We need to eat plenty of protein foods every single day to keep our metabolism running, our energy up and our blood sugar levels stable. You might be eating enough protein overall, but are you eating the right kinds?
Protein is used in every single cell in our body and is critical for building muscle mass, supporting neurological function, aiding in digestion, helping to balance hormones naturally and keeping our mood upbeat. Protein foods are also beneficial for preventing weight gain since they make us feel full and require more work for the body to digest than fast-acting refined carbohydrates.
Why Protein Foods Are So Important
Although amino acids are separate chemical compounds that are stored in a range of different foods, in the body they are held together by peptide bonds. (1) Without enough diverse protein food sources in your diet, you risk becoming deficient in certain amino acids. The result? Low energy, trouble building muscle mass, low concentration and memory, mood swings, unstable blood sugar levels and trouble maintaining or losing weight.
Proteins are used every single day to keep the body going. Because they are used to develop, grow and maintain just about every part of our body – from our skin and hair to our digestive enzymes and immune system antibodies – they are constantly being broken down and must be replaced.
Eating too little protein can result in these symptoms:
- A sluggish metabolism
- Trouble losing weight
- Trouble building muscle mass
- Low energy levels and fatigue
- Poor concentration and trouble learning
- Moodiness and mood swings
- Muscle, bone and joint pain
- Blood sugar changes that can lead to diabetes
- Slow wound healing
- Low immunity
What Makes Some Protein Foods Better Than Others?
The body can make some amino acids on its own, but the rest it must obtain from protein foods. Of the 20 total amino acids there are, certain ones are considered “essential” because these are the specific kinds we aren’t capable of making ourselves. Others are “nonessential” because the body can create them by synthesizing other amino acids.
The 20 different amino acids are all unique and have certain functions in the body, so it’s important to cover your bases and eat a variety of high-protein foods in order to make sure you aren’t lacking certain kinds. Even when an amino acid isn’t essential, it’s more beneficial to obtain it from food since this requires less work for the body.
In the U.S, and most other developed nations, people rarely become severely protein-deficient (a condition called Kwashiorkor). However, many people eat the same foods each day and don’t vary their diet enough to obtain all essential amino acids regularly. So while eating plenty of protein in general is important, it’s also smart to eat a variety of different protein foods.
People following a low calorie, vegan or vegetarian diet are especially at a higher risk for missing out on important amino acids, since animal foods are considered “complete proteins” (meaning they contain all essential amino acids) but many plant foods are not. It’s possible to combine different plant foods in order to create a combination that has all essential aminos – such as eating rice with beans or vegetables with whole grains, for example – but some health experts believe this is not as optimal as eating foods that are complete protein sources.
What are some top protein food choices that are complete proteins?
High angle shot of a group of brown eggs on a burlap sack. Horizontal format on a rustic wood surface.A longer list is below, but some of my favorites include grass-fed beef, raw organic dairy, cage-free eggs and wild-caught fish. Grass-fed beef contains special immune-boosting conjugated linoleic acid (cancer-fighting CLA) and healthy saturated fats, plus a superior nutritional content than conventionally raised beef. Similarly, bison, venison and lamb are also good choices.
Wild-caught fish is a complete set of amino acids, plus it’s one of the heart-healthy omega-3 foods. And eggs and raw dairy products provide a high level of nutrients in addition to protein, plus they’re versatile and taste great. Raw dairy like yogurt and kefir also provides gut-friendly probiotics that improve digestion and immunity.
One thing to be conscious about is purchasing high-quality protein foods, especially if they are animal-based. What do I mean by this? Making sure to buy grass-fed meat, organic cage-free eggs or poultry, raw unpasteurized dairy and wild-caught fish is key for obtaining enough protein while also reducing toxins in your diet.
Better quality animal products contain more nutrients over conventionally raised foods since the animals themselves are healthier and fed a more natural, nutrient-dense diet. We also know there are some real dangers of farmed fish and livestock when we eat them in large quantities. High-quality proteins will provide more trace minerals and vitamins, healthy fatty acids, and contain far less pollutants, heavy metals, or potential synthetic hormones and antibiotics.
How Many Protein Foods Should We Eat Everyday?
We all need a different level of protein based on our exact needs. For example, your body weight, gender, age, and level of activity or exercise all determine how much protein is best for you. There are also some health conditions that require people to either eat more or less protein than the average person. And athletes need to eat even more foods for energy and performance, including plenty of quality protein.
