What is Protein?

What Is Protein?

Have you ever been curious about the proteins listed on the ingredients list of your favorite snack?

Ever wondered which proteins are giving you the most bang for your buck? Well, you’ve come to the right place because we are here to give you the deets on one of the most important components of organic life. Right up there with the importance of H2O hydration is the essential need for quality proteins in your diet. But what exactly are the benefits of protein? What does protein really do for us? Are protein powders healthy and useful, or are they just a fad?

Also check out our ranking on the best supplements, including protein supplements.

Introduction to Proteins 

In order to know why proteins are so important in your diet, we have to go back to the basics of what proteins are. Simply put, proteins are structures, composed of amino acids, that can perform a variety of functions. Seems pretty vague, right? Well, let’s dive a little deeper. 

Amino acids are made of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and other elements that combine in a particular structure. There are around 20 amino acids that are essential for life and must be in a specific configuration called the L-form. A few amino acids combine to make a polypeptide, and a few polypeptides fuse together to make a protein. It is sort of like amino acids are letters, and proteins are words. Then imagine all the possible combinations of words used to form complex sentences and novels. In fact, this article is a good example of a complex protein!

Proteins are also considered a macronutrient. Proteins, carbohydrates, fats, macrominerals, and water are all considered macronutrients. In other words, they are nutrients that are needed in large amounts (macro) in the human diet. 

Why would humans need such large amounts of particular nutrients in their diets? All of the macronutrients needed in your diet are used in chemical reactions that help build and fuel your body. Proteins, like carbohydrates or fats, can be used as energy. Proteins are one of the most versatile nutrients in the body that can provide structure, send signals, and provide energy to power our bodies’ complex systems. It’s pretty crazy that only a few amino acids can combined in different ways to accomplish all that.

What are the Functions of Proteins? 

The benefits of protein are numerous, but what about its functions? What roles does protein serve in your body? 

Practically everything you learn in your intro to biology or zoology class involves proteins. This is because proteins are primarily what you see and feel in everyday life and functions. Not only that, but much of what you go to see your doctor about, including colds, flu, and diseases, involve proteins. Proteins are the workers of the human body which keep you both strong and healthy. 

Let’s start with one of the smallest fundamental units of the body: the cell. While your DNA is composed of sugar, the machinery that builds, repairs, and replaces damaged DNA is made of protein. Most of us have heard about DNA and have at least a basic understanding that DNA is the blueprint for the human body, but the best blueprints are designed by “architects” and built by “construction workers,” also known as proteins. What about cells without DNA? 

This is where some of you out there are flexing your biology knowledge, and others are sitting there genuinely exasperated. Cells without DNA are the cells that carry the oxygen you breathe to the rest of your body. We are talking about red blood cells, which are composed of four hemoglobin molecules responsible for the binding of oxygen. 

What do thyroid-stimulating hormones, insulin, prolactin, oxytocin, glucagon, and growth hormones all have in common? They are all hormones and, obviously, proteins (we bet you saw that one coming). Hormones are chemical messengers that are secreted by glands directly into the blood to tell other body structures what to do and when to do it. So, in a nutshell, proteins are kind of a big deal. 

Proteins are also responsible for the way you feel, your sense of hunger, even your motivation to do various tasks. How? Because amino acids are the base of the neurotransmitters in our brain, these are the chemicals your body uses to send messages between neurons, which then influence how we feel, think, and act.

Skin, nails, bones, and other parts of our bodies are all primarily composed of proteins. Collagen is the most abundant protein in the human body. You can think of this protein as the scaffolding of the body since it is a primary component of your skin, nails, bones, tendons, and ligaments.

The last, and certainly most obvious, protein is what our muscles are made from. Our body creates muscles from amino acids. This is why many bodybuilders and gym junkies pound protein shakes during their weight training program. 

Besides building big, strong muscles, protein also helps to repair cuts, wounds, and tissue damage that happens from injury or just the regular wear and tear of living life as a human.

As you can see, protein is responsible for helping to create us at the tiniest, microscopic level, as well as the macro-level, including building our big biceps, ligaments, and bones.

Now that we understand why protein is so important, let’s talk about where we get our protein from. Spoiler: it’s through our diet. 

