By Dr. Hilary Booth, ND
Protein is used for more than building muscles. Protein is necessary for every single reaction and process that happens in your body. Everything from the immune system, to breaking down and utilizing the foods we eat, to detoxifying, to producing hormones relies on enzymes. These enzymes are the basic workhorses of the body, and they are made of protein.
What exactly is protein?
Protein is different from fats and carbs because it contains nitrogen atoms. All proteins are made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are 20 different kinds of amino acids, 9 of which are called “essential” amino acids. Essential amino acids are especially important (well, they’re essential!) because the body can’t make them from scratch, so they need to be obtained from food.
How much protein do I need?
The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein is actually quite specific. It’s based on the number of grams of protein you should eat per day, per kilogram of body weight.
- Adults: 0.8 g/kg body weight per day
- Infants: 1.5 g/kg body weight per day
- Children: 0.85 – 1.3 g/kg body weight per day
- Younger children need more protein per kilogram of body weight than older children
- More protein is needed during periods of rapid growth and periods of increased physical activity
- Elderly: 1.2 g/kg body weight per day
- Athletes: 0.9 – 1.2 g/kg body weight per day
Take a moment to calculate your daily protein requirement. Chances are, you’re not getting enough! For example, a 160lb person requires 58g of protein per day, but the average person eats only 20-40g of protein per day.
Hints that you may be protein deficient
Since protein is so important for our bodies, protein deficiency can cause many different symptoms. If you are experiencing any of the following, you may not be consuming enough protein:
- Fatigue, poor sleep quality
- Slow recovery from injury, or you are currently recovering form injury
- Hair loss
- Blood sugar dysregulation
- Hormonal imbalance, including menstrual irregularities
- Low mood, anxiety
- Feeling hungry between meals
- Frequent infection (cold, flu, UTI, etc.), or slow recovery from infection.
What foods contain protein?
Most foods contain at least some protein. However, to reach your daily requirement you need to consume high protein foods at least two to three times per day.
An example of a day containing only 35 g of protein would be:
- Breakfast: cereal with milk, and a glass of juice
- Lunch: large salad with nuts, seeds, and goat cheese
- Dinner: spaghetti with ground beef, tomato sauce and a side salad
- Snacks: an apple and carrot sticks
An example of a day containing 65g of protein would be:
- Breakfast: smoothie with 1 scoop vegan protein powder
- Lunch: 4oz salmon on a large salad
- Dinner: 4oz chicken breast, broccoli, carrots, and brown rice
- Snacks: 1/4 cup almonds and 2 Tbsp of hummus with veggies
The best protein-containing foods offer a complete source of protein, meaning they have all the essential amino acids in ratios that are human-friendly. Most animal-based foods are complete proteins, including fish, chicken, eggs, dairy and meat. Some vegan foods also provide complete sources of protein, including quinoa, soy, hemp and chiia seeds. Great sources of incomplete proteins are beans, chickpeas, nuts, seeds and whole grains.
I recommend that you calculate daily protein requirements for yourself, and for your family. Next, you can use online programs and lists (such as myfitnesspal.com) to track your protein intake for 3 days. This gives you the information and awareness you need to make sure that you and your family are getting enough protein to stay healthy.