Protein is the fundamental building block of all of our cells, and we need an almost constant supply in order to keep our bodies running. Most meals will contain some protein, but the quality of protein is just as important as how much of it you eat.
Animal meat is generally the best, most abundant source of protein we can get – we digest it readily enough, and you don’t have to eat a lot of meat to get all the protein you need in a day. But this doesn’t mean you should neglect vegetable proteins, as these can be much healthier and come with lower cholesterol.
What is Protein?
Protein molecules are built from amino acids – the things we actually need when we say we need protein. For example, beef proteins are large, complex molecules that take a while for us to digest, but our bodies break them down and turn them into proteins we can use through a process known as ‘protein synthesis’.
Aside from using protein to build cells and repair the body, protein can also be stored as a source of fuel. However, protein is a less-efficient fuel than sugar, so your body will use this first.
How Much Protein do I Need?
The amount of protein you need averages from around 40-70 grams a day, depending on height, weight and gender. However, getting more protein isn’t really a problem, as long as it doesn’t come with a lot of extra fat.
People who are trying to lose weight might go onto a high-protein diet which restricts caloric intake. This ensures that you have enough energy to run your metabolism and go on with your day, but forces your body to start using fat reserves when you exert yourself.
Bodybuilders may also go onto a high-protein, high energy diet in order to build up muscle. The carbohydrates give them the energy to exercise for sustained periods, and the protein is there to build up their muscles afterwards.
Where Do I Get Protein?
Meat is your first source of protein, but not all meats are equal. If you are trying to follow a calorie-restricted diet or lose weight, stick to light fish or tuna, turkey, ostrich (the highest protein-to-fat ratio meat) or venison. Avoid bacon, pork or beef ribs and fried chicken. Meats generally contain ‘complete proteins’, which means that they usually contain all essential amino acids.
Aside from meat, many vegetables contain protein. While these proteins are not complete on their own, you can get more than your daily share of protein by including one of the following with each meal:
- Cheese and dairy (high fat)
- Seeds and nuts (some nuts, like peanuts, are high in fat)
- Beans, lentils, soy products and peas
- Barley, oats and whole grain carbohydrates