Understanding Protein Sources

Here’s a quick pop-quiz: all protein is created equal, right? Wrong. 

You can only get protein from animals, right? Wrong again.

While animals (chickens, pigs, and cows) as well as animal products (cheese, milk, and eggs) provide a high amounts of protein, plant sources such as legumes, nuts, seeds, and soy also contain protein.

But things are not as simple as they seem. There are some factors regarding both animal and plant proteins that everyone should understand and there’s pros and cons to both, which should be considered. Let us demystify everything there is to know about the different protein sources.

Complete vs. Incomplete Proteins

Fortunately, the difference between complete and incomplete proteins is pretty simple.

The term “complete protein” means the protein contains all nine essential amino acids. On the other hand, “incomplete proteins” are missing one or more of the essential amino acids. As we mentioned earlier, amino acids are the building blocks of all the proteins, enzymes, and protein-based hormones in our bodies, and essential amino acids are the ones our bodies cannot create from other amino acids. 

Complete proteins are found in animal-based foods — chicken, turkey, beef, eggs, even ostrich! Incomplete proteins are found in non-animal foods — plants, seeds, nuts, and legumes. 

Simply put, if you eat meat and animal-derived proteins, you will get all nine essential amino acids. If you are a vegetarian, we still have good news! Though you may not be able to get all nine essential amino acids from a single plant-based protein source, you can eat “complementary proteins” by mixing different plant protein sources (like rice and beans). What one plant protein source lacks, another makes up for.

Whether you are a vegetarian, vegan, omnivore, or carnivore, there is much to know about different protein sources. Let’s dive into these various protein sources and discuss the pros and cons of each, illustrating how you can best reap the benefits of protein. 

Different Protein Sources

Animal Protein

When most of us think about protein, we think about a big juicy steak. This is an excellent example of an animal protein. Animal protein includes red meats (beef, pork, lamb, veal, and goat), poultry (chicken, turkey, duck, geese, and game birds), and seafood (fish and shellfish). 

Pros of Animal Protein:

  • High protein source (meaning most of its calories are from protein)
  • It provides “complete proteins” 
  • Excellent source of vitamins such as zinc and heme-iron 

Cons of Animal Protein:

  • Some animal protein such as red meat can contain a high amount of saturated fat
  • Diets with high amounts of meat may contribute to diseases such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes

Given the pros and cons of animal protein on your health, the USDA recommends limiting your intake of meat (including processed meat) to 26oz. per week or less.

Seafood Protein

Seafood, on the other hand, is a bit different than animal protein sources. Like red meat and poultry, it too is a high protein source. However, instead of saturated fat, it also contains essential fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are beneficial for health.

Research supports that the intake of EPA and DHA can help reduce the risk of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and more. The one downside is that some larger fish, such as tuna, can contain high levels of methylmercury, which is harmful to the nervous system, especially in developing fetuses. That means pregnant women should use caution before cracking open that can of tuna.

Since seafood has so many great health benefits, the USDA recommends including 8oz. per week. As a good rule of thumb, try to choose the lowest mercury-containing choices.

Pros of Seafood Protein:

  • High protein source (meaning most of its calories are from protein)
  • It provides “complete proteins”
  • Essential fatty acids, such as EPA and DHA

Cons of Seafood Protein:

  • Possible methylmercury 

Plant Protein

For all you vegetarians out there, you already know this: you don’t have to get your protein from meat and fish. You can get plenty of protein from plant sources as well. Some of the most common plant proteins are soy and hemp. For non-exclusive plant protein eaters, the USDA recommends consuming 5oz. per week of nuts, seeds, and legumes (or 14oz. per week for vegetarians).

Pros of Plant Protein:

  • Low saturated fat
  • Some plants are high in vitamins, antioxidants, and other nutrients 

Cons of Plant Protein:

  • Only a few plants such as soy are considered “complete protein” sources

Soy Protein

Soy, which is a legume, comes in many shapes, sizes, and forms. From edamame beans to soy milk and tofu, soy can really take on many textures and flavors, which is why it’s often a favorite among vegans and vegetarians.

