Protein is one of the most important molecules found in our body. It is involved with nearly every different cellular function that we have. The most notable role protein plays is in the maintenance and repair of muscles, but there's actually much more to this nutrient. Hormones and enzymes are made up of protein which allows them to work properly. Protein is an important building block of bones, muscles, cartilage, skin, and blood.
Along with fat and carbohydrates, protein is a "macronutrient," meaning that the body needs relatively large amounts of it. Vitamins and minerals, which are needed in only small quantities, are called "micronutrients." But unlike fat and carbohydrates, the body does not store protein, and therefore has no reservoir to draw on when it needs a new supply. Protein provides energy and supports your mood and cognitive function. While it’s in many of the foods that we eat every day, for something so common it’s often a misunderstood part of our diets.
Most Americans eat the majority of their protein during lunch and dinner. Eating moderate protein throughout the day, starting at breakfast, increases the efficiency at which protein is utilized to build muscle. The body can digest only between 20 and 40 grams of protein in one sitting. If you routinely eat more than that not only will you not benefit, the unused calories can lead to weight gain. Most animal sources of protein, such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy, deliver all the amino acids your body needs, while plant-based protein sources such as grains, beans, vegetables, and nuts often lack one or more of the essential amino acids. However, that doesn’t mean you have to eat animal products to get the right amino acids. By eating a variety of plant-based sources of protein each day you can ensure your body gets all the essential amino acids it needs.
High-quality vs. low-quality protein
Distinguishing between industrially raised meat and organic, grass-fed meat is only part of separating low- and high-quality sources of protein. Two other things to consider include:
- While some processed or lunch meats, for example, can be a good source of protein, many are loaded with salt, which can cause high blood pressure and lead to other health problems.
- Processed meats have also been linked with an increased risk of cancer, likely due to the substances used in the processing of the meat.
The key to ensuring you eat sufficient high-quality protein is to include different types in your diet, rather than relying on just red or processed meat.
Good sources of high quality protein
Fish. Most seafood is high in protein and low in saturated fat. Fish such as salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, sablefish (black cod), and herring are also high in omega-3 fatty acids. Experts recommend eating seafood at least twice a week.
Poultry. Removing the skin from chicken and turkey can substantially reduce the saturated fat. In the U.S., non-organic poultry may also contain antibiotics and been raised on GMO feed grown with pesticides, so opt for organic and free-range if possible.
Dairy products. Products such as skim milk, cheese, and yogurt offer lots of healthy protein. Beware of added sugar in low-fat yogurts and flavored milk, though, and skip processed cheese that often contains non-dairy ingredients.
Beans. Beans and peas are packed full of both protein and fiber. Add them to salads, soups and stews to boost your protein intake.
Nuts and seeds. As well as being rich sources of protein, nuts and seeds are also high in fiber and “good” fats. Add to salads or keep handy for snacks.
Tofu and soy products. Non-GMO tofu and soy are excellent red meat alternatives, high in protein and low in fat. Try a “meatless Monday” weekly to mix up your diet and include these sources of protein. Plant-based protein sources are often less expensive than meat so it can be as good for your wallet as it is for your health.
How much high-quality protein do you need?
Adults should eat at least 0.8g of protein per kilogram (2.2lb) of body weight per day. That means a 180lb man should eat at least 65 grams of high-quality protein per day. A higher intake of clean protein sources may help to lower your risk for obesity, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.
- Nursing women need about 20 grams more of high-quality protein a day than they did before pregnancy to support milk production.
- Older adults should aim for 1 to 1.5 grams of protein for each kilogram of weight (think 0.5g of protein per lb. of body weight if that's easier).
- Try to divide your protein intake equally among meals.
- If you are more physically fit, and perform more intense strength bearing activities, such as lifting weights, you should aim for 1 gram of protein for every pound you weigh.
Protein supplements come in various forms including powders you mix with milk or water, pre-mixed, ready-to-drink shakes, or in bars. The most common types of protein used are whey, casein, and soy.
Whey protein is a dairy based protein sourced from milk. This is the most common type of protein used in protein powder. Whey protein is quickly absorbed by the body, so this is perfect for your after workout needs.
This protein is made from liquid milk. Casein protein is absorbed by the body less quickly, which is better for before your workout or before bed. Those who have difficulties digesting milk, will have the same problems with casein protein.
Soy protein is extracted from soy flour that is made from soybeans. They are a great source of amino acids, and an all plant based protein. Soy protein is commonly used in processed foods, yet it is the preference of most vegetarians for their protein source.
In most cases, consuming the right balance of whole foods each day will provide you with all the nutrients you need, negating the need for protein supplements. However, you may benefit from supplementing your diet if you’re:
- A teenager who is growing and exercising a lot
- An adult switching to a vegan diet—eliminating meat, chicken, fish, and even dairy and eggs from your diet
- An older adult with a small appetite who finds it difficult to eat your protein requirements in whole foods
- Starting or increasing a regular workout program, trying to add muscle, recovering from a sports injury, or find you feel weak while exercising or lifting weights
Tips for Choosing a Healthy Protein Bar
- Check the ingredient list: This is a must to determine exactly what you're eating, so don't rely on labels on the front of the packaging to make your decision. Protein bars are convenient. Use them as a snack, not a meal.
- Know your goal: In addition to checking out the ingredients, it's important to keep an eye on protein, fat, carbs, sugar, and fiber—although the ideal amount of each depends on exactly what you hope to get from your bar. If you're using it as your primary source of protein, then you definitely want a bar with at least 10 grams of protein. Choose bars with 15-30 grams of carbohydrates and less than 5-10 grams of fat. Stick with bars that are under 300 calories and the less ingredients, the better.
- Not finding exactly what you're looking for at the health food store or at your local market? Try making your own protein bars! There are a lot of healthy and simple recipes that you can find online.
- Protein type. The protein in bars typically comes from dairy or plant sources. The most common are whey; soy; eggs; milk; rice; peas; and hemp. If you have any allergies or sensitives (you're lactose intolerant, for instance), be sure to choose a bar that's based on a type of protein you can safely eat.
- Calories. If you're looking for a bar to eat between meals, stick to one that has around 220 to 250 calories. A protein bar that subs for a full meal might have 300 to 400 calories.
- Fat. Ten to 15 grams of total fat is ideal and no more than two grams of saturated fat is ideal. Steer clear of unhealthy fats like partially hydrogenated oils.
- Fiber. This element is key: Fiber is filling, so the more fiber in a bar, the more likely it is to keep your belly satisfied until your next snack or meal. Don't settle for fewer than three to five grams of fiber in a protein bar.
- Sugar. Beware protein bars that rival candy bars in terms of sugar content. Some get their sweetness from as many as 30 grams of added sugar—when the ideal is around five grams or less. Artificial sweeteners (such as erythritol, sorbitol, and maltitol) aren't a better option: They often cause bloating, gas, and more health problems down the road.
Protein before or after a workout?
If you need extra energy for a workout but do not have time to make something to eat, a protein bar can be a good alternative. Eating a protein bar 1-2 hours before exercise will mean you can work out longer and harder than on an empty stomach. You may, however, find that a higher carb bar would be the best choice so look for bars with 20 or more grams of carbs per serving for this purpose.
Once you have finished your workout, your body is crying out for energy, especially in the form of protein. Exercise causes muscle breakdown and the sooner you can provide your muscles with protein, the sooner they will start the repair process. Ingesting whey protein immediately after exercise will be quickly absorbed into the body to start the muscle repair process. If you are wondering if you need to have protein before or after your workout, after a workout is when your body will absorb it the quickest and most effectively.