Protein, What Is It, Why Is It Important and What Are the Best Sources?

Everyone seems to think they need excessive amounts of protein to be well and get in shape. Perhaps this is sports nutrition's marketing at its finest, but do we really need all that protein? Is it necessary? Is it even healthy?

In this installment of our blogs on nutrition, we will be taking a look at protein and how it affects our health, how much we need and why, plus what the best sources are so that you can understand this vital nutrient. 

So, What is Protein?

Protein is one of the essential macronutrients that the body needs in order to function properly. (The others are Fats and Carbohydrates, we will go over each of these in detail in upcoming blogs.)

Proteins are the building blocks of life. They are comprised of  Amino Acids. The human body uses 20 different amino acids. Of which, there are 11 we can synthesize ourselves, they are called non-essential amino acids. The nine we cannot synthesize or create within our own bodies are called essential amino acids. This means that we need to get these nine essential amino acids through our diet. The goal of eating protein is to provide our bodies with these 9 essential amino acids. 

So, Why is Protein Important?

The body is approximately 15% protein by weight. After water, proteins are the most abundant kind of molecule in the body. Proteins play many roles, but their main role is the growth, maintenance and healing of tissue. Proteins are a primary component in many tissues in the body, including muscles, organs, skin and hair. Every single cell in the human body contains protein. You need protein in your diet to help your body repair cells and make new ones. The word protein actually comes from a Greek word that can be translated as 'the most important'. 

In addition to being vital for structure, proteins also function as antibodies (part of our immune system), as enzymes, as transporters (hemoglobin is a protein that transports oxygen within blood), as storage, and as messengers. They help keep us healthy and can even regulate hormones and blood sugar levels (which makes them very important to diabetic people).

Proteins can also be used by the body as a fuel source, but this is not the body's preferred form of energy, and it produces ketones. 

Protein Sources

Not all sources of protein are created equally. The main things that determine a protein source's value are whether or not it is a complete protein, its bio-availability, and the other health effects of the protein source.

Complete or whole proteins are those that contain all of the essential amino acids. The types and amounts of amino acids that a protein source has helps determine its quality. 

First, lets look at complete vs. incomplete protein sources. 

Eating meat will provide a complete protein profile. Due to this, most people have come to believe that the best sources of protein come from animals. This is simply not true. You can be vegetarian and have a complete, healthy and balanced diet. We believe the negative health effects of consuming animals outweigh the positives.

Yes, many vegetarian sources of protein are "incomplete proteins," meaning that they have some, but not all of the nine essential amino acids. There are some vegetarian protein sources that do provide all of the essential amino acids. A few of which are quinoa, buckwheat and soy. 

Although many vegetarian sources of protein are not complete on their own, they can easily be combined to create a complete protein. For example, when beans are paired with rice, they provide all of the essential amino acids, and the two become a complete protein. Even if not eaten together at the same meal, but in the same day, you have given your body all of the amino acids it needs. 

Other vegetarian protein sources include seitan, tofu, tempeh, edamame, lentils, chick peas & hummus, nutritional yeast, spelt, spirulina, oats, oatmeal, and soy milk. There is no end to the menu options that you can create when adding vegetarian protein sources to your diet. 

Beans are a tasty and diverse group high in protein. Black beans are nutritional power houses, as are pinto beans, kidney beans, white beans, mung beans, and fava beans. 

You can add seeds to many meals. Pumpkin, sesame, chia and hemp seeds are all great in salads and can even be added to smoothies. Nuts and nut butters include way more than peanuts and peanut butter. Think about adding almonds, cashews and pistachios as a snack. Vegetables are also excellent sources. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, green peas, asparagus and even potatoes have more protein than you would expect. 

Now what about bio-availability? This is a fancy way of saying how much of the protein source that you ate your body will actually absorb. Lets say that you eat a protein source that has 80% bio-availability and you eat 20g of protein from this source. This means that you would actually get 16g of protein from this source. The protein sources with highest bioavailability seem to be dairy and eggs, at nearly 100% absorbed. After these, most meat sources come in between 70-80%, and beans come in arounds 70-75%. Point being, if its not 100% absorbed, you will need more grams of the food to make up for the part not being assimilated. 

Protein and health

As you saw above, proteins are vitals for many functions of the human body. Protein is also important for growth and development in children, teens, and pregnant women. As we age, protein consumption becomes even more imperative to slow muscle wasting in the bodies of elderly people. 

Too little protein and you can develop protein deficiency. Symptoms of protein deficiency include slow growth in children, as well as edema (swelling of tissues) and anemia (red blood cell deficiency).

Too much protein can also be dangerous, as excess protein puts unneeded stress and burden on the kidneys and liver. It can also negatively impact calcium levels and lead to weak bones. Getting the right amount is as important as the source. 