Pros of Soy Protein:

  • A good source of fiber, copper, manganese, and iron
  • Low in saturated fats and high in polyunsaturated fats

Cons of Soy Protein:

  • Incomplete protein source

Hemp Protein

The industrial hemp plant is used to create edible hemp products such as hemp hearts and hemp protein (and yes, our beloved CBD). However, edible hemp protein does not contain cannabinoids, which stimulate the cannabinoid receptors as CBD oil would. But hemp is a plant-based protein source which has a handful of benefits.

Pros of Hemp Protein:

  • Contains polyunsaturated fats and essential fatty acids EPA and DHA
  • High in fiber 

Cons of Hemp Protein:

  • Incomplete protein 

Whey Protein

Whey protein is one of the two main proteins found in milk, the other being casein, which is found in cheese. It is a standard protein powder mix that people use when they work out or are looking for a meal replacement.

Pros of Whey Protein:

  • A complete protein source 
  • Excellent source of cysteine, a precursor to the body’s master antioxidant glutathione 
  • Suitable for vegetarians (not vegans)
  • May help speed recovery time after exercise 
  • Water-soluble and easily mixes into apple sauce, smoothies, and more

Cons of Whey Protein:

  • Allergies possible

Many of the plant-based proteins are available in powdered forms. You don’t have to rely on whole foods to get enough protein in your diet. Now, let’s take a look at some ways protein powders can be integrated into your diet.

Top Sources of Protein Beyond Whole Foods

Most of you have probably heard of a protein shake. Maybe you are a gym junkie and already incorporate protein shakes into your workout regime. The bottom line is that protein powders can be a great way to get the benefits of protein in your diet without the saturated fat content of some meat products.

The most common protein powders are whey, soy, peas, rice, hemp, and bone broth. Whey protein easily mixes into water, which makes it versatile and easy to use. It is also a complete protein, which is also a bonus. If you are vegan, however, you will want to take a pass on whey as it originates from cow milk.

Protein shakes can be included as a breakfast or meal replacement as well as a pre or post-workout supplement to help feed those pumped-up muscles. They are an excellent choice for people who are looking to bulk up at the gym, or for vegans and vegetarians who may not be eating enough protein. Keep in mind, it is fairly effortless to go overboard with protein shakes. They go down easy and provide a lot of protein — sometimes 50-80g per serving!

When purchasing a protein powder, look out for excess sugar, artificial colors, or unnatural ingredients as these are not health-promoting. Look for a powder that is suitable for your lifestyle choices (vegan, vegetarian, etc.). Keep in mind why animal and seafood protein is a complete protein source, unlike the plant-based options. Bone broth is another protein powder that supplies complete proteins. If you are sensitive to MSG, buyer beware, bone broth is loaded with natural MSG.

How Much Protein Should You Eat?

Many people wonder how much protein they really need to eat. The answer to this is relatively simple (despite all the confusing nutritional advice you might read on the internet). For most individuals, a diet that supplies 10-35% of calories from protein is considered ideal. However, this is assuming you are eating the right amount of calories and are maintaining a healthy weight (not gaining or losing weight beyond what is normal). 

In the United States, our diets are notoriously packed with calories and typically deficient of nutrients, so a percentage of your calories may not be ideal when it comes to protein consumption. If you’re not keeping track of where your calories are coming from, you won’t be able to retain all the benefits of protein. 

What the RDA Says About Protein 

Another guide for protein intake is using the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA). For protein, the RDA is 0.8g per kg. In other words, for every kilogram of bodyweight you have, you need 0.8g of protein. For those under the age of nine, since they are rapidly growing, they will require more protein than adults — around 1-1.5g per kg. Keep in mind, the RDA is not designed to outline the optimal amount of macro or micronutrients; it represents only how much of a vitamin, mineral, or macronutrient you need to avoid illness. 

Plus, if you are well above or below your ideal body weight, you may not want to use your current weight as a guide.

What the USDA Says About Protein 

Perhaps the best way to calculate how much protein you actually need is by looking at your sex, body weight, and physical activity. These all make a difference in your protein requirements and help optimize the benefits of protein. 

