By Rachel Welch
A healthy diet consists of both macro and micronutrients. One of the most important macronutrients is protein. Protein is necessary for our bodies to build muscles, provide energy, and maintain a healthy weight. It is important to consider the foods that you consume to obtain your protein. Luckily, there are several complete sources of protein that are a great place to start! But first, let's cover some of the basics.
Macronutrients are nutrients that the body needs in large amounts. In addition to being a macronutrient that we need in abundance, protein is a fundamental part of the human body. Our bodies contain over 10,000 different kinds of proteins, which build up muscles, tissues, skin, and hair. By working with amino acids, protein is what allows our bodies to make enzymes. These enzymes power many chemical reactions and processes that get oxygen to our blood. Protein is used in nearly every process that the human body has. You can find the value of protein in muscle performance, tissue regeneration, strength, energy, and so much more.
Without protein, our bodies would miss out on multiple important functions (1). That’s why it’s essential to replenish this protein with healthy and complete sources. Our bodies need protein as one of the healthiest fuels for energy production.
Lack of protein can lead to multiple health issues, such as loss of muscle mass (2). For people who maintain a routine of weightlifting, for instance, protein is a huge focus. For someone who wants to start weight training, they may increase protein to help build muscle quickly. We'll talk more about complete sources of protein later, but often athletes will use supplemental protein to meet their goals. This can be a beneficial addition to an athlete's diet, but it is important to not take in too much. The popularity of protein supplements and powders is reinforced by dietary needs and even societal trends. Protein powders and supplements come in various flavors, forms, and amounts, and are marketed worldwide to athletes and active people. In fact, as of 2020, the protein supplement market was valued at $18.9 billion (10)!
The health benefits and the trend of protein supplements have led to a hugely successful market for synthetic proteins, powders, etc. that have become a foundation of the fitness lifestyle.
What many of these protein-consuming athletes may not realize is that it is possible to have too much protein. It may come as a surprise that protein in excess amounts will be stored in the body as fat.
Most athletes who choose protein supplements do so for the purpose of increasing their muscle mass, or “bulk.” This is because when a person is active, the protein will be converted into stronger muscles. However, if the activity level does not warrant the amount of protein, the body will convert unused protein into sugar, which then becomes fat. So, too much protein and not enough activity can lead to weight gain.
Additionally, excess amounts of protein can also lead to other health issues. Kidney issues, dehydration, and heart health risks can all be side effects of over-consuming protein. Remember: do not increase your protein consumption too drastically!
The recommended and ideal amount of protein varies by each person and their unique needs. These factors include age, lifestyle, type of regular activity, and the sources of protein.
According to the National Academy of Medicine, most people should consume about 7 grams of protein per 20 pounds of body weight. This would ideally total 10-35% of your daily calories (1). However, you should also factor in individual activity level and other details when calculating the ideal amount of protein.
Various sources have differing opinions about this, so it seems there is not really "one size fits all" for how much protein a person needs. For instance, the RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) specifies protein amounts for the bare minimum of health maintenance. Their daily recommendation is a meager 0.8 grams per day. This is supposedly the amount that will prevent you from getting sick (3). Interestingly, this data is often misused to suggest an overall daily amount and not just the bare minimum. Obviously, if you are active, seeking athletic goals, or using a low-carb diet, this amount will not be sufficient.
When evaluating your overall dietary and protein needs, make sure you take your personal lifestyle, health factors, and goals into consideration and always check your sources prior to making any big changes!
Other reputable sources suggest that the amount of protein for each person per day should be based on nutritional needs for each individual and their personal factors. These would be factors like their age or their activity level. For instance, a sedentary individual would not need as much protein as an athlete. It is always a good idea to do some research with your own personal factors in mind before adjusting your daily intake of protein. Once you figure out how much protein you need, you must figure out what you should consume to get the proper portions of the helpful macronutrient.
From meats and cheeses to nuts and vegetables, there are many different forms of protein to choose from. There are also various factors to consider when selecting your complete sources of protein. The protein "packages," certain dietary restrictions, lifestyle goals, and environmental considerations can all impact your selection of protein sources. So, let's explore some of these complete sources of protein.
The term "protein package" refers to the overall nutritious value that a source of protein provides. This is an important factor to consider when calculating your total daily protein, as some packages are more nutritious and balanced than others!
An example of a protein package would be to look at the full nutritional value of a chicken breast compared to a bowl of lentils. One cup of chicken contains about 26 grams of protein. The same number of lentils contains approximately 18 grams of protein. Generally, it is easier to get higher amounts of protein from meats, but as you can see, lentils are not far behind for being a vegetarian and vegan alternative.
Something else to consider is the rest of the nutritional value of chicken versus lentils. For instance, a cup of chicken, in addition to being rich in protein, also brings 123 mg of cholesterol, 115 mg of sodium, and 19 grams of fat. A cup of lentils, in contrast, offers more nutritious values overall. Also, with 19 grams of fat, lentils provide 0 milligrams of cholesterol and only 4 milligrams of sodium. Lentils also pack a healthy dose of 16 grams of dietary fiber which is hugely beneficial (4)!
So, when choosing a complete source of protein, make sure you consider the overall protein package and make sure it will meet your needs on various nutritious levels. Remember that just because a food has a higher protein content, it may not be healthier overall.
Proteins are often characterized into categories like animal versus plant-based proteins. Meats are a basic source of animal protein, along with dairy. Plant-based protein sources include nuts/legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Here are some great examples of complete sources of protein within these categories.
For many people, meat and/or certain grains may not be in line with their dietary restrictions or personal choices. Some dietary restrictions that can limit protein sources like grains include gluten intolerance or celiac disease. Lactose intolerance may also eliminate dairy products as an option. Additionally, individuals with a nut allergy would not be able to eat most nuts or legumes.
In addition to dietary limitations, certain voluntary lifestyle choices can limit protein sources. Some people choose to be vegetarian, which would eliminate animal protein sources like meat or fish. Often, is a chosen lifestyle to eliminate foods that require the death of animals. This leaves vegetarians with the option of dairy. Alternatively, vegan individuals do not consume animal meats or any dairy products that had an animal-based source of any kind. This eliminates all foods related to animal products, which includes gelatin, eggs, butter, and even honey (6).
Luckily, there are also complete protein sources for people who fit these categories, and many of them still pack a hefty dose of nutrition.
Many of these vegetarian and vegan protein sources pack health benefits of fiber and valuable nutrients.
One final and important item to consider when selecting your complete sources of protein is the environmental impact that certain foods may cause. Food production contributes to a large quantity (about one quarter) of greenhouse emissions. Research suggests that if a person chooses to eliminate animal protein sources from their diet, it can reduce their carbon footprint by nearly half (8).
Also, not everyone is able or willing to give up animal protein sources, and that's okay! As we discussed earlier, it is often easier to reach your daily protein intake through complete sources of protein like animal meats. In this case, you can meet your protein goals and still have a sustainable diet. Research suggests that even cutting your animal protein consumption in half can be helpful. Switching out some animal proteins for some of those tasty vegetarian and vegan options can make a meaningful environmental impact (9).
So, with all of these complete sources of protein facts, what will you choose to eat?
You now have an abundance of information to carry with you into your protein-filled days! With various protein sources that can cater to different dietary needs, we hope you find the perfect amount—and the perfect type—of protein to suit your daily needs.