Every cell in your body needs protein. That's right -- EVERY cell, from the cells of your brain and the cells of your tongue to the cells of your skin and the cells of your liver. Each part of your body has a specific function that requires protein. This makes figuring out how much protein you need in your diet a complicated question. However, this article will give you some general guidelines to help you discover what works best for your body and lifestyle.

brown egg

What Are The Functions Of Protein?

To understand the importance of protein, we need to know what it does. There are five main functions of protein:

Building Tissues And Muscles

If you do not get enough protein in your diet, your muscles can start to atrophy. If you strength train regularly, micro-tears form in your muscles. Protein repairs those tears and thus builds up muscle mass.

Coordinating Biological Processes

Some proteins are hormones, or chemicals that coordinate activities among your cells, tissues, and organs. For example, the hormone oxytocin helps rally the cervix, pelvic muscles, bladder, and uterus, telling them: "Hey, ladies! That kid you've been cooking is ready to be born. Let's get it together."

Building Immunity

Antibodies are specialized proteins that defend us from harmful bacteria and viruses. Without a healthy immune system, we become susceptible to all of the microbiotic invaders waiting to set up shop inside us.

Carrying Out Chemical Reactions

Enzymes are specialized proteins used to carry out chemical reactions. About 37 thousand billion billion chemical reactions occur each second in the human body -- so yeah, protein is important.

Producing Energy

Protein-rich diets give you energy and make you feel fuller longer. While protein isn't your body's preferred source of energy, when your body isn't getting enough energy from carbs and fats, it will break down muscle so that the amino acids can supply you with energy. Protein contains about four calories per gram.

bowl of oats

Before we conclude the sciency part of this article, you should know that proteins are comprised of 20 different amino acids. Of those, the body only produces nine. That leaves us to find outside sources (foods) that will provide the other 11 protein building blocks.

dried fruit and nuts

How Much Protein Do I Need?

Because protein is so multifunctional, there is no straightforward answer to this question. In general, however, the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein is 46 grams per day for women over 19 and 56 grams per day for men over 19. In short, 12 to 20 percent of your caloric intake should come from protein.

If you like all of that math and science, you can use this formula to calculate your specific need. But here is a list of factors that may affect your recommended daily protein intake:

broccoli head

Gender

Your recommended protein intake is based upon your daily caloric intake. In general, women have a less caloric diet than men and so tend to digest fewer grams of protein. Although no one specifies that men or women need less or more protein because of their gender, it is good for women to take in as much protein as possible because men have more muscle mass than women, who tend to store fat easier.

Age

As we age, we lose about three to five percent of muscle per decade. Because protein is essential in building muscle, you should absolutely increase your intake as you age. Recent studies recommend that older adults increase their intake of protein to about one gram per kilogram of body weight per day to help build and maintain muscle mass. Look to Ruth Bader Ginsburg for inspiration!

almonds with milk

Physical Activity

Athletes or people who exercise often need to increase their protein intake. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2 to two grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day for athletes, depending on training. Protein intake should be spaced throughout the day and after workouts.

pea pod

Weight Loss

If you've lost weight, you should be eating more protein. Protein helps increase your metabolism, ward off hunger pangs, and build muscle. By getting 30 percent of your calories from protein, you will decrease your carbohydrate intake, which will help you burn more fat.

grilled fish

Can You Have Too Little Protein?

Yes! The word protein comes from the Greek word proteios, or primary. Protein is one of the primary components keeping our bodies strong and healthy. Having too little can lead to a whole host of problems.

Aside from causing complications in organ functions, too little protein can impact your daily life and compromise your lifestyle in a number of ways. Consuming too little protein can cause:

bunch of sprouts

Fatigue

Protein regulates your blood sugar level. Without it, you will experience peaks and valleys of energy that will ultimately leave you fatigued even after a good night's sleep.

Muscle Loss

Protein is THE way to build muscle. If you don't get enough protein, you won't have muscle.

Hair Loss and Brittle Nails

Humans have had little biological need for hair and nails since their Neanderthal days. Because hair and nails are mostly cosmetic and lack a real purpose for modern-day humans, they get the short end of the stick. Decreased levels of protein mean that protein must function where it's needed most -- so if you don't get enough protein, your coiffure and manicure will suffer.

Illness

One of the main functions of protein is to enhance the immune system. With depleted protein come depleted resources to stave off harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This can makes you susceptible to anything from the common cold to the very dangerous pneumonia. So if you want to stay healthy, eat your protein!

yogurt with fruit

Can You Have Too Much Protein?

Since protein does so much good for the body, you might want to get as much of its immunity-boosting, muscle-building, and energy-increasing magic into your system as possible -- but protein is a tricky one.

Protein comes from many different sources, and an excess of protein from certain sources -- eggs, for example -- can have adverse effects. A whole egg has about 6.5 grams of protein, which is about 14 percent of your recommended daily intake. That's great, right? It sure is, until you consider that a whole egg contains about 186 milligrams of cholesterol. Depending on your doctor's recommendation, that amount might approach or exceed your recommended daily cholesterol intake. So in some cases, consuming this specific source of protein could actually harm you.

chicken meal

But what about the actual protein levels? What if you consume 70, 80, or even 100 grams of protein a day instead of the average recommended amount, 46 to 56 grams per day? Scientists have not conclusively determined that an overabundance of protein can cause short-term or long-term damage. However, moderation is key to a healthy lifestyle.

baskets of legumes

Protein Sources

We need to get those 11 amino acid protein building blocks from somewhere! Although their output is completely utilitarian, their intake can be fun and delicious. Here is a list of protein-rich foods that you should consider eating on a regular basis:

  • oats
  • poultry
  • eggs
  • nuts
  • cottage cheese
  • Greek yogurt
  • milk
  • lean beef
  • fish
  • broccoli
  • quinoa
  • lentils
  • brussels sprouts
  • beans
  • peas
green beans

So much of our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being is dependent on a healthy diet, and a healthy diet consists of about 20 percent protein-rich food sources. It is better to err on the side of too much protein than not enough. So experiment with protein-rich recipes and have fun -- your body will thank you!

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