*If you suspect you or anyone you know has any of these symptoms, it is best to get checked out by a registered dietitian or medical doctor. 

In regards to health, it is also important to note that many animal sources of protein are high in saturated fat, which it is recommended to limit in our diet. Cooking animal foods at high-heat creates carcinogenic chemicals that you wouldn't want to ingest. Several studies have linked red meat consumption to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and early death. Further studies have shown that eating processed red meat may actually increase the risk of dying from heart disease. Therefore it is more healthy to ingest proteins from sources other than meat.

Dairy products, such as milk and cheese have been shown to be high in both protein and negative health ramifications. Milk and other dairy products are the top source of saturated fat in the American diet, contributing to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer's disease. Studies have also linked dairy to an increased risk of breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers. Research also shows that dairy products have little or no benefit for bone health. Studies have linked the high fat content and hormones in milk, cheese, and other dairy products to breast cancer.

If you add eggs to an otherwise vegetarian diet, you can definitely get all the protein you need, while skipping the other negative health ramifications of animal consumption.

Protein Choices and the Environmental Impact

Food choices can have many different impacts, some leading to better health and longevity, others to disease and sickness. The same is true of their impact on the planet and all of the creatures in it. We bring this up because your choice of protein source has far reaching consequences. 

Not only does it take a lot more energy and water to produce meat than plant foods, most factory farmed meat is also full of antibiotics, hormones and other harmful things that end up in both the environment and your body. The meat and dairy industries are also huge contributors of green house gases, which worsen global climate change. Additionally, many forests are clear cut to make room for livestock all over the world (Check out our blogs on how trees help fight climate change and how reforestation helps).

Regardless of your personal stance on vegetarianism, all people (and animals and the planet) would benefit by people reducing their consumption of meat and dairy. Many people have chosen to limit eating meat to only one meal per day or going meat free for entire days of the week, such as "Meatless Mondays." If everyone did this, it would go a long way in helping the planet and also positively impacting their own health. It's also a lot kinder to our animal friends and a great way for any aspiring Yogis to practice Ahimsa (doing no harm). 

How Much Protein Do We Need?

You may have heard people boast about getting 200 or even 400 grams of protein per day, thinking that this will help them grow greater muscle mass. It is true, we do need adequate protein for muscle growth, and to repair tissue post exercise, but not nearly that much. 

It is recommended that everyone gets 0.8 grams (g) of protein per kilogram (kg) they weigh. There are 2.2 pounds per kilogram, so a 220 pound person would therefore need just 80 grams of protein per day and a 110 pound person only needs 40 grams per day!

However, this recommendation is for the average person. It is proposed that endurance athletes get approximately 1g of protein per kg body weight and that strength athletes or people trying to gain muscle mass get 1.2 grams per kg of body weight (some sources recommend slightly higher amounts for those trying to gain muscle mass, but not by much).

So, the same 220 pound person would need roughly 100g of protein per day as an endurance athlete, such as a runner, swimmer or cyclist. If that 220 pound person was a strength athlete, or person trying to gain muscle mass, they could ingest 120g of protein per day. 

As you can see, their 80-120g of protein need is a lot less than what many fitness sources will tell you; and of course, it's even less if you weigh less than 220 pounds. 

Much of this misinformation and excessive suggested protein intake has been spread by the supplement industry. Although, there are quality protein powders available, most are full of fillers, additives and chemicals. If you choose to add protein supplements to your diet, keep in mind that it is to supplement what you get through your diet, and not to be the primary source. Look for organic, vegan and non-gmo protein powders. Hemp and pea proteins are generally the best, finding one that tastes good will be the biggest challenge. (We here at Lotus Tribe use Optimum Nutrition's Gold Standard Plant Protein when we choose to supplement.)

Final Thoughts

Proteins are the basic building blocks or our bodies and are absolutely vital for human health. Making sure to include them in our diets daily and in the correct amounts is crucial for every person, regardless of age or gender. When picking sources of protein, it is key to keep in mind bio-availability (absorption), whether they are a complete or partial proteins (based on amino acids) and the overall effect our choice of protein source may have.

It is so very important to be mindful of how our protein source impacts both the environment and our health. Meat can be high in saturated fats and other harmful things like antibiotics and hormones. Plus, it takes a lot more resources to produce meat, leading to a greater toll on the environment. Whether for your own health, for animals, to save money, or for the planet; we implore you to earnestly consider cutting down on your personal meat and dairy consumption, while making sure to get the proper amount of protein you need for superior health and longevity.

Our goal with this blog series on nutrition is to provide you with the knowledge that you need to live a healthy lifestyle. We try to bring you valuable insights, that are simple to understand and accessible to everyday life choices. We hope you have found it useful and informative. 



*This blog is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.