Protein Basics for Good Health

As a health-conscious consumer, it is wise to know the facts about protein in order to make better dietary decisions. While the food industry would like us to think we are not getting enough on a daily basis, protein deficiency is nearly nonexistent in the American diet.

A wide variety of foods contain protein. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the list includes:

• meats, poultry, and fish

• legumes (dry beans and peas)

• tofu

• eggs

• nuts and seeds

• milk and milk products

• grains, some vegetables, and some fruits (provide only small amounts relative to other sources)

What is protein?

Protein is an essential nutrient found in every human cell. The body uses protein to build and repair bones, muscles, cartilage, and blood.

When a person consumes protein, the body breaks it down into amino acids. Animal protein sources such as meat, poultry, fish, and dairy are considered complete proteins because they have all the essential amino acids the body cannot produce on its own. Most plant-based proteins like grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes contain some, but not all, of the essential amino acids, so they are called incomplete proteins. Those who follow a vegetarian diet can still get all their essential amino acids by eating a broad variety of plant-based proteins.

How much do I need?

Opinions about how much protein a person requires and the best sources vary. Every diet plan, fitness magazine, bodybuilder, nutritional chart, and health guru has different guidelines.

Since so many foods contain protein, adults eating a varied diet don’t have a problem consuming an adequate quantity. In general, the CDC suggests the average woman should have 46 grams of protein daily and the average man, 56 grams.

For reference, a three-ounce piece of meat typically contains 21 grams of protein. A glass of milk has eight grams. An eight-ounce portion of yogurt has 11 grams and a cup of dry beans has 16 grams.

Portion sizes are a lot smaller than what most people think. Three ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards. That’s tiny compared to the size of a steak or a burger you might order at a restaurant. “An eight-ounce steak is more [protein] than I need in an entire day, and I’m consuming it in a single meal,” says Nikki Johnson, a licensed registered dietician for the Cass County Youth Nutrition Program.

Certain groups, including athletes, pregnant women, and nursing women, require more protein.

For athletes, the amount needed varies by activity level, length of the workout, and frequency. Paul Bekkum, owner of All Seasons Full Body Chiropractic Clinic, says athletes who do not eat enough protein notice the side effects in terms of performance and recovery.

One of the first indicators of poor protein levels Bekkum notices as a chiropractor is fibrosis, a condition where connective tissue forms knot-like adhesions in place of muscle fibers. The result is usually restricted range of motion and slower recovery time after exercise.

“Athletes are going to notice it the most,” Bekkum says. “They’re going to have muscle soreness and they’re not going to make gains.”

Pregnant and nursing women need additional protein—somewhere from 10 to 20 grams more. The increased protein helps build and repair tissues in both mother and child.

Vegetarians and vegans also have special protein recommendations. While meat sources include all of the essential amino acids the body requires, most plant-based proteins do not. It takes careful planning and a variety of healthy foods to ensure that all the essential amino acids are present in a vegetarian diet.

Children and protein

Children don’t require as much protein as adults to maintain a healthy diet. The CDC’s recommendation:

Grams of protein
needed each day
Children ages 1 – 3 13
Children ages 4 – 8 19
Children ages 9 – 13 34
Girls ages 14 – 18 46
Boys ages 14 – 18 52


When children go through picky eating phases, parents worry they are not getting enough protein or other nutrients. Johnson  says that almost every child gets plenty of protein, regardless of their diet.

“Even if a child were to be drinking their recommended amount of milk in a day, they would be just fine,” Johnson says. A child who won’t eat meat, for example, might not have the most balanced diet, but she probably gets enough protein from non-meat sources like milk or grains.

Be critical of food marketing

Since protein plays such an important role in maintaining the body’s many functions, its popularity is no surprise. Touted as a key ingredient for weight loss, muscle gain, appetite suppression, and energy sustainment, protein seems to have it all.

Several weight loss programs emphasize high protein and low carbohydrates. Athletes and active adