Protein, like its controversy-mired counterparts carbs and fat, is a macronutrient. That means your body needs adequate amounts of it, and it provides much-needed calories (4 calories per gram, to be exact).
And in the Great Macro Debate, everyone pretty much agrees: Protein is really good for you.
Grab a protein bar and put your learning cap on — it’s time to become a protein pro.
Proteins are made of long chains of amino acids — or, as you may remember them from middle school bio, “the building blocks of life.”
Humans use 20 different amino acids, but your bod can’t manufacture 9 of them. So you have to get these nine essential amino acids from food:
Other amino acids are conditionally essential, meaning you need more of them when your body is under stress (like when you’re sick or recovering from an injury).
Under a microscope, proteins look like tangled balls of string because these chains fold over themselves repeatedly, forming a matrix that is denatured (unwound) during digestion. This lets your body lop off amino acids and add them to your amino acid “bank.”
Your bod can then pull amino acids from this nutrient bank when it’s time to make new proteins.
For the sweet, sweet gainz, obviously.
But really: Your body is constantly creating new cells and tissues and recycling the old ones. For this to work, you need protein from your diet — or, more specifically, those essential amino acids.
Your body uses amino acids to build new proteins for cell growth and repair, muscle recovery, and recovery from injury and illness. In fact, getting enough protein in your diet can help with all kinds of stuff.
Here’s a sampling:
- Diabetes risk. Although other factors (like weight and body fat) play a larger role in the development of diabetes, research suggests higher protein intake may slightly reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Cancer odds. Among people with breast cancer, those with the highest protein intake appear to have a slightly higher chance of survival, according to a 2017 study.
- Bone health. More research is needed, but a higher protein intake may be linked to better bone density — particularly in the lumbar spine. And um… that sounds pretty important to us when dealing with the WFH posture struggle.
- Muscle growth. Want muscles? Eat protein. Your body needs tons of it (and the amino acid leucine, in particular) to build new muscle.
- Weight management. Protein is more filling than fat and carbs (with the exception of our pal fiber), which is why high protein diets are often recommended for weight loss.
The FDA generally recommends that adults eat about 50 grams of protein erry day. Your specific needs may be a little lower or higher based on how many calories your bod needs.
You can also look at the recommended dietary allowances for protein based on your sex and age group:
|Age and sex||Protein intake|
|children ages 6–11 months||11 g|
|children ages 1–3||13 g|
|children ages 4–8||19 g|
|children ages 9–13||34 g|
|females ages 14+||46 g|
|males ages 14–18||52 g|
|males ages 19+||56 g|
If you want a more individualized way to calculate how much protein you need, you can base your intake on your weight and activity level. The protein recommendations based on activity level and weight would look something like this:
|Activity level||Protein intake|
|sedentary||0.4 g per lb (0.8 g per kg)|
|moderately active||0.6 g per lb (1.3 g per kg)|
|very active||0.7 g per lb (1.6 g per kg)|
The USDA also offers a handy protein intake calculator.
Whether you’re a vegan, a carnivore, or somewhere in between, there are plenty of protein-rich options that can fit into your diet.
Wanna make sure you’re hitting your protein goals? Here are the protein-rich foods to chow down on:
While it’s best to meet your protein needs by eating whole foods, protein powders definitely have their place.
Protein powder is a super easy and convenient way to make sure you’re getting enough of this vital nutrient. Some populations may need more protein, such as athletes, people who are pregnant or breastfeeding, vegans or vegetarians, and older adults.
Supplementing with protein powder can also be helpful if you have trouble getting enough protein, which might happen if you have certain food allergies or intolerances or if you’re recovering from an injury or illness.
It’s an exaggeration to say that eating too much protein can demolish your kidneys (unless you already have kidney issues). But there really isn’t any clear benefit to eating way more protein than your body needs.
If you’re trying to lose weight, upping your protein intake a little bit could keep you feeling full on fewer calories. Some low carb diets may be higher in protein, which can help provide similar weight loss benefits.
BTW, keto is actually not a high protein diet — it’s high fat, low carb, and moderate protein (the more you know 💫 ).
Most people who aren’t very active will get plenty of protein by aiming for 0.5 grams of protein per pound (1 gram per kilogram) of body weight.
It’s generally safe to eat up to 0.9 grams per pound (2 grams per kilogram), but there’s really no need to top off that much unless you’re doing some serious Lou Ferrigno-style workouts.
As far as meat goes, aim for a piece that’s at least the size of a deck of cards once it’s cooked. In the case of plant-based protein sources, aim for 1/2 cup.
Here are some other tips to help you meet that protein goal:
- Beans, beans, beans. Protein-rich and super versatile, beans are great in soups and salads, as a main dish or a side, and they make a great snack too. Hummus, anyone?
- Sprinkle seeds like confetti. Like beans, seeds can go with pretty much everything. You can even use seeds to make protein-rich crackers (or just buy seed crackers) for that aforementioned hummus.
- (Nut) butter it up. Nut and seed butters are a tasty way to add some extra protein to your meals. You can make energy bites, whip up a flavorful Asian-inspired sauce, or keep it classic on toast.
- Make Greek yogurt your BFF. Use plain Greek yogurt instead of mayo in chicken, tuna, or egg salad. Or add it to overnight oats or baked goods to level up your protein.
- Put an egg on it! A fried or hard-boiled egg is a tasty way to add an extra 7 or so grams of protein. Add eggs to salads, ramen, stir-fries, or sandwiches. Or simply scramble up eggs for brekkie.
If you still have trouble getting enough protein, add some protein powder or a ready-to-drink protein shake. This can give you an extra 20 to 30 grams of protein easily.