In previous articles, we’ve discussed two out of the three macronutrients; carbohydrates and fats/lipids. Now, we will talk about the third, and most complex macronutrient — protein. There is a lot of information floating around about protein and, as more research is done, some of that information changes. Hopefully, this article will clear up a lot of the confusion surrounding protein and enable you to make healthier choices when developing your diet. First of all, contrary to the advice given by some quacks, yes, we do, in fact, need proteins. Now, we can continue.
What are proteins? Proteins are organic compounds (chemicals that use carbon as their base element) that contain at least one amine group (a part of the compound that contains a nitrogen atom that can, in theory still bond with other atoms). The presence of this/these amine group(s) is what distinguishes proteins from other organic compounds.
Why do I need protein? They are the basic building block of almost everything in your body. Most people only know that we need proteins to build muscle, but we also need them for hair, skin, nails and teeth. We also need them for bones, bone marrow and blood. What many people don’t realise is that they are also needed for our immune system. They are used in developing all cell membranes, including white blood cells. We use them to build antibodies for infections, so instead of overdosing on vitamin C next time you get a flu or cold, try taking in a little extra protein and getting some rest.
So, where can I get proteins? There are proteins in almost everything we eat and drink. However, the greatest sources of protein are from certain plants (such as legumes), meat and, of course, the ever popular protein supplements. Meats are, by far, the best source of protein, so one may ask whether vegetarian/vegan diets are healthy. Well, they can be. One needs to do the necessary amount of research to ensure that one gets the required amount of all amino acids (basic building blocks of proteins), especially the essential amino acids.
Do I need to use protein supplements? Whether you need supplements or not depends greatly on two things — your activity level and your diet. In theory, we should be able to get everything we need from what we eat, but if, for some reason, it is not all available (cost, availability of certain foods, laziness to do the needed research), we may need to rely on supplements to provide what we are missing (this is, literally, why they are called supplements). Many vegans end up having to take protein supplements to get their essential amino acids.
What are these essential amino acids? These are a group of nine (9) amino acids that the body cannot produce and, therefore, we must ingest them via our food. Because other animals produce these essential amino acids in large quantities, animal protein (protein derived from meat and fish) is the best way to get them. Where does this leave vegetarians and vegans? As mentioned above, it leaves them having to either do a lot of research and spend a lot of money or having to supplement to get the required amounts of these 9 amino acids.
Okay, so how much protein do I need? There is some small amount of conflict with regards to quantity. Initially, people did some calculations based on mass and determined that you need a certain amount of protein based on your weight. Then, more research was done and it was discovered that your body can only absorb a certain amount of protein at a time. However, here is a helpful table that will assist you in finding the correct amount for you:
|g protein/lbs body weight||0.36||0.5-0.7||0.6-0.8||0.7-0.9|
|g protein/kg body weight||0.8||1.2-1.4||1.4-1.7||1.5-2.0|
Hopefully, this quick guide will help you determine what your specific needs are, as it varies from person to person based on activity level, caloric requirements, body mass/weight, fitness/health goals, and even percentage of lean mass. The best bet is to consult a registered and certified nutritionist or dietitian if you have any specific health needs. Otherwise, you should be able to develop your own rough plan with the information above. Good luck 🙂