What is Protein and How Much Do We Need?

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What is Protein and How Much Do We Need?

Protein is a vital macronutrient your body needs to function properly. It also helps you develop strong bones and muscles and curb your appetite!

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More reasons to eat nut butter, hummus, and tofu? Sweet! When it comes to keeping the body healthy and the metabolism high—allowing your body to burn more calories throughout the day—protein is the number one hack to get you in tip-top shape #goals

So, what IS protein, exactly?


In short: a vital macronutrient your body needs to function and maintain metabolic processes. These building blocks help you develop strong bones and muscles, says Ben Canary, sports nutritionist, and owner of HercuLean Meal Prep, over an interview.

“Proteins are broken down into amino acids and used by the body for everything from creating enzymes, immunoprotection, transporter molecules, and structural elements, such as skeletal muscle,” he says.

So, they help in keeping your bones, nails, teeth, and skin strong, lean, and firm. This helps lower your risk of diseases, such as heart disease or osteoporosis, he adds.

What’s more, it’ll lean you out, too. One of the many main benefits of eating a high protein is the ability to lose body fat without a decrease in muscle mass, he adds.

“Without enough protein, you can be losing equal amounts of fat and muscle. Since muscle mass is one of the biggest factors in your resting metabolic rate (how many calories you burn each day), it's important not to lose muscle while you are losing fat,” he explains.

And, eating protein will help you burn more calories outside the gym, too. (Though, if you’re working out, be sure to get that protein in fast, like in a protein-packed post-workout shake.)

“Protein takes a while for the body to digest, even more so than fats or carbohydrates, which burns more calories, as a process,” says registered nurse from NYC, Rebecca Lee, over an interview.

The stats don’t lie. “In one study participants ate high protein or high carbohydrate meals. Their energy expenditure was measured two and a half hours later. Researchers found that subjects were burning twice as many calories following a protein meal as they did following a carbohydrate meal,” she says.

And, what’s more, beyond these calorie-torching and metabolic effects, protein also keeps you full longer, so you’ll be less likely to snack aimlessly during the day, Canary adds. (You know, when those office donuts look oh-so-tempting.)

Get this: a study published in Obesity examined the effects of protein on appetite and satiety during weight loss. Overweight men were put on a 12-week low-calorie diet and randomized into two groups. One group was given a diet consisting of 25% protein and the other was given a diet with 14% protein. The men completed questionnaires every waking hour on selected days. Compared to the lower protein group, the high-protein group felt fuller throughout the day, had less desire to eat at night, and were less preoccupied with thoughts of food!

How To Get Them

No meat? No problem. You can combine a few plant sources to make a complete protein, where all 9 amino acids are taken care of. While animal proteins are complete, plant proteins are typically not, so eating a few in a sitting is key, Canary explains.

“Plant sources of protein are a little trickier because of the amino acids they contain, which are often incomplete pieces of the puzzle necessary to synthesize muscle. For this reason, people often combine plant proteins to form a complete amino acid profile (think rice and beans), and there are some complete plant sources of protein, such as quinoa,” he says.

what is protein

And, a few more recommendations from Canary: Nuts are great in small quantities. Tofu and tempeh are high in protein, and for vegans, seitan represents the best high protein, low-fat option. (Although it does contain gluten, so be warned if you are intolerant or have Celiac disease, he says.)

Plus, Lee’s favorite plant protein is avocado—which is also high in healthy fats, like oleic acids, to improve skin health, reduce inflammation (and protect the heart), and keep the metabolism revved all day.

How Much To Eat?

For the best results, it’s important to consume protein with each meal, he says, and at a few different times throughout the day. The body can only absorb so much in one sitting, and it needs that constant fuel to stay full and energized (and burn those calories!), Canary explains.

“The recommended Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or 0.36 grams per pound. This equates roughly around: 56 grams per day for an average male and 46 grams per day for an average female,” says Lee.

“And, distribute them by eating small, balanced meals throughout the day, spaced roughly 3 hours apart”, he recommends. So, you might have 20-30 grams with each meal and perhaps at least 7g of protein for each snack. Also, to be sure you’re getting enough protein on-the-go, you can always try Ora Organic’s clean and lean protein powder, in chocolate, vanilla, and vanilla chai flavors.

If you took the same food and made it into just one or two large meals in a day you would get the same amount of calories, but the large meal would likely trigger a spike in your blood sugar, he explains.

And, what happens then? “Your body would release insulin, and the carbohydrates from the meal would have a greater tendency to be stored as body fat,” he says. Plus, when spaced out, studies show it can actually improve blood sugar levels, as well as decrease risk of heart disease and diabetes.

So, the benefits to eating protein and pretty clear. Interested in a few ways to enjoy them in your favorite dishes and smoothie recipes? We have some great tips.

Want to add your protein to your diet?

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