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How Important is Protein?

How Important is Protein?

Calories, calories, calories. This is a concept we all know far too well, especially when trying to lose weight.

Our cultural obsession with cutting and counting calories makes it seem controlling caloric intake is a necessary evil to maintain a healthy body. This isn’t the case.

Calories are simply a measure of energy. They represent the energy our bodies need to grow, function, and work optimally. It’s easy to get fixated on calories alone when you’re trying to lose weight, but it’s important to remember that the type of calorie you’re eating is just as important as the number of calories you’re eating.

Why Protein is Important

So why are calories from protein so important? First, a short review of basic nutrition. We get caloric energy from our food. All food contains three macronutrients:

  • pink!Protein – 4 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrates – 4 calories per gram
  • Fats – 9 calories per gram

These are the only substances that provide calories besides alcohol. Alcohol is its own category and contains 7 calories per gram.

The body absorbs and uses these macronutrients and the caloric energy they provide in different ways. Protein is especially important for growth, tissue repair, and immune function. Our skin, hair, nails, bones and muscle are made from protein.

Protein is also critical in providing us with a feeling of satiety at the end of a meal, so our body can tell us when we’re full and when to stop eating. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that when people ate high-quality protein foods (like eggs or lean meat) for breakfast, they had a greater sense of sustained fullness throughout the day than those who had not.

Not All Protein Is Created Equal

Research suggests that diets high in complete protein (25% of daily calories) produce more weight loss than when complete protein is lower (12% of daily calories).

So what is a complete protein? Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. 20 amino acids are required for growth. Of these 20 amino acids, the human body can make 11. These are known as non-essential amino acids. The other 9 amino acids are essential amino acids. These cannot be made from the body and must be supplied from food.

Foods that have a combination of essential and nonessential amino acids are called complete proteins. If an essential amino acid is missing, the body breaks down its own proteins to obtain it from places like our muscles.

Complete proteins can be found in foods such as meat, eggs, and milk. The protein in vegetables, beans, and grains is not complete because it lacks one or more of the essential amino acids. However, combining one or more of these incomplete protein foods together can sometimes provide all the amino acids required for health, such as combining beans and rice.

How Much Protein?

The question of how much protein is ideal for weight management is an ongoing debate in the fitness and healthcare worlds. The general recommendation is 10 to 35 percent of your total daily calories. Since protein has 4 calories per gram, if you’re taking in around 2,000 calories a day, that would be between 200 to 700 calories per day, or 50 to 175 grams of protein. This is a wide window, and your personal needs will vary depending on your fitness or health goals.

Getting Protein On-the-Go

In our on-the-go lifestyle, many of us rely on bars, smoothies, and healthy snacks to get us through the day. Consider adding a scoop of protein powder to your morning smoothie or choose a nutrition bar such as thinkThin that contains 15-20 grams of protein, no sugar, and is Gluten Free.

See for Yourself

The numbers aren’t your enemies, they’re just an outward representation of the energy we need to live happy, healthy, and energetic lives. In fact, you can use the numbers as a tool to better understand protein’s effect on your body. Try keeping a food journal and tracking your protein intake for a week, noting feelings of satiety before and after a meal. Do meals when you eat more protein leave you feeling more full? Let us know your results!

Monique Minahan is a writer, yogi, and lover of life. She’s inspired by nature’s simplicity and the healing power of love. She finds true liberation in living life fully from the inside out. Her intention is to offer her heart to the world through words that motivate, inspire, and encourage. Connect with her at mindfulmo.com.

photo credit: Nikki L., Matthias Rhomberg

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60 comments

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9:24AM PDT on Apr 10, 2013

And don't forget that some of the best sources of protein are meat and fish!

9:19AM PDT on Apr 10, 2013

It's refreshing to read a nutrition article on here that is accurate and down-to-earth. There is not a single error in what has been written, although I would have gone into more detail on what protein is used for.

As mentioned, there are 3 macronutrients and these should be included in everyone's diet. Faddy diets, such as Atkins, might work in the short term but in the long term they do not support weight loss any more than just being careful and eating foods from every food group. Also some of the faddy diets are dangerous as they forbid the consumption of essential items.

The one thing that really annoys me is the way people like Gwyneth Paltrow going on about "no carbs" then talking about how you should eat lots of vegetables and legumes. Both of these are full of carbs. It's a perfect example of how a little knowledge is dangerous. I think what she means to say is stick to complex carbs, that is oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. For example, the starch amylose is a polysaccharide, and it is a very effective prebiotic and high-amylose varieties of rice have a much lower glycemic load (GI),making it an important food for those needing to regulate their blood sugar levels. *climbs off soap box*

We need to have a balanced diet, and that involves eating the correct amounts of protein, carbs and fats, but we have to eat healthy versions of each, and also inject variety into our diet so that we get all of the micronutrients we need too.

3:34AM PST on Mar 3, 2013

Fat isn't mentioned in the article because it's about PROTEIN. Did you not read the title?

3:30AM PST on Mar 3, 2013

I don' t think about calories at all lol

10:29PM PST on Feb 8, 2013

Good info, thank you.

4:14AM PST on Feb 7, 2013

I noticed nowhere in the article, or the comments is there a mention of fats. Contrary to the popular opinion of the day, fats are not "evil". If we replaced all calories from refined sugar (especially anything made from corn) in our diet with calories from "good" fats, (butter, coconut oil, avacados, and raw olive oil) we would need less of them (as fats have more calories/gram) to feel full and would still have lots of energy for the day. It is actually more important (and more difficult) to get enough good quality fats in our daily diet than good quality protein. Just remember to avoid vegetable oil shortening and margarine like the poison they are.

1:23AM PST on Feb 7, 2013

Thanks for info

1:06AM PST on Feb 7, 2013

Thanks for the article. Is good to know how to be healthy.

11:15PM PST on Feb 6, 2013

I always check out this website before buying any protein products - www.pro-proteinshake.com - My personal favourite is the Labrada Lean Body Hi-Protein shake because of the high protein:carb ratio.

10:30PM PST on Feb 6, 2013

I've heard that Americans get more than enough protein in their diets already. Maybe so, but that seems somewhat counterintuitive considering the American diet in general.

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