For example, individuals with higher muscle mass, or those who are highly physically active, typically require more protein than people with low amounts of muscle mass and those who are less physically active. As you can see, individualizing recommendations is key. The USDA has a calculator that estimates daily protein needs based on age, sex, activity level, and other factors.

In general, the USDA recommends consuming between 5.5oz. of protein foods each day for people over the age of nine. It also recommends getting your protein from a variety of sources, including several servings of nuts, beans, legumes, eggs, and seafood throughout the week (not just burgers, ribs, and steaks). 

So, long story short, how much protein you need depends on factors such as your sex, physical activity level, and age. However, around 5.5oz of protein sources per day is an excellent barometer to go by. Keep in mind, sometimes changes in your health can affect your protein needs. For example, being pregnant or recovering from an illness can increase your demand for protein. In these cases, it is best to work with a qualified nutritionist to assess what dietary changes you should make. 

High Protein Diets: All There is to Know 

If you are like most Americans, you have heard about, read about, or know someone that has been on some crazy fad diet. Cabbage soup diet, master cleanse, carnivore diet — we have heard them all. But obviously, the foods you eat do have an impact on your weight. High protein diets are a way for some people choose to go about shedding extra pounds and trimming down love handles. But can high protein diets help with weight loss? If so, how does it work? Are they safe?

High Protein Diets and Weight Loss

If you want to lose weight, it’s simple — the number of calories you eat must be less than the calories you burn, right? Wrong. This is a very old, simplistic, out-dated way of thinking. Your calorie intake fluctuates day to day, and so does your physical activity, but most people aren’t gaining and losing weight on a day-to-day basis. For the most part, our weight remains stable, and that’s because there’s a lot more to the story.

When we talk about weight loss, most people mean fat loss (not muscle loss). The way our bodies burn and store fat are complex. There are several factors to consider: blood sugar and insulin, hunger and satiety, as well as metabolic rate. 

Before going any further, here are a few foundational facts: fat has nine calories per gram, and both protein and carbohydrates have four calories per gram. Be sure to keep that in mind as we go along in the following sections. 

Blood Sugar and Insulin

When you eat a meal containing sugar, refined grains, or simple carbohydrates (think rice, cereal, cookies, muffins, juice, corn, etc.), your blood sugar goes up. The larger the amount of carbohydrates or sugars you consume, the more your blood sugar rises. Next, the body responds by releasing a hormone called insulin. Insulin tells the cells to take in sugar, so the blood sugar decreases to a healthy level. 

Once inside the cell, the sugar is burned for energy, or it is stored as (you guessed it) fat! Also, insulin puts the body in storage mode and prevents fat burning. As you can see, eating a lot of sugary foods or high carbohydrate foods can put a halt to fat loss. If this continues over time, the body can become resistant to insulin, meaning the cells need more and more insulin to bring sugar into the cells. This is how Type 2 diabetes develops. 

One of the most important aspects of weight loss is maintaining a balanced blood sugar level. Protein (for the most part) does not cause a spike in insulin, like what would be caused by eating refined grains, sugars, and simple carbohydrates. Protein does stimulate insulin, but it also stimulates glucagon, which does the opposite action of insulin. Glucagon allows the body to burn sugar. Because it stimulates both of these hormones, it does not prevent fat burning like carbs do.

Therefore, by eating a diet that is higher in protein and lower in easy-to-digest carbohydrates (yes, donuts are on that list), it can potentially help you burn stored fat and lose weight. This is just one of the many benefits of protein–weight loss. 

The Keto Diet

You may be thinking about the Keto Diet by now. This is not a high protein diet; this is a high-fat diet. The reason being, unlike protein, which triggers insulin (and glucagon), fat does not trigger insulin at all. Remember the science about insulin we just dropped in your lap? Eating a diet very high in fat (70% of calories), moderate in protein (20%), and extremely low in carbohydrates (10%) can be helpful for those who are insulin resistant. Because sugar intake is so low, the body switches to fat-burning for energy instead. This is known as ketosis.

The Keto Diet was originally developed for people with epilepsy. Today, it has been shown to be effective for people with high blood lipids (fats), Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease. If you are interested in a Keto Diet, it is best to speak with a qualified nutritionist who can walk you through how to eat properly on this diet. There is potential for side effects like flu-like symptoms, bad breath, and a change in bowel habits. 

