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What Is Protein? (Everything You Need To Know)

Michael Garrico
Published by Michael Garrico
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: September 17, 2022

As a fitness trainer, I know just how vital protein is. But, unfortunately, many people are still in the dark about what protein is and why it’s so valuable.

I’ve partnered with a dietitian to demystify this all-important macronutrient — and help you understand why you need it.

Here’s everything you need to know about protein.

Quick Summary

  • Protein is a macronutrient your body uses for a variety of purposes.
  • Complete proteins contain all the essential amino acids you need.
  • Meet your recommended intake to avoid protein deficiency or the side effects of too much protein.
  • Consume foods rich in protein and take supplements only if needed.

What Is Protein?

fresh protein meat

Protein is a molecule that consists of amino acids and can be found in every cell in the human body.

Here are the two main roles of protein:

  • It’s the building block of body tissue. Muscle tissue, for example, is primarily made up of protein. That’s why dietitians and fitness trainers recommend high-protein diets for building muscle mass.
  • It serves as fuel. While your body mainly gets energy from carbs and fatty acids, it derives around 5% of daily energy from proteins [1].

These two roles make protein a macronutrient [2]:

“Macronutrients are the nutritive components of food that the body needs for energy and to maintain the body’s structure and systems.” - MD Anderson Wellness Dietitian Lindsey Wohlford.

That means that proteins are the nutrients your body uses the most, besides carbs and fats.

So, it’s safe to say that they’re pretty important — which is more the reason why you should be mindful of your protein intake.

Complete Vs. Incomplete Proteins

Your body needs 20 amino acids in total:

  • It can produce eleven of them, which are called non-essential.
  • The other nine are called essential amino acids and need to be supplied through food.

Proteins are an excellent source of amino acids since they’re entirely made up of amino acid chains.

Some proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, so they’re called complete or ideal proteins [3].

Here are a few examples of proteins that are considered complete:

  • Chia seeds
  • Hemp seeds
  • Soy
  • Quinoa
  • Meat (e.g., poultry, pork, beef)
  • Dairy products

Other proteins that contain only a few amino acids are called incomplete proteins. Most plant-based proteins are incomplete, such as lentils, beans, and grains.

Just so we’re clear, that doesn’t mean you should avoid incomplete proteins. It only means you should combine them with the complete ones. For example, you can combine vegetables with cheese.

Why Do You Need Protein?

man showing off his body muscles and a woman with a full stomach

There are three main reasons why you need protein [4]: 

  • Cell production and repairment. Protein helps your body create new cells and repair the old ones. That includes cells in your skin, muscle, bones, and even hair. For example, your hair will become weak if you don’t supply it with enough protein.
  • Oxygenation. A protein compound found in red blood cells carries oxygen throughout the body. That’s how different body parts get the nutrients they need.
  • Digestion. Your body uses half of the dietary protein you consume to produce enzymes. Enzymes have many different roles, from facilitating digestion to aiding in DNA replication.

As you can see, protein is essential for your health and many bodily functions.

But when most people talk about protein today, they’re discussing it in the context of building muscles.

And eating protein for weight loss can indeed also help you build and maintain muscle mass.

That’s why high-protein foods are critical for regular gym-goers: without enough protein, their hard work won’t be translated into visible results.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

An average adult should consume 0.36 grams per one pound of body weight or 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram [5].

But you might need more if you’re trying to build muscle. In that case, shoot for 2 grams of protein per kilogram or 0.9 - 1 grams of protein per pound of body weight.

To calculate your ideal daily intake, multiply your body weight with the recommended amount of protein per pound or kilogram.

Here’s an example of how a 170-pound person can do this:

170 pounds [body weight] x 1 g [recommended intake per pound] = 170 grams of protein [total daily intake].

Examples Of Protein-Rich Foods

soy beans in a sack and freshly sliced fish

Before you stock up on supplements, consider switching to a high-protein diet first.

Eating high-protein foods is the healthiest way to meet your daily protein requirements.

Here are a few examples of foods rich in protein:

  • Soy
  • Tofu
  • Eggs
  • Peanut butter
  • Fish and seafood (e.g., fish, clams, lobsters, oysters)
  • Dairy products (e.g., milk, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt)
  • White-meat poultry (e.g., chicken breast and wings, turkey breast)

Should You Take Protein Supplements?

You should take supplements only if you can’t reach an adequate protein intake solely with a high-protein diet.

That means you should first calculate your ideal intake of protein. Then, compare the results to the amount of protein you’re already getting from foods.

Chances are you aren’t getting enough protein from food to build muscle or lose weight.

As we’ve said, a 170-pound person would need 170 grams of protein if they’re building muscle. It might be hard to reach that intake solely through a high-protein diet.

Just consider that 100 grams of egg whites — the most abundant source of protein when it comes to foods — contains around 11 grams of protein [6].

So, a 170-pound person would need to consume over 1500 grams of egg whites to reach their ideal daily intake.

Of course, you won’t be getting proteins just from egg whites, but you get our point: getting enough proteins from your diet may be challenging.

In that case, you might want to use protein powders to reach your ideal intake.

You can mix them with other healthy ingredients, such as almonds, bananas, and cows’ milk, and make delicious protein shakes. We suggest you drink them right before or after your workouts.

But which protein powder should you use?

Most people opt for whey protein powder. It’s easy to digest and contains all nine essential amino acids.

But keep in mind that whey is based on dairy. If you’re lactose intolerant or sensitive to dairy, plant-based powders will be a better option for you.

Is Protein Worth The Hype?

Yes, protein is definitely worth the hype. It’s one of the most crucial nutrients your body needs to function and stay healthy.

And it’s even more worth the hype if you’re trying to build muscle. It’s virtually impossible to do so if you don’t consume enough protein.

Now that you know what protein is and where to get it, you have zero excuses for not meeting your body’s requirements.

We suggest you start tracking the amount of protein you’re already getting from food. If you’re not getting enough, switch to foods higher in protein or protein powders.


References:

  1. https://www.gomacro.com/does-protein-provide-energy
  2. https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/what-are-macronutrients-.h15-1593780.html
  3. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/do-i-need-to-worry-about-eating-complete-proteins/
  4. https://www.piedmont.org/living-better/why-is-protein-important-in-your-diet
  5. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-much-protein-do-you-need-every-day-201506188096
  6. https://www.nutritionix.com/food/egg-white/100-g

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