Protein is a macronutrient essential to building, maintaining and repairing cells. It also boots our immune systems, and protects us from viral and bacterial infections. Protein is also an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood. It’s one of 3 macronutrients that are most important to maintaining our health and fitness; the others being fat & carbohydrates.
Proteins are made up of amino acids, which work as building blocks for our cells. There are 21 total amino acids. (As a note, you may see it referenced that there are only 20, however, one was recently discovered and many sources have not updated their information. This is a also a great place to point out that we are still discovering and learning about the human body and how it works. All of the information available to us is in a constant state of flux and can change at any time as new discoveries are made). There are 9 amino acids that the body cannot produce naturally – these are the essential amino acids and must come from food sources. The 9 essential amino acids are: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
Histidine: Promotes the production of blood cells, helps with growth and development and aids in circulation. Found in beef, parmesan, soybeans, poultry, oily fish and seeds.
Isoleucine: Aids muscle recovery after exercise. Helps produce hemoglobin for healthy blood cells. Found in soybeans, beef, pork and tuna.
Leucine: Promotes growth and healing. Found in soybeans, beef, pork and tuna.
Lysine: Helps balance hormones and promotes a healthy nervous system. Found in pork, chicken, cod and sardines.
Methionine: An anti-inflammatory that is also important for fat metabolism and muscle and cartilage maintenance. Found in tuna, salmon, hard cheeses and nuts.
Phenylalanine: Can help prevent depression, maintain memory and controls the feeling of fullness. Found in beef, shellfish, cheese, milk, nuts and soybeans.
Threonine: Builds collagen for healthy skin, nails and hair and boots the immune system. Found in turkey, eggs and soybeans.
Tryptophan: Promotes good sleep (yep, that after Thanksgiving dinner lull…) and can also help prevent migraines and depression. Found in turkey, chicken, shellfish, milk, yogurt, nuts, seeds and legumes.
Valine: For growth and development, production of blood cells and circulation. Found in beef, parmesan, soybeans, poultry, oily fish and seeds.
So where do you get these essential 9 amino acids? Some of the answers might surprise you. While we commonly think of animal protein as our main source, many other foods like legumes, nuts, seeds, grains, pseudograins and leafy greens also contain a high amount of protein. You can also get protein from eggs, milk, yogurt and cheeses, however, these are generally not full proteins since they are processed at some point (excluding eggs). We’ll discuss protein powders and supplements a little later…
It’s important to pay attention to when you eat the bulk of your protein. It’s a common misconception that we aren’t eating enough protein. Research suggests that Americans DO eat enough protein – just not at the right times during the course of the day.
Let’s figure out how much protein you should be eating every day:
Studies have shown that we don’t eat enough protein in the morning, which is setting us up for failure from the start. Aim to equal out your protein intake – 33%, 33%, 33%. Or 25-30 grams of protein per meal will assist in not losing muscle mass, very important to women as we age. So use these guidelines as a starting point to help make sure that you are eating the proper amount of protein at the right times during the day. A great way to start tracking this is to use the app MyFitnessPal and log your daily activity and food intake. It will help you start to learn how to align your eating habits with your desired outcome.
So, about those protein powders and supplements…
If you can get the proper amount of protein from the whole foods listed above, do that! If you are active, an athlete or trying to build mass, you will more than likely need to use a supplementary source of protein. Seek the help of a professional before making this decision. There are health risks that have been attributed to adding too much protein to your diet such as intestinal discomfort, indigestion, kidney disease and even weight gain.
When you should consider supplemental protein:
· When you’re starting a program. If working out is new to you and you’re trying to build muscle, you’ll require more protein than you normally would.
· When you’re amping up your workouts. If you normally work out for half an hour a few times a week, but now you’ve decide to train for a half-marathon, your body will need more protein.
· When you’re recovering from an injury. Athletes with sports injuries frequently need more protein to help them heal.
· If you’re going vegan. People who pursue a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle eliminate a number of common protein sources from their diet, including meat, chicken, and fish, and sometimes dairy and eggs as well.
Note from me: When I am training I use a protein powder containing a high level of BCAA’s to aid in recovery. I have not seen a need to supplement my diet with additional protein for any other reason.
Types of Protein Powders:
Whey Protein: The most popular. It is a complete protein and water soluble. Derived from a diary source. However, it is not a vegan product. Contains the most BCAA’s and quickly absorbs into the body and also leaves the body quickly. Whey protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis — the process by which muscles grow — more than casein, especially when consumed in tandem with your workouts.
Casein Protein: It is a complete protein and water soluble. Derived from a diary source. However, it is not a vegan product. It quickly absorbs, but lasts longer in the body than whey proteins. This has advantages and dis-advantages depending on how you are using your protein. Studies have also shown that it can inhibit sleep.
Plant-Based & Vegan Protein Powders: Proceed with caution. Make sure to pay special attention to the back of the labels and not the front marketing portion of the label. Plant-based protein powders often use fillers, artificial sweeteners and other additives to make them taste better. Soy is the only plant that offers a complete protein – the others will not provide you with complete proteins.
In closing, here are a couple of other fun facts about protein:
· 1 gram of protein = 4 calories
· Approx. 15% of your body is made of protein
· After water, protein is the most plentiful substance in the body
· Protein exists in EVERY SINGLE CELL in your body!
· The lifespan of protein is about 2 days or less
· There is a protein called Pikachurin which was named after the Pokemon, Pikachu. There is also a protein called Sonic Hedgehog, named after Sonic the Hedgehog.
Check out our fun & easy recipes for protein bars that you can make at home! No preservatives, no fillers and clean protein!! Just click on the title to see the full recipe.