That being said, there are some general protein guidelines that can serve as a good recommendation to aim for each day. According to the USDA, the recommended daily intake of protein for adults who are at an average weight and activity level is: (3)
- 56 grams per day for men
- 46 grams per day for women
The amounts above are the minimum amount of protein you should aim for each day, assuming you are otherwise healthy and are moderately active. These amounts are equal to eating about 0.36 grams of protein for every pound that you weigh.
More ideally, I recommend you take your body weight and multiply that number by .5. The result is the amount in grams of protein you should ideally aim to eat each day. For example, a woman who weighs 150 pounds would aim to eat 75 grams of protein daily and a man who weighs 180 pounds would shoot for 90 grams.
Overall, I recommend that you make about 30 percent of your plate a high-quality source of protein at every meal. This ensures you eat enough throughout the day to meet your needs and prevents you from overeating carbs and junk foods.
It’s best to eat small amounts of protein throughout the day instead of a very large serving only once or twice. This gives your body the right amount of protein it needs at any given time, since only so much can be utilized at once (the rest will be stored as fat or eliminated). Because your body cannot store protein, eating it throughout the day is the surest way to balance your blood sugar level, ward off hunger and support your metabolism. This is especially important around the time of exercise when protein-rich pre-workout snacks can go a long way.
Top 11 Protein Foods to Include in Your Diet
2. Bone broth protein — ¼ cup/about 1 serving: 20 grams
3. Lentils (6) — 1 cup: 18 grams (36% DV)
4. Wild fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna, etc.) (7) —3 ounces salmon: 17 grams (40% DV)
5. Organic chicken (8) — 1 chicken breast: 16 grams (38% DV)
11. Raw cheese (14) — 1 ounce goat cheese: 7 grams (14% DV)
8 Health Benefits of Eating Foods with Protein
1. Help Improve Muscle Mass
Eating enough protein is necessary to build and maintain healthy muscle mass, while also supporting tendon, ligaments and other body tissue. When your diet is lacking in amino acids, “muscle wasting” (or muscle atrophy) can take place when your muscle fibers are broken down to support your body’s energy needs.
Protein is especially important after exercise, since physical activity like strength training purposefully damages muscle tissues so they can repair and grow back stronger. For the process to happen effectively, you need some extra protein to help repair the damage. While protein alone won’t enhance athletic performance, research shows that eating protein before and after exercise helps increase muscle recovery, promotes muscle synthesis and serves as effective muscle ache treatment. (15)
2. Help Manage Your Weight By Filling You Up
Although some research studies show conflicting results regarding high-protein diets versus low-protein diets for maintaining an ideal weight or losing weight fast, there’s plenty evidence that protein helps to make you feel full and can prevent overeating. While dietary or lifestyle change must be personalized for weight loss to be effective, studies show that controlled calorie intake in association with a moderately high-protein intake can be an effective and practical weight-loss strategy. (16)
Some of the reasons this is true? High-protein foods cause increased satiety to a greater extent than carbohydrates or fats, so they can prevent overeating and snacking. (17) It’s usually much easier to overeat carbohydrates, especially if they’re refined or sweetened, than it is to overeat healthy protein foods. Eating protein also creates a process in the body known as thermogenesis, which requires the body to expend more energy (calories) in order to digest food. (18,19) At the same time, protein helps to ward off muscle loss that can result from a low-calorie diet, which makes certain proteins superfoods for weight loss.
3. Stabilize Blood Sugar Levels
Insulin is a hormone that’s required for carbohydrate, fat and protein to be metabolized. However, carbohydrates require much more insulin than fat or protein does. The major determinate of blood sugar levels is the glycemic index response from the foods you eat, so while eating high-carb and high-sugar foods results in fluctuations in blood sugar levels, eating protein does the opposite.
Eating foods with protein has a minimal effect on blood glucose levels and can, in fact, slow down the absorption of sugar during a meal. (20) This means a high-protein diet can help prevent spikes in blood glucose, which is especially important for preventing type 2 diabetes, balancing energy levels and keeping your appetite and mood in check.
4. Help Improve Your Mood
Certain amino acids from protein foods are needed to balance hormones naturally, control your mood and act as a natural remedy for anxiety. Proteins help neurotransmitters function and synthesize hormones like dopamine and serotonin that calm us and keep our outlook positive.
Many people who are lacking in key amino acids start experiencing weakness, moodiness, and increased anxiety or signs of depression for this reason. Because protein helps stabilize glucose in your blood, it also prevents mood changes, irritability and cravings that can occur due to fluctuating blood sugar levels.
