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Bernard-Henri Louvat
CEO & Founder of Tera. I am a serial technology entrepreneur and I occasionally write articles for our blog. Drop me a line at blouvat@hellotera.com if you feel like it!

Why Protein is Important: A 101 Guide

A guide to protein and its essential role in the body

Protein, more than just a dietary buzzword, is the very foundation of life. Everyone’s heard of it, but few of us know why it’s essential. Think of it as the building blocks of your body, the fuel that powers your cells, and the tiny machines that keep everything running smoothly. In this article, we’ll go through the basics of protein – what it is, why it’s important, how much we need, and then compare the pros and cons of animal vs. plant sources.

What is protein?

Protein, digestion info, graphic

Proteins are the building blocks and workers in your body. They are essential for forming and repairing various parts, like muscles, skin, hair, and virtually every other body part or tissue. They also play a role in important tasks, acting as messengers and providing energy for different activities. These building blocks, called amino acids, come together to form proteins, and your body needs them from the food you eat to stay healthy and function properly.

Why is it important?

Protein provides many essential functions in the body info, graphic

  1. Structural Role: Proteins serve as the building blocks of cells, tissues, and organs. They provide the structural framework for muscles, bones, skin, hair, nails, and other body structures. Proteins like collagen provide strength and elasticity to connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments.
  2. Enzymatic Functions: Enzymes are specialized proteins that catalyze biochemical reactions in the body. Each enzyme has a specific function and helps facilitate essential processes such as digestion, metabolism, DNA replication, and protein synthesis. For example, digestive enzymes like amylase, lipase, and protease break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into smaller molecules that can be absorbed and utilized by the body.
  3. Transportation and Storage: Certain proteins act as carriers and transport molecules throughout the body. Hemoglobin, found in red blood cells, transports oxygen from the lungs to tissues and organs, while myoglobin stores oxygen in muscle cells for use during exercise. Additionally, proteins like ferritin store iron in the liver, ensuring its availability for various metabolic processes.
  4. Immune Function: Antibodies, also known as immunoglobulins, are produced by the immune system in response to foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, and toxins. These antibodies recognize and neutralize pathogens by binding to specific antigens, there by helping to prevent infections and diseases. They also play a role in inflammation and immune signaling pathways, regulating the body’s immune response.
  5. Hormonal Regulation: Many hormones are proteins or peptides that regulate physiological processes and maintain homeostasis in the body. For instance, insulin, produced by the pancreas, regulates blood glucose levels by promoting the uptake of glucose into cells for energy production or storage. Other hormones like growth hormone, thyroid-stimulating hormone, and insulin-like growth factors influence growth, metabolism, and tissue repair.
  6. Fluid Balance: These amino acids help maintain fluid balance within cells and in the extracellular space by regulating osmotic pressure and fluid distribution. Albumin, the most abundant protein in the blood plasma, helps retain water in the bloodstream and prevents excessive fluid leakage into tissues, contributing to normal blood volume and pressure.
  7. Energy Source: While carbohydrates and fats are the body’s primary sources of energy, proteins can be metabolized to produce energy when carbohydrates and fats are insufficient. During prolonged fasting or periods of low carbohydrate intake, the body breaks down muscle protein into amino acids, which can be converted into glucose through gluconeogenesis or used directly for energy production through the citric acid cycle.
  8. Satiety and Weight Management: Protein-rich foods have been shown to increase satiety and reduce appetite, which may help control food intake and promote weight loss or weight maintenance. Protein requires more energy to digest and metabolize compared to carbohydrates and fats, leading to a higher thermic effect of food and increased energy expenditure.

How much do we need?

How much protein do I need per day infographic

The recommended amount a person needs can vary based on factors such as age, sex, weight, physical activity level, and overall health. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is a general guideline provided by health organizations to help individuals meet their nutritional needs. 

To get even more specific, you can use the Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) calculator provided by the USDA to calculate the amount of protein (and other essential nutrients) your body needs daily.

RDA for Sedentary Adults: 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight, or just over 7 grams for every 20 pounds of body weight. This means that a sedentary adult weighing 70 kilograms (154 pounds) would need approximately 56 grams of per day.

