Updated: Aug 5, 2022
There seems to be a lot of confusion about protein in the media; required daily amounts, sources, vegetarian and vegan options. Some cultures eat a lot of protein, others not so much. So how do you know what's right? Let's look at a couple of facts first about what protein is and what it does in the body.
Protein, along with fats and carbohydrates, are essential for good health. The name protein comes from the Greek word proteos, which means primary or first. Proteins are the building blocks of life, and every cell in your body contains proteins. It is a critical part of the process that gives you energy and carries oxygen throughout your body in your blood, helps make antibodies to fight off infections, repairs cells and make new ones.
Some proteins are enzymes, which are essential to your metabolism and digestion (such as lactase or sucrase). Other proteins are hormones, chemical messengers that aid communication between your cells (such as insulin and human growth hormone).
Proteins are made up of 20 different amino acids that join together forming long chains. Our body can make 11 amino acids on its own, but we need to get the remaining 9 types from other sources through the food we eat. These 9 types are called essential amino acids, as we cannot make them ourselves. Essential amino acids include histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Non-essential amino acids include alanine, arginine, asparagine, aspartate, cysteine, glutamine, glycine, proline, serine, taurine and tyrosine. If the protein that you eat doesn't contain the 9 essential amino acids, it's called an incomplete protein, whereas a food that does is called a complete protein.
It's important to note that you don't have to eat a complete protein at every meal, it's the balance over the whole day that is more important. Animal products (including meat, fish, dairy and eggs), quinoa, buckwheat, hempseed, soybeans and blue-green algae are all complete proteins. You can also combine different incomplete proteins to create a meal that contains all the essential amino acids. Examples include beans and rice, whole wheat toast with peanut butter, hummus and pita bread. Eating protein with a complex carbohydrate (rather than eating carbohydrates by themselves or eating simple carbohydrates) keeps you feeling fuller longer and allows for a steady release of blood sugar (rather than a peak and crash when eating something like candy).
Not getting enough protein in your diet can lead to health issues, such as tissue breakdown and loss of muscle. However, too much protein can lead to kidney issues. So how much protein should you eat? It depends on your overall calorie needs. A general recommendation for healthy adults is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight (or 0.83 grams per kilogram of body weight). Most people should get 10 - 35% of their daily calories from protein; if you exercise heavily, are pregnant or breastfeeding you may need more. If you want to know the protein content of various common foods, check out this link.
Timing also matters when eating protein. The body can only absorb 25 to 40 grams of protein per sitting, so spacing out protein intake throughout the day is important. An easy way to make sure that you're not eating too much at once is by using your hand as a guide; an appropriate amount of protein is generally about the size of the palm of your hand. If you don't think you're consuming enough, you can also use protein powders that are either animal or plant based to help supplement your diet.
I have a delicious recipe for lentil salad from my Mom that's not only high in protein but fiber too. Give it a try!
2 19 ounce cans of lentils, drained and rinsed
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, minced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 medium red onion, chopped
dash of cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. each of salt and freshly ground pepper
Mix everything together. Refrigerate for at least a few hours to let the flavours blend.