Hunger and Satiety

We know we are hungry when a hormone called leptin is released, and the hormone ghrelin tells us we are full. We might be oversimplifying here, as factors like mood, food enjoyment, and even food addiction comes into play. But hey, we want you to understand the basics!

Eating a high protein meal (18-30% of calories from protein) helps a person to feel more satiated. What does this mean? That a person is less likely to feel unsatisfied after eating and want to eat more, reach for snacks, or graze following the meal if they’ve consumed a plate of high-quality, complete protein.

Also, the amino acids in proteins are the building blocks for the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin (chemicals our brain uses to communicate) and these neurotransmitters influence appetite. Therefore, eating protein can help with the mental feeling of being full and satisfied.

Metabolic Rate

A question you might have is, “Does eating protein increase my metabolism?” The short answer is yes. 

When we eat protein, the body uses up quite a bit of energy to break down and process it. In other words, you are burning energy to metabolize the food you just ate. Also, studies show that eating a high protein diet increases metabolic rate overall — even when you are sleeping!

One thing is for sure: the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism is. Therefore, if you are beginning a weight training program to assist in weight loss, having enough protein on board can help build and maintain your muscle gains, which further supports your endeavor to become a fat-burning machine!

What you have probably noticed is that a high protein diet helps with weight loss in several ways, from balancing blood sugar levels to helping with satiety and increasing metabolism. So there is good evidence that high protein diets are useful for shedding those extra pounds.

Side Effects of High Protein Diets

It’s true — you can have too much of a good thing. Protein is no exception. Your body is designed to process only so much protein, and overconsumption of protein for an extended period can potentially cause adverse effects. But, the truth is, we don’t know what the long term effects are of a high protein diet (18-30% of total calories).

One of the most common concerns in a high-protein diet is kidney damage because our kidneys process protein breakdown products. While research has found is that protein intake less than 2.8g/kg does not result in kidney damage, we don’t have evidence to suggest for certain that high protein diets damage the kidneys of healthy people (if you already have kidney issues or are a diabetic, this is a different story). 

Another common concern in high protein diets is calcium loss and diminished bone mass. Protein breakdown products are acidic and our bodies are susceptible to acid-base balance. If high amounts of protein produce acid, our sensitive human bodies have to buffer it and it’s believed the body will pull minerals from the bone to do so. Fruits and vegetables which contain a lot of alkalizing minerals are a way to buffer this acid-base balance. But what does the research say? According to the studies, it does not appear that high protein diets actually cause bone loss. So, this all may just be a theory. 

More recent research has looked into the effect of high protein diets have on the liver. Some research suggests that high protein diets over time may stress the liver and result in damage. However, more research is needed in this area.

From what we can tell, high protein diets appear to be safe for the average, healthy person. However, if you have a pre-existing condition, working with a nutritionist is essential to ensure the diet you are following is safe for you.

Protein Deficiency

It seems apparent that there are many ways you can have a protein deficiency in your diet. But the truth is that you have likely never seen true protein deficiency in a friend or family member because of the relative abundance of food in the United States. Things as simple as water and protein-rich foods are not given a second thought, but there are still many nations that struggle to get these basic needs. In countries where protein sources are scarce, people tend to get their calorie needs met by eating carbohydrate-rich foods. 

It’s heavy information, but we must press forward to emphasize the importance of protein. Have you ever heard of a disease called Kwashiorkor? This disease is caused by a low protein diet in which individuals are eating high carbohydrate food. Why would they have high carbohydrate food and not enough protein? It all comes down to money. High carbohydrate food is relatively inexpensive to grow while high protein foods are frequently animal proteins, which tend to be very costly to produce. This is why Kwashiorkor’s disease mostly affects people living in third world countries. 

Since proteins are involved with so many functions in the human body, you can expect to see some pretty serious complications result from having inadequate protein intake, though not all result in serious diseases. 

