amino acids, which the body can make itself. There are 9 essential amino acids which we need to consume from food. Some foods contain all 20 of the amino acids and can be referred to as “complete proteins”. All animal proteins and select plant proteins such as soy are complete proteins. Most plant based protein sources only have some of the necessary amino acids. These are called “incomplete proteins”. In order to make the protein complete, you can pair different foods together. This is much easier than you think. Some common protein pairings include rice and beans, or peanut butter on a slice of bread.

Today, the typical diet includes high levels of processed foods and meats. Protein has become the focus of meal, despite it being no more vital to one’s health than carbohydrates, or fats. The general population typically overestimates how much protein they need to consume each day and what foods contain it. The recommended dietary allowance suggests 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. To get a rough estimate of how many grams of protein per day you should be eating, you can use the equation below:

grams of protein/day= 0.8 x weight(kg)

This provides a good ballpark figure, but obviously, an equation will not be completely accurate. So, if you are a little over or under, don’t sweat it! Again, this is just an estimation so you can get an idea of how much protein to eat every day.

Many foods contain protein, some more surprising than others. Typically, people associate protein with meat, forgetting about all the protein rich plant based sources. The protein becomes the center of the meal, rather than a side, which is what it should be. One problem with this, is that eating excessive quantities of meat can contribute to cardiovascular disease due to the high fat and sodium content. Here is a list of some heart healthy proteins sources:

  • Nuts such as almonds, or walnuts
  •  Tofu
  • Nut based milks
  •  Nut butters
  •  Lentils
  •  Dark leafy greens
  • Quinoa
  •  Lean meats such as chicken or fish

Many are aware that these sources contain protein. However, some may surprise you. Dark leafy greens, for example, contain more protein than one might imagine at 0.9 g/1 cup. Plus, they are nutrient dense and contain a lot of beneficial vitamins and minerals. Plant proteins are easier to digest because they contain the necessary enzymes needed to break everything down. If you do choose to eat meat, pair it with some vegetables to help it digest easier.

A common misconception among athletes is that they need to consume large amounts of protein, often in the form of supplements or powders to maintain and build muscle. Studies vary in their recommendations, ranging from 0.8-1.7 grams per kilogram of protein, dependent on the athlete’s level of intensity during exercise.  The 1.7 end is more for serious, competitive endurance and strength athletes. Even then, 1.7 is still a bit high. Unless you are an Olympic athlete, these levels of protein are not necessary. Chances are, most athletes are getting enough protein through a normal, balanced diet and do not need to turn to the post workout protein powders.

Protein is an important macro-nutrient. However, it is not as superior as many have come to believe. One should not be overly concerned about protein intake, if a well-balanced diet is being consumed. I believe that getting one’s nutrients from plant based sources is most beneficial.  My beliefs are based on the facts that plant based sources are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber as well as have lower fat levels and are more easily digested. However, consuming everything in moderation is key. It is perfectly okay to chow down on a burger at the next barbecue, as long as that is not a daily occurrence.

Most Americans consume an adequate amount of protein (and often even more) so there should be no need to worry about protein consumption. So, next time you are hungry, relax and opt for some fruits and veggies before grabbing that protein bar!

By Grace Stott — Wellness Intern and UVAC Swim Instructor


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