Protein basics: Benefits of protein and how much you need
You may have heard about the numerous benefits of protein, but maybe you’re not quite sure what protein is or why it’s important. Protein is a nutrient your body requires on a daily basis to work the way it’s supposed to. Your body uses protein to build, maintain and repair tissues like muscles, bones, organs and skin. Children need plenty of protein to grow and develop properly. Yes, protein is very important, but it’s not too hard to come by — and chances are you’re already getting enough.
Health benefits of protein
Protein helps prevent symptoms of protein malnutrition, such as delayed growth in children, fatigue, loss of muscle and unhealthy hair — but it also aids in healthy weight management and disease prevention. That’s why protein has become a health fad over the years. A review published in The British Journal of Nutrition found that protein helps treat obesity and that it decreases chronic disease risks by boosting metabolism and helping you feel full.
Minimum protein requirements
Your gender, activity level and weight-management goals help determine your daily protein needs. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of protein is 56 grams for men, 46 grams for nonpregnant women and 71 grams daily for pregnant and nursing women.
If you’re active or trying to lose weight, you may need even more protein. Children ages 1 to 3 need 13 grams, kids ages 4 to 8 require 19 grams and older children ages 9 to 13 need at least 34 grams of protein daily.
When to eat extra protein
If you’re very active or are overweight, boosting your protein intake is generally a good idea. A review published in the Journal of Sports Sciences reports that active adults benefit from getting 0.59 to 0.90 grams of protein for each pound of their body weight, which is 78 to 117 grams daily for a 130 pound athlete. Another review published in Current Diabetes Reports notes that higher protein intakes of 0.68 to 0.90 grams per pound of body weight may aid in weight loss — and improve blood sugar control, blood pressure and blood cholesterol in people with type 2 diabetes.
Dietary sources of protein
One fortunate thing about protein is that it’s abundant in a variety of healthy foods and supplements. Lean red meat, seafood, skinless poultry, eggs, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, low-fat milk and reduced-fat cheeses are all rich in high-quality protein that provides all of the essential amino acids your body needs daily. Plant protein foods include soy products like tofu and soy-based veggie burgers, wheat gluten (seitan), dried beans, peas, nuts, seeds and grains. Some other vegan foods that contain high-quality protein and all essential amino acids include soybeans, hemp seeds and, as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics notes, quinoa and amaranth.
While protein supplements, such as protein powders and bars, aren’t necessary to meet your protein needs (and are often expensive), they can come in handy when you don’t have time to cook and when you’re on the go. Protein powders are made using hemp, peanut, soy, whey, casein or egg-white proteins. Many protein shakes and bars are marketed as weight-loss products, and can help you shed pounds when you incorporate them into a low-calorie diet. However, since protein supplements are not as tightly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as food, always chat with your doctor before you start using these products.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, most Americans meet, or even exceed, their daily protein requirements. However, the best way to reap the health benefits of protein is to get your protein from a variety of healthy foods, exercise regularly and avoid greasy, fried, highly processed and sugary foods.
Protein rich foods such as meat, poultry, fish, dry beans and peas, eggs, nuts, and seeds supply many important vitamins and minerals, according to Ashlee Wright, MS, RD, CD, Registered Dietitian with Reid. These include B vitamins (niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, and B6), vitamin E, iron, magnesium, and zinc. B vitamins found in protein help the body release energy, help build tissues and form red blood cells, and have a fundamental role in the function of the nervous system. Magnesium is used in both building bones and helping to release energy from muscles. Zinc is essential for biochemical reactions in the body and helps the immune system function properly.
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