Common signs and symptoms of protein deficiency include: 

  • Cognitive developmental issues
  • Hair loss, brittle hair, and weak nails
  • Edema
  • Organ failure
  • Muscle wasting
  • Weakened immune system

Research on Protein and Human Health

It’s important to know the more common risks associated with a long-term lack of protein intake. Below are listed more serious health concerns that can develop from having an insufficient amount of proteins circulating throughout your system. 

Heart Disease

Heart disease is a killer in the United States. Diet and lifestyle choices can make a serious impact on a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease. As we mentioned previously, eating protein is part of maintaining a healthy weight, which is vital for overall health as well as heart health.

Some protein choices are better than others. The USDA recommends limiting red meat and saturated fats to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, research from Japan has shown that eating soy protein significantly lowers the risk of heart disease. 

Keep in mind that there are numerous factors which affect a person’s risk for heart disease, including physical activity levels, smoking, and even being lonely. That’s right — feeling isolated is a risk for heart disease. It is a multi-factorial issue that extends far beyond just protein intake.

Type 2 Diabetes

When it comes to Type 2 diabetes, diet and lifestyle choices are paramount. As we mentioned earlier, insulin is a hormone that is released in response to high blood sugar and tells the sugar to enter the cells (where much is converted to fat). Type 2 diabetes develops when the body’s cells become resistant to insulin, and the body must pump out more and more insulin to get the same result. Over time, the body can peter out, and insulin production can decrease, or the cells can become more and more resistant to insulin. Either way, it’s bad news bears.

High protein diets, where protein foods replace sugar-laden foods, can be an effective strategy for helping with insulin resistance in diabetes. This is because sugar and refined carbohydrates are the main perpetrators when it comes to insulin release. Also, ketogenic diets are shown to help with Type 2 diabetes. Although remember, Keto Diets are not a high protein diet — they are a high fat diet.

The USDA states that there is only moderate evidence to support that specific protein choices (lean vs. full fat) affect outcomes in Type 2 diabetes. In other words, there is more to the story than just protein choices. 


There are many different types of cancers. Some cancers, such as breast cancer and colon cancer, have stronger associations with diet choices. Intake of processed meats and high-fat meats seem to be associated with an increased risk of cancer, according to the USDA. Other studies state that, right now, we don’t have enough evidence to say for sure if processed meat or any other kind of meat is to blame.

Different animal studies and human studies have shown that processed meat and cooked meat can increase oxidation (inflammation) in the intestine, which might be a factor in cancer development. Long story short, we need more human-based research to know for sure. 

With breast cancer, the story is a bit different. Studies show that eating highly processed meats are linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Choosing plant-based proteins like soy may seem like an obvious choice to replace red meat and processed meat and, in fact, eating plant products (especially soy products) may actually help reduce the risk of breast cancer, according to some research studies

Premature Death

Recent research is pointing the finger at animal protein for its link to premature death. A study in Finland looked at the diets of thousands of men and compared their diets and mortality rate. They found that those who ate a higher proportion of animal protein to plant protein were at higher risk of premature death. This was especially notable in those with pre-existing diseases. 

This is very preliminary evidence, and we think more research is needed — with women included this time. It is unknown if the effect is the same for women as it is for men, but another study in Japan also found that eating high amounts of animal-based protein was linked to premature death. 

What we can take home from both of these studies is that eating plant protein seems to be beneficial to health. Like the USDA states, eating protein from a variety of sources, including plant sources, is the best dietary approach. 

Bone Health

Many of us grew up with the notion that you need to drink milk to support bone growth, but did any of us wonder how proteins fit into that equation? We previously mentioned that there was a hypothesis that certain levels of protein intake could cause the loss of bone mass through the acid-base balance of the blood. Research doesn’t seem to support this hypothesis, however, as the increased calcium in the urine that was guessed to be from the breakdown of bone is actually from increased calcium absorption from the intestines. 

So what’s the deal? If you remember back to our discussion on some of the functions of protein, then you have not forgotten that protein is intimately involved in hormone production as well as collagen production. One of the hormones involved in bone growth is called Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), which is itself a protein. Low protein diets have also been shown to inhibit the production of IGF-1, while high protein diets increase IGF-1 and the creation of new bone growth. 

