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What You Need To Know About Protein

Taking care of your health isn’t always easy—I get it. Keeping track of which multivitamins you should be taking, balancing your diet, and knowing what nutrients you and/or your kids are lacking is tricky, especially when there’s hundreds of messages all telling you different things about what you actually need.

Protein is one of those things—you need it, and you know it’s important, but what is it? And what do you you actually need to know about it? Let’s start with the basics.

What IS protein?

We’ve all heard the general idea, eating protein helps your body grow big and strong (that’s how I explain it to my toddlers, anyway). But what exactly IS protein? Protein is a nutrient that your body needs and it’s made of compounds called amino acids. The easiest way to think of amino acids is to imagine them as alphabet letters. There are 20 amino acids (or “letters”) that the human body uses, but when they are put together in different combinations, they can make thousands of different proteins (or “words”).

So while one combination of amino acids creates the protein we find in eggs, another combination makes the protein found in peanut butter. This is why there are different types of protein powder (which is a great option to add to shakes and recipes if you’re trying to get more protein in your diet). The most talked about types of protein powder are soy (protein from soybeans) and whey (protein from cow’s milk), with many fitness professionals recommending whey because of it’s effectiveness and affordability.

What does protein actually DO?

In short, it’s a main component for building and maintaining tissue in the body (which includes muscle). This is why eating lots of protein is important during high periods of growth or healing, like in children, pregnant women, athletes or anyone recovering from an injury.

How much protein do I need?

The general rule of thumb is 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. So for example, the recommendation for an average sized woman is about 46g of protein per day, which should roughly be about 10% of your caloric intake. That is a good jumping off point, but remember that some circumstances require a higher intake of protein to maintain muscle and tissue growth. You will need a higher than average amount of daily protein if you:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Are trying to lose weight (or maintain weight loss)
  • Are pregnant
  • Want to maintain muscle as you age

But here’s the kicker! Even more important than HOW MUCH protein you eat is WHEN you eat the protein. Your body can only absorb so much protein in a single sitting, so if you eat all 46g in one meal, your body will likely digest what it can and toss the rest of the protein out as waste. A better option for making sure you take in enough protein is to make sure you spread your protein out between all your meals and snacks, rather than one major protein meal for the day. After finishing a workout is also a key time to have a protein hit so your body can replace what you burned and continue growing muscle!

How do I know if I’m getting enough protein?

According to Registered Dietician Dawn Blatner, here are some easy to read signs that your body may need more protein:

  1. You crave sweets and feel like you’re never full
  2. You have trouble focusing or feel foggy
  3. Your hair is falling out
  4. You feel weak or unable to exercise as well as normal
  5. You get sick all the time

What should I add to my diet?

There are lots of high protein foods like chicken, turkey breast, beans, hummus, avocados, peanuts, milk, eggs and tofu. Incorporating these into your meals is a great place to start, but as we all know, snacks between meals are also important to maintaining your health. Instead of reaching for the easy to grab bag of chips or a blueberry muffin, try one of these easy protein packed snacks instead:

To sum up today’s adventure into the world of protein: yes, protein is very important and yes, you need it every day in your diet. But the great news is that it’s easy to make sure you’re getting the protein you need and lucky for us, pretty delicious, too.