5. Promote Healthy Brain Function and Learning
Proteins are needed to make enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters that are critical for cognitive function. As your mother may have told you when you were a kid, eating a healthy breakfast sets the tone for the day and prepares you to learn and remember information.
The brain requires a steady supply of amino acids in order to keep concentration, focus and energy levels up. Studies show that when amino acid deprivation takes place, learning and coordination suffers, but once all necessary amino acids are reintroduced into the diet, learning and motor skills improve. (21)
6. Help Maintain Strong Bones
Many studies now show that a positive association exists between eating more foods with protein and better bone health. (22) The effects of protein on bones also relates to the specific protein foods being eaten and intake of important bone-building nutrients like calcium and magnesium. A diet high in protein from whole, nutrient-rich foods can heal broken bones, prevent bone weakness, fractures and even osteoporosis by increasing calcium absorption and helping with bone metabolism.
Recent studies in the elderly in the U.S. show that the greatest bone losses occur in elderly people with a low protein intake of 16–50 grams per day. It’s believed that when someone eats a low level of protein, insulin-like growth factor production is reduced, which in turn has a negative effect on calcium and phosphate metabolism in the bones and bone formation. (23)
7. Promote Heart Health
Some studies show that an inverse relationship between protein intake and risk of heart disease has been observed in adults, as higher protein diets appear to one of the natural remedies for high blood pressure. Also, substituting carbohydrate foods with protein results in lower LDL “bad” cholesterol and triglyceride levels. (24) One reason this might be true is because higher protein diets balance blood sugar and tend to help prevent other heart disease-related causes, including obesity and diabetes.
8. Slow Aging and Promote Longevity
One of the key roles of protein foods is helping the body to synthesize glutathione, often called the “master antioxidant.” Glutathione is stored within our own cells and helps us to detox and reduce carcinogens that age us. Animal and human studies both show that adequate protein intake is crucial for the maintenance of glutathione and helps the body stay in a state of balanced “homeostasis.” Glutathione deficiency contributes to oxidative stress, which plays a key role in age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, liver disease, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, cancer and viral infections. (25)
Research shows that a diet high in balanced amino acids from protein foods can help treat muscle loss due to aging (called sarcopenia). (26) A diet that has adequate levels of protein helps to slow the aging process by keeping muscle mass intact, supporting strong bones, and maintaining high cognitive and immune function. In the elderly, amino acid deficiencies can potentially lead to eye problems like cataracts, heart problems, muscle loss, weakness and mood changes.
As you age, your body is less capable of synthesizing amino acids on its own, which is one reason why the amount of muscle you have tends to decrease over the years while fat accumulates. This makes it even more important for you to eat plenty of protein-rich foods to support not only a healthy body weight, but to keep your memory sharp, energy up, and strength and balance in place.
Total Time: 25 minutes
- 2 cups steel cut oats
- 4 scoops vanilla whey protein powder (1 cup)
- ¼ cup oat flour
- 1 tablespoons flaxseed, ground
- 1 cup sprouted almond butter
- ¼ cup honey
- 2 ripe bananas
- ½ cup applesauce
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Grease 8 x 8 pan with coconut oil.
- Mix the oats, whey, oat flour and flaxseed. Once combined, add almond butter, applesauce, vanilla and honey.
- Mash the bananas into the mixture and combine.
- Spread batter into pan and bake about 15 minutes.
Also, try these protein-rich recipes that will fill you up and help prevent low energy or food cravings throughout the day:
Are There Concerns With Eating Too Much Protein?
Some people are concerned that kidney or liver function can suffer when their diet is too high in protein. However, there isn’t much evidence that a well-rounded diet that has moderate to high levels of high-quality protein will cause problems in otherwise healthy people. (27) (28) Similarly, as mentioned earlier, protein seems to help with bone and heart health, as opposed to preventing risks for worsened health conditions.
That being said, eating very high levels of protein is correlated with some health risks in certain instances. Eating more calories in general than your body can use, whether from protein or another source, will not result in better health and contribute to weight gain. Very high protein might also lead to digestive problems like constipation, changes in blood sugar levels, and possibly bacteria and yeast growth in the gut.
Neglecting other nutrients and eating a large amount of protein can also put stress on your organs while they work to balance your body’s pH level (since animal foods can be acidic in nature), plus proteins make your body remove more nitrogen waste products from your blood.
Of course, eating a well-rounded diet that is varied in terms of foods is important for optimal health. To sum it up, protein plays a big part in a healthy diet but quality is key, plus you don’t want to simply load up on protein foods all day long without eating enough vegetables, fruit and healthy fats.