Athletes or Those Engaging in Intense Physical Activity: Individuals who engage in regular intense physical activity or strength training may require more to support muscle repair and growth. Recommendations for athletes can range from 1.2 to 2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Older Adults: Some studies suggest that older adults may benefit from slightly higher intake to help preserve muscle mass and function. Older adults may need between 1.0 to 1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Pregnant and Lactating Women: Protein needs increase during pregnancy and lactation. The RDA for pregnant and lactating women is around 1.1 grams per kilogram of body weight.

Individuals with certain medical conditions or those undergoing significant physical stress (e.g., recovering from surgery, illness, or injury) may also have increased requirements.

It’s essential to remember that these are general guidelines, and individual needs can vary. Consulting with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian can help determine the appropriate intake based on individual circumstances and health goals. Additionally, dietary sources should be diverse to ensure the intake of a variety of amino acids essential for overall health.

What are the best sources of protein?

plant, nuts, meat, sources of protein stock image

Both animal and plant sources have their advantages and disadvantages. A balanced and varied diet that incorporates a mix of both can provide a wide range of nutrients while minimizing potential drawbacks. Individuals should consider personal health goals, ethical considerations, and environmental impact when choosing between animal and plant sources. Consulting with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian can help tailor dietary choices to individual needs.

Animal Protein

Pros:

  1. Complete Proteins: Animals are generally complete proteins, providing all essential amino acids necessary for various bodily functions, including muscle maintenance, immune function, and enzyme production.
  2. Nutrient Density: Animal products are rich in essential nutrients such as heme iron, vitamin B12, omega-3 fatty acids, and high-quality protein. These nutrients contribute to energy metabolism, cognitive function, and overall health.
  3. Bioavailability: Animals often have higher bioavailability, meaning the body can more efficiently absorb and utilize the amino acids and nutrients they provide.
  4. Muscle Building: Animals, particularly from sources like lean meats, poultry, and dairy, are effective in promoting muscle growth and recovery due to their optimal amino acid profiles.

Cons:

  1. Inflammatory Potential: Some meats, especially processed and red meats, may contribute to inflammation, which is associated with chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. Choosing sources like beans, nuts, fish, or poultry in place of red meat and processed meat can lower the risk of several diseases and premature death.
  2. Saturated Fats and Cholesterol: Certain animal products, especially red and processed meats, can be high in saturated fats and cholesterol. Excessive consumption may contribute to cardiovascular issues.
  3. Digestive Issues: For some individuals, particularly those with certain digestive conditions, animal proteins may be harder to digest and may contribute to indigestion discomfort.
  4. Environmental Impact: Raising livestock in factory farms contributes significantly to environmental issues such as deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions. Consider purchasing pasture-raised animal products from organic, regenerative farms.

Plant Protein

Pros:

  1. Diverse Nutrients: Plant-based sources offer a variety of nutrients, including dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, contributing to overall health and supporting digestive health.
  2. Heart Health: Plant proteins are generally lower in saturated fats, and specific sources like nuts and seeds may contribute to heart health by reducing cholesterol levels.
  3. Reduced Disease Risk: Diets rich in plant-based proteins are associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
  4. Fiber Content: Plant-based sources often come with dietary fiber, promoting digestive health, regulating blood sugar levels, and contributing to weight management.

Cons:

  1. Incomplete Proteins: Some plants may lack one or more essential amino acids. However, combining different plant sources can ensure a complete amino acid profile.
  2. Iron Absorption: Plant-based iron (non-heme iron) is less readily absorbed than iron from animal sources. Consuming vitamin C-rich foods with plant iron sources can enhance absorption.
  3. Potential for Antinutrients: Some plant foods contain antinutrients, which can interfere with the absorption of certain minerals. Proper preparation methods, like soaking and cooking, can help mitigate this issue.
  4. Protein Density: Plant-based sources may have lower protein density compared to certain animal products, necessitating a larger volume of food to meet requirements.

Summary : Key Takeaway

In short, protein isn’t just a dietary trend – it’s the bedrock of life itself. From building and repairing tissues to regulating hormones and supporting immunity, its importance to our body cannot be overstated. Understanding our needs and choosing the right sources – whether from animals or plants – is key to maintaining overall health. So, let’s embrace the protein puzzle and make informed choices that fuel our bodies and nurture our well-being.

If you’d like to learn more, check out some of these articles that helped inform this post:

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