Amid trendy paleo, keto, and low-carb diets and headlines consistently touting protein’s many wonders and benefits, this macronutrient is having a moment — and it doesn’t seem like it’s leaving the limelight anytime soon.
According to Nielsen data, 55 percent of households say protein is something they consider when buying food. This, combined with the growing popularity of plant-based diets, has fueled demand for alternative sources of protein, a segment that now tops $22 billion annually.
Some people swear by high-protein diets, believing that this nutrient reigns supreme, while others think it’s overrated and overconsumed. Protein is often found at the center of our plates, whether we are meat eaters or vegetarians. but what is Protein, right? What is the best source? Is there a magic number we should aim for?
This guide will explain everything you need to know about protein.
What is protein?
“Protein is one of the three major macronutrients, which means we need lots of it,” says Caitlin Self, MS, CNS, LDN of Frugal Nutrition. “Protein is made up of different amino acids, which are the building blocks for cells, collagen and critical enzymes. We need protein for muscle, bone, skin and collagen, hormones and enzymes and basic tissue repair.”
The roles of protein in the body include:
- Repairing body tissue, including muscle (eg after a hard workout)
- Helps you break down and digest food
- Supporting normal growth and development
Protein found in foods like chicken, eggs and tofu is made up of amino acids. Your body makes 11 different amino acids, but we need to get another nine of them from our diet (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine, known as essential amino acids).
Daily protein intake
Here’s the million dollar protein question: What is the ideal daily protein intake? It really depends. “Protein intake for Americans is really varied,” says Self, who typically sees people going to both extremes.
The acceptable protein range for adults is 10 to 35 percent of calories. If you eat 1,500 calories a day, that’s between 38 and 131 grams of protein (one gram of protein is four calories).
Another way to look at it: Every day, you need a minimum of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. If you are physically active, 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight may be more, depending on how hard you are exercising. Don’t forget: To find out how many kilograms you weigh, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 and that’s your weight in kilograms.
While those numbers may seem daunting, remember that it’s yours daily Aim If you aim to eat around 25-30 grams of protein (or more, depending on your size) with your main meal when you snack, you should have no problem meeting your needs.
Take daily reference: The Dietary Reference Intake for protein (the minimum amount you need to stay healthy) is 56 grams for men ages 19 to 70 and 46 grams for women ages 19 to 70.
“Keep in mind that pregnant and nursing mothers, growing children and teenagers, and highly active athletes will need more protein,” adds Self. (Such groups should aim for the higher end of the range.)
Tempted to go higher with your protein intake? don’t do it
“Consuming too much protein can be really taxing on our kidneys because that’s where it’s all processed,” says Self.
Best source of protein
There are many protein sources out there – most foods contain a mixture of the two or Three of the three main macronutrients: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Even a cup lasts something Protein (about 0.6 grams).
While meat and other animal products contain the highest quality protein, “nuts, seeds, vegetables, and legumes contain small amounts of protein,” says Self.
Here is an alphabetical list of the best sources of protein:
1. Beans and legumes
Legumes are a go-to source of protein for vegetarians and plant-based eaters. Try everything from fava beans (about 13 grams per cup) to lentils (about 18 grams per cup) and peanuts (not technically a nut, more than 7 grams per ounce) to black beans (about 15 grams per cup).
Like quinoa, this gluten-free “grain” is technically a pseudocereal. Regardless of what you call buckwheat, it’s also packed with protein. One cup of cooked buckwheat groats provides about 6 grams, and so does one cup of soba noodles (made with buckwheat flour).
3. Chickens and other poultry
Easy to cook and readily available, chicken is a versatile source of protein. Chicken breasts contain 21 grams of protein per 3 ounces, cooked, while chicken thighs have slightly less. White-meat chicken, such as chicken and turkey breast, without the skin, is the healthiest way to consume this type of protein.
4. Dairy products
The best sources of protein in the dairy aisle are low-fat Greek yogurt (over 24 grams per cup), low-fat cottage cheese (28 grams per cup), and skim milk (about 8 grams per cup). Cheese also provides plenty of protein but more fat, mainly saturated fat.
A whole large egg contains over 6 grams of protein. Keep added fat to a minimum during the cooking process, eg, don’t add cheese, cook in a nonstick skillet with cooking spray, or try hard-boiling or poaching eggs.
6. Lean beef and pork
A 3-ounce serving of lean beef (95%) cooked contains about 22 grams of protein, as does lean pork tenderloin (trimmed with fat).
7. Nuts and seeds
From almonds (about 6 grams) to cashews (more than 4 grams) and walnuts (more than 4 grams) to hulled sunflower seeds (about 6 grams), nuts and/or seeds provide a portable way to sneak in a one-ounce serving of some protein.
8. Protein powder
Protein shakes can be a super convenient way to get your protein intake. If you want to keep it simple, all you have to do is combine the powder with some water! Just make sure you choose a high-quality powder without any unnecessary, unhealthy ingredients.
Shakeology will give you 17 grams of whey protein or 16 grams of plant-based protein with no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives. It also serves 6 grams of fiber to help keep you fuller for longer.
Quinoa is a nearly complete plant-based protein, providing more than 8 grams per cup cooked.
Salmon provides 19 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving, while the same serving of shrimp offers 20 grams.
11. Tofu and tempeh
Soybean is a complete plant protein. You’ll get 11 grams in 3 ounces of tofu and 16 grams from the same amount of tempeh.
Personalized to your liking
“The best sources of protein are the ones you tolerate best,” says Self. So, if chicken sits well with you, this is a great choice. (She recommends pastured chicken if it’s available.) But if black beans “make you feel great, they’re a good protein source,” she says. (He recommends soaking them first to make them easier to digest.)
“Our bodies are all different,” she says.
Different types of proteins
Proteins can be detected in two different ways:
One indicator of a good source of protein versus others that are just so-so is the number and levels of different amino acids they contain. Proteins are “complete” if they contain sufficient amounts of all nine essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein).
While all animal proteins contain all of these essential amino acids, soy is considered the only complete plant protein. But don’t get too hung up on complete vs. incomplete. If you’re following a plant-based diet, aim to eat a variety of protein sources to ensure you’re getting a variety of essential amino acids.
Whether you want to get your protein from meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy, nuts, seeds, beans and/or legumes is up to you. One thing to keep in mind is the amount of saturated fat found in the protein foods you eat. Some cuts of red meat or other animal protein can be high in saturated fat. Lean protein is your best bet for overall health.
Protein and weight maintenance
Protein can be helpful in controlling appetite as protein consumption helps you feel full longer.
Symptoms of protein deficiency
“True protein deficiency is rare,” says Self. That “deficiency usually shows as ascites, which is fluid accumulation in the abdomen, and muscle atrophy.”
But if you’ve been consistently protein deficient for a long time, you may want to check with your healthcare provider. Some of the possible symptoms of protein deficiency can manifest in some of the ways listed below. But again, it’s always best to consult a healthcare professional if you have any concerns about your protein intake.
Possible symptoms include:
- Hair loss or dry and dull hair
- Soft and brittle nails
- Brown and patchy pigmentation of the skin
- Impaired wound healing
- low power
- Muscle weakness