Protein 101: How, Why and When to Eat It
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It’s hard to open a health magazine without encountering a story about protein – why athletes need it and why dieters might not be getting enough. And while protein is absolutely essential – our bodies cannot function or even exist without it – there’s a lot of misinformation about this important nutrient.
Why is protein important? How much do you need? Can you get too much of a good thing? What time of day is it best to eat it? Here are my answers to your most pressing protein questions:
- What is protein? Protein is made up of amino acids, the little building blocks your body uses to form thousands of structures ranging from your bones and muscles to your hair and skin. There are 20 amino acids, with nine of them being essential, meaning your body can’t make them. They must come from food. If levels of any one amino acid are deficient, your body’s ability to make certain protein structures will be limited.
- Why is protein at the center of so many weight loss regimens? Protein is really good at making you feel full, so you’re less likely to overeat if you include protein in your meals. You also want to make sure you are getting the protein your body needs to rebuild cells. Unlike fat and carbohydrates, your body cannot store protein. So if it isn’t getting enough, it will pull it from body structures, like your muscles.
- Does eating protein promote muscle building? Your body relies on a constant influx of protein to repair and rebuild cells, including muscle. Sadly, though, you can’t sit in an armchair and build muscle just by eating more protein. You’ll need to get out there and exercise – and eat carbohydrates to fuel your workout.
- How much protein do I need? The recommended intake for moderately active adults is 0.4 grams per pound of body weight – and one gram if you are extremely active or bench press like a body builder. This is a case where more isn’t necessarily better — your body can only use 30 to 40 grams of protein at a time. Any more than that will be used by the body as energy, which may sound like a good thing, but your body actually prefers carbohydrates and fat for energy. Processing that extra protein means your kidneys have to work harder to flush out the by-products of protein, like nitrogen. In the process, they pull out other important nutrients like calcium.
- Do some people need more protein than others? Protein needs increase during times of growth and repair. So if you’re an athlete who works out two hours daily, you’ll require more protein than someone who is sedentary. Similarly, if you’re pregnant, nursing or navigating puberty, your needs will increase.
- Can I just eat all my protein at dinner? A huge hit of protein is difficult for your body to use at once. Research suggests the best approach to meeting your protein needs is to spread your intake throughout the day. So rather than eating 50 grams of protein at dinner strive to eat protein at each meal. Need 90 grams daily? Eat 30 at breakfast, 30 at lunch, and 30 at dinner.
- Where should I get my protein? Many people think they need protein powders or souped-up energy bars to meet their needs, but the best way to get protein is through whole foods. Animal products like milk, meat and eggs contain complete protein, meaning they contain all nine essential amino acids. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get protein through vegetarian sources. If you’re getting your protein this way, you just need to make sure you are eating a variety of grains, beans, nuts and seeds daily to ensure you are getting a healthy dose of all nine essential amino acids.
While protein is an important nutrient, you can get too much of a good thing. A diet high in protein from meat sources tends to be high in saturated fat, too. And saturated fat intake is correlated with everything from heart disease to diabetes.
Your best bet: Visit a registered dietitian to figure out your daily protein needs – and how to meet them. A registered dietitian can take guesswork out of the equation and consider your activity level, stage of life and other factors to come up with an appropriate number of grams to strive for daily.
Bethany Thayer, MS, RDN, is director of the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. She enjoys communicating with people about healthy living and eating and was a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for 9 years. Beth is the president of the Michigan Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which also named her as the Outstanding Dietitian of the Year in 2012.
To make an appointment with a registered dietitian at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).