In fact, research has even shown that increasing protein intake after certain kinds of fractures improves healing outcomes and reduces the length of time the individual has to rehabilitate in a hospital setting. That seems like a pretty strong argument for protein being important in the health of your bones. Research indicates that you should not forget to take in adequate amounts of calcium when eating a high protein diet if you are looking to strengthen your bones and promote bone growth. So there is logic behind the age-old promotion to drink plenty of milk.  

Weight Control

Weight control and even weight loss are goals for most of us Americans. It’s not surprising that weight control is such a popular New Year’s resolutionl given that about 40% of Americans over the age of 20 are considered obese, and over 70% of Americans are considered overweight. Take a moment and reread those statistics. If your jaw is not on the floor, it should be. We previously talked about how protein can help regulate insulin, blood sugar, and metabolic rate, but we think that, just maybe, it’s worth mentioning again. 

Unlike refined sugars and other carbohydrates, protein does not cause an elevation in blood sugar. If there is not an elevation in blood sugar, then you are not going to have a spike in blood insulin levels, which is the hormone that takes sugars in the blood and puts them into the cell. This may make intuitive sense since proteins are not a sugar, and insulin is designed to deal with sugar. 

The amount of calories that you need for your body to function properly depends on many factors, one of which being your metabolic rate. Protein has been shown to increase a person’s metabolic rate, both while awake and during sleep. Increasing metabolic rate with a regular caloric intake means that you can shed those extra pounds and get into those pants you haven’t worn since high school. 

Protein Allergies

Having an immune reaction to specific proteins is a relatively common concern. Allergies occur when your immune system starts to attack the structure of particular proteins such as eggs or nuts. Immune reactions to specific proteins can range from mild irritation to full-blown anaphylaxis, in which an individual’s throat can close up and potentially lead to death. 

Food allergies to proteins can present themselves in a multitude of ways. Atopic dermatitis, a kind of skin rash, is one common way that protein allergies can surface. Sometimes the allergy to the protein is hard to detect because of the mild signs and symptoms such as fatigue and gastrointestinal complaints. 

You may be wondering how you find out if you have an allergy to a specific protein. Testing for protein and other food allergies can be done via a blood test ordered by your doctor for severe allergies that can cause anaphylaxis. Your doctor may decide to perform a skin prick test in which the skin is pricked with a certain allergen, like soy protein. If a skin reaction occurs, this is a sign that you likely have a negative immune response to the substance. 

The other common way protein allergies are tested is by taking part in an elimination-style diet, where a specific food is eliminated from your normal eating habits and you take note of how you feel when the food is removed, compared to when you were eating the food as normal. For example, many people have an allergy to dairy and will have a noticeable improvement in symptoms and energy when dairy is removed from their diet. 

Below are listed some of the most common foods that can cause people to experience food allergies:

  1. Cow milk
  2. Eggs
  3. Tree nuts
  4. Peanuts
  5. Shellfish 

If you take a good look at this list, then you’ll realize that most of these foods are high in protein. While it’s important to have a high protein diet, you should safely make sure that your body is not reacting negatively to these foods. 

Protein Tips

I think by now, we have driven home the benefits of protein and how not getting enough can lead to very serious health consequences. You may be thinking that this whole nutrition thing sounds pretty complicated, and it is, but have no fear because we are here to give you tips that can help ensure you are getting enough healthy protein in your diet. 

Below are five protein tips to help make getting the right amount of protein a breeze: 

  • Eat a Variety of Protein

Having variety matters when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet of protein. Eating a variety of protein-rich foods ensures that you get all the essential and non-essential amino acids. Combining plant-based protein such as tofu, nuts, and seeds with lean meat protein from fish and chicken will ensure you are covering all your bases with every meal. 

  • Choose Low-Fat Meat

When choosing meat for your meal, whether that be for a sandwich, salad, or your main entree, try to choose a meat low in fat. Avoid dairy when possible, and select a skim milk version when you feel you can’t avoid a dairy product. If you choose a red meat protein option such as beef, trim the fat from the meat when possible. The great part of choosing fish as your meat choice is that you can get some of your essential omega 3-fatty acids and, when selecting a poultry option, you don’t have to worry about the saturated fat content. 

