Nutrition & Recipes

Protein: Building Blocks for Life

Protein: Building Blocks for Life
In your body, the role of protein spans well beyond building strong muscles. You may be surprised to learn that protein is involved in almost every body function, including protecting the body from foreign particles (such as bacteria), orchestrating chemical reactions in cells, coordinating processes between cells, providing structure to cells, and transporting important molecules throughout the body. In short, protein is essential to your health, and it’s important to make sure you’re consuming the right amount.

How Much Protein You Should Eat

For individuals who are mostly sedentary, the recommended daily allowance for protein is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. The more active you are, the more your protein needs to increase. The recommended range of protein intake for adults is between 10 and 35 percent of total daily calories. You can calculate your individual protein (and other nutrient) needs through the National Agricultural Library’s Dietary Reference Intakes.

Foods that Contain Protein

The foods that fall under the protein group include meat, poultry, seafood, beans, peas, eggs, soy, nuts, and seeds. Here is a list of common protein sources and the grams of protein contained in a serving:

In three ounces of:

In a half-cup of:

In one ounce of:

    • Chicken: 28
    • Pinto beans: 11
    • Soy nuts: 12
    • Steak: 26
    • Chickpeas: 7
    • Peanuts: 7
    • Ham: 14
    • Quinoa: 4
    • Almonds 6
    • Salmon: 22
    • Regular yogurt: 5.5
    • Chia seeds: 5
    • Shrimp: 20
    • Soy milk: 4
    • Cashews: 4
Foods containing protein are categorized as complete or incomplete proteins.

Complete proteins: These foods provide the body with all of the essential amino acids in high amounts. (Note: There are nine essential amino acids, which are vital to your health but your body cannot produce them—they must be consumed through food.) High-quality proteins are complete proteins that are very digestible. Animal proteins are high-quality proteins; they are 95 percent digestible, whereas plant proteins are 85 percent digestible. (The remaining undigested protein passes through the digestive tract without being absorbed.)

Incomplete proteins: These are foods that contain some, but not all, of the essential amino acids. Most plant-based foods are considered incomplete proteins (exceptions: soy and quinoa). Fortunately, if you’re a vegetarian, you can combine incomplete proteins to make a complete protein. Easy combinations include peanut butter plus whole wheat toast, black beans plus rice, hummus plus pita bread, and tortillas plus refried beans.

Protein Supplements

Whenever possible, it’s best to choose whole foods over supplements to meet your protein requirements. If you want to try a protein supplement, perhaps to support intense athletic training, take the following into consideration:

    • Read the ingredients—a lot of supplements include additives, such as artificial sweeteners, that can cause an allergic reaction.
    • Avoid substances like creatine or androstenedione, which can be found in some protein supplements to supposedly help increase muscle size, but can cause negative side effects.
    • Be careful about taking a protein supplement that contains just one amino acid; consuming large amounts can affect the absorption of other amino acids in the digestive tract.

Health Consequences of Too Little or Too Much Protein

Your health can be negatively impacted if protein intake is too low or too high. Protein deficiency can contribute to a variety of health concerns, including:

Consuming too much protein can cause the following:

If you want to be certain that you are consuming the right amount of protein for your body, you can work with your physician to determine your nitrogen balance, which can show if your protein needs are being met. Nitrogen is a waste product from the breakdown of protein in the body; nitrogen tests can show whether your protein intake equals protein excretion.

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.

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