Although most famous for building lean muscle mass, protein is so much more than that! Protein is also crucial for wound healing and supporting your overall well-being. It’s also the only macronutrient with a minimum daily requirement for health - and even this amount is widely debated as too little or not enough for some.
Learn more about this super macro and why you should consider eating more of it.
What is Protein?
Protein is an essential macronutrient - in other words, a compound in food that provides calories and other nutritional benefits.
As the builder macro, protein helps grow, shape, repair, and maintain every single cell in your body - even your blood cells and DNA.
Roughly 15% of your body (including skin, hair, nails, and other tissues) is made up of proteins (1).
Proteins are also responsible for a lot of the work that goes on inside your cells since protein is also a critical component of hormones, enzymes, and other chemicals you produce to live and function normally. It even plays a role in your immune system and digesting your food.
And because protein is a macro, it provides energy in the form of calories. Although, it is not as much of a preferred source of fuel for fitness and day-to-day compared to carbs and fat - mainly because your body will prioritize protein for all of the other many essential functions it is needed for. But if you are eating plenty of protein, some of it will get used for fuel.
All proteins are made up of long chains of smaller, essential compounds called amino acids that serve as the building blocks for your body. And these amino acids are why protein is considered an essential nutrient.
What Are Amino Acids?
There are hundreds of amino acids found in nature, but only twenty make up proteins in food, and a little less than half of these are considered essential for human function - nine to be exact! Your body cannot produce these nine essential amino acids; you can only get them from eating food and each of them plays a critical role in your health.
The nine essential amino acids include:
When you eat protein, you break it down into its amino acid counterparts, which are then transported throughout your body for various uses. One of these most important uses being protein synthesis - or building new proteins (2).
Your body is in a constant state of breaking down and rebuilding - the majority of your cells are destroyed and rebuilt every couple of days, weeks, months, or years. It is the same reason why your skin sheds and hair and nails grow.
Even your bones go through remodeling. You are also constantly building all of your body's hormones, cellular DNA, and muscle. And all of these processes are protein synthesis in action, thanks to amino acids.
What Is the Minimum Amount of Protein Your Body Needs?
The minimum daily requirement for most adults is somewhere in the range of 0.8 to 1.0 grams of dietary protein per kilogram of body weight or at least 10% of your daily calories (3). However, your need can increase with age, increased exercise, and injury.
Most people eat well beyond this range, with the average American consuming about 16% of their calories from protein daily (4).
Some argue this amount of protein is still too low to reap the potential benefits of this nutrient and we should instead be striving for closer to 30% of our calories from protein or roughly 1.0 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram body weight (5,6,7). This still falls well within the range of 10% to 35% of your daily calories suggested by the US Dietary Guidelines.
Of course, eating protein amounts well beyond the recommended ranges for extended periods of time is likely not doing you any good and could cause you to miss out on other important nutrients in your diet.
The quality of your calories also matters. Protein is found in a number of foods, both nutritious and “less healthy” options. Diets loaded with high-fat animal foods (like processed red meat and cheese), might be high in protein, but they can also pack large amounts of saturated fat that may contribute to increased risk factors for heart disease.
If you are looking to increase your intake, opt for quality high-protein foods that improve your nutrition overall.
Calculate your exact daily protein needs using this simple protein calculator:
4 Ways High Protein Diets Help You Reach Your Goals
1. Building and Maintaining Muscle
Muscle is essential to creating that toned, shredded physique most of us are dieting for in the first place. Additionally, a higher lean body mass typically means a higher resting metabolic rate - meaning you can eat more calories and still maintain your weight.
2. Decreased Fat Storage
Some science suggests that protein is the least likely of all the macros to be stored as body fat when you overeat, especially if you are strength training on a regular basis (10). Of course, overall calorie control is still essential for weight management, and eating more protein alone won’t prevent fat storage.
Protein is also the most thermogenic macro - you actually burn more calories digesting protein compared to fat and carbohydrates (11). This is why eating more protein is associated with a small spike in metabolism (12,13).
However, this spike is minimal and is only one factor to consider when it comes to fat loss.
3. Reduced Appetite
Protein is the most satiating of all the macros, helping you feel more satisfied and less hungry all day. It is much easier to eat 500 calories of pasta (mostly carbs) or peanut butter (mostly fat) than lean chicken breast (mostly protein).
In one study, eating 30% of your calories from protein helped people eating almost 500 fewer calories a day - which would equal ½ a pound of weight loss each week (14).
4. Decreased Cravings
Eating meat or fish with your meals is also thought to help reduce cravings, especially sugar cravings (19,20,21). In one study, increased protein intake helped reduce cravings by as much as 60% (22).
This is even the case when restricting calories for weight loss. In another study, participants who ate a high carbohydrate and protein breakfast reported less hunger and cravings during the day (23).
Does Protein Source Matter?
If you are struggling to get enough protein and find yourself taking protein powder supplements just to try and hit your daily protein requirements, you may need to revisit your nutrition strategy. Your source of protein intake matters.
Protein can be found in a wide variety of foods and is also commonly added to processed foods as a way to make them appear "healthier". Those protein chips or protein bars may seem like a health food, but you're likely better off sticking with more whole food sources.
Heavily processed foods that happen to be high in protein or have additional protein added, can also be a source of added fats, added sugar, and heavily processed ingredients that are harmful to your overall health and diet goals.
Additionally, some naturally high protein foods like high fat red meat, cheese, fried foods, pizza, etc. may not be suitable to make up the bulk of your protein intake. You should be balancing your protein intake with your overall nutrition intake and paying attention to your macro balance and nutrient intake for best results.
Check the nutrition facts label on your food choices and read the ingredients label to see how well your choices are stacking up.
The Best High Protein Foods for Health
The best foods to support your high protein diet are whole foods that are naturally rich in protein and essential acids that your body needs, while also supporting good health.
This includes plenty of protein packed plant foods like beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. If you are choosing more meat alternative products, just be mindful of ingredients and how heavily processed these items are. Sometimes, you're better off keeping it simple.
As for animal sources, fish and seafood are an excellent choice. Along with lean meats, low fat cheese, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, and eggs.
Choose a variety of healthy foods in your diet to get more nutrition.
Is it Possible to Eat Too Much Protein?
It is definitely possible to get too much of a good thing, especially if the quality of your food choices is lacking. Eating significantly more protein than you need will likely do more harm than good and it's best to focus on a more balanced approach.
Moreover, there comes a point at which higher protein intake is no longer associated with increased benefits. In other words, eating more than recommended won't necessarily result in more benefits.
It is also important to note, that for certain individuals with medical conditions, eating high amounts of protein can actually be dangerous to your health. If you have any medical conditions, always talk with your doctor first before making any diet or lifestyle changes.
Regardless of your fitness goals, eating more protein is a notable strategy for improving your body composition and helping you stick to your diet.
In fact, if you want to simplify your nutrition approach, aim to hit your calorie and protein needs before anything else and you’d be amazed how far this takes you.
Get shredded and hit your macro goals with ease using this free meal prep toolkit for fat loss. An RD-written guide complete with a macro meal planner, food lists, and expert advice to help you dial in your nutrition for results.