The Importance of Protein in Your Diet and Lifestyle

The importance of protein is not to be underrated. So many of today’s popular and recommended diets list protein as one of the most essential nutrients, often making it the focus of the plan. And for good reason.

Regardless of what diet or eating plan you are following — ketogenic, low-carb, Mediterranean, Whole 30 or something else — protein is necessary. What is the big deal about protein and why is it important to prioritize in your diet?

Protein is Important for Many Reasons

Any eating plan you follow should incorporate these macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein and fat. Each plays an essential role in your nutrition.

Protein, specifically, has many functions:

  • Helps maintain muscle mass and is a component of all cells
  • Provides the body with energy (each gram of protein has 4 calories of energy)
  • Helps with satiety by keeping you full for longer periods of time (protein takes longer for the body to break down)

What Foods Contain Protein?

  • Lean meats such as chicken, turkey, beef and fish (a 3-ounce serving, about the size of your palm, contains 21 grams)
  • Eggs: 7 grams of protein each
  • Milk and yogurt: 8-10 grams per cup
  • Cheese: 7 grams per ounce
  • Nuts and seeds: 3-7 grams per ounce
  • Legumes: 15-20 grams per cup
  • Protein supplements: Generally 20-40 grams per serving

Other Protein Considerations

Consider these other factors when choosing sources of protein.

  • Pay attention to fat. Meat and dairy can be great protein sources, but they can also be high in fat. When choosing a protein source, choose low-fat dairy and lean and grilled meats to ensure optimal heart health.
  • Calories count! Some plans focus only on counting protein. It’s important to look at the whole picture. For example, foods high in protein and fat can have a lot of calories, such as meat, protein bars and peanut butter.
  • All nutrients are important. Make sure you get a mix of protein, fat and carbohydrates.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

For the general population, the Dietary Reference Intake is .36 grams per pound of body weight, or .8 grams per kilogram. This comes to an average of 46 grams per day for women and 56 grams per day for men. However, many factors can affect your protein needs. If you don’t know how much you should be getting, talk to a healthcare professional.

  • Some weight-loss plans or bariatric surgery patients have higher protein needs, typically around 60-80 grams.
  • Healing after surgery or increasing your physical activity can increase your needs.
  • Some health conditions may require a limited protein intake, such as kidney disease.
  • Needs increase with strength training, but not as much as you would think. (.5 – .8 per pound of body weight)

What About Supplements?

Although most people don’t come up short on their protein needs, there are a variety of supplements available that you can add to your diet if necessary. For the general population, a protein shake or bar can substitute a meal when you are running late. If you miss lunch, you might eat a well-balanced afternoon snack or pack some healthy foods on-the-go.

Some people with health conditions may rely on a supplement to meet their needs. When choosing a protein supplement, take a look at the calories and protein on the label, but don’t forget about fat and carbohydrates.

Powering Up Your Diet

For many, counting their protein each day can be overwhelming, but that isn’t always necessary. The importance of protein is undeniable, but instead of counting grams, start by including a protein source in each meal. For an added bonus, include it in your snacks!

Additional Reading:

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