  • Eat Smaller Portions 

If you choose to go with that protein bar or protein powder to supplement your protein diet, make sure that you are not also taking in a lot of added sugars, artificial coloring, or artificial flavorings. You may also want to try eating smaller portions of high protein meals as they tend to be more filling than high carbohydrate meals. 

  • Opt for Healthy Versions of Your Favorites

Our number four tip to “milking” all the benefits of protein is one of the easiest tips to implement in day-to-day living. If you’re at a restaurant and typically choose a high carbohydrate option, try selecting your usual option in a smaller portion with the addition of lean meat. Most restaurants, even fast food joints, have at least a few healthy options, including salads. Diets are all about finding what works for you, so if you’re still going to get your favorite meal, try eating a salad with lean meat on top before moving on to your high-calorie food. 

  • Experiment with Plant-Based Proteins

Plant protein is amazing and delicious, but many people don’t give plants their due respect and attention because plants take a little more thought to incorporate into a meal. It’s easy to throw a steak on the grill with a little bit of seasoning, but when it comes to preparing beans and incorporating nuts into their diet, people don’t often see the value. The fact is that beans contain more protein than any other vegetable and are also chock full of fiber that will keep your body in high spirits.

Nuts are another food you should pay more attention too as one ounce of almonds gives you around 6g of protein. That’s comparable to the amount of protein in an ounce of ribeye steak! When selecting a bread, choose the whole grain version, since a slice of whole-grain bread gives you 3g of protein. 

Protein Foods and the Planet

Those environmentally conscious readers out there will appreciate this section, as we are going to discuss the environmental impact of growing protein-rich food products. The topic of global warming has been ripe with debate, but do you ever feel like the main point is being missed? Shouldn’t we be doing our best to take care of our planet if there is the faintest possibility that harm is being done? 

The research shows that foods such as wheat, corn, beans, fish, soy, nuts, and eggs have a low amount of greenhouse gas emissions per gram of protein produced. When looking at these food products, all but fish, nuts, and eggs have a low cost to consumers. These are compared to other meats, which have a medium to high greenhouse gas emission per gram of protein and are relatively expensive to produce. 

So think about it this way — plants, which take in CO2 and expel oxygen, have low greenhouse gas emissions, which makes sense given it’s the CO2 that is causing the greenhouse effect. Compare this with animals who breathe in oxygen and produce CO2. Just like the protein system inside your body, it’s complicated. 

Protein Wrapped Up

Protein is a staple in our diet. It is needed for many aspects of human health, including the production of muscle, the creation of cells, and the repair of tissues as well as creating hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters. 

Getting adequate protein in your diet is essential. The amount of protein each person needs depends on their sex, age, and physical activity levels. Most importantly, the source of protein matters. Mixing both plant and animal protein sources seems to be the best-case scenario for most people. Remember, plant proteins are incomplete, so combining different sources is essential.

High protein diets seem to benefit several aspects of health, including weight loss. Protein helps you to stay full and can help increase your metabolic rate. On the other hand, not eating enough protein can negatively impact your health.

Aside from your own personal health, the well-being of the plant matters too! Choosing protein sources that have less of an impact on the earth, such as plant sources, also has the added benefit of helping protect the planet from excess emissions.

Well, you are officially a protein expert. Or, at least close to one. Now let’s go eat veggie burgers!

Dr. Kasey Nichols, N.M.D.

Dr. Kasey Nichols, N.M.D. focuses on sleep disorders and drug-free pain management utilizing both conventional and alternative medicine at his private practice, Onyx Integrative Medicine and Aesthetics, located in Gilbert, AZ. He served as the Director of Medical Operation and Administration at a national substance abuse disorder corporation with 16 facilities across seven states. He graduated from Cleveland University-Kansas City with a Bachelor’s of Science in Human Biology, graduating with honors, and holds a Doctorate from The Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine. He holds licenses in both Arizona and Kansas. Dr. Nichols has given numerous talks to professional organizations, given interviews for newspapers across the United States, and numerous television news interviews with ABC 15/CW 61 in Arizona, Channel 3 in Arizona, and others. Dr. Nichols has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, WebMD, Healthline, and many other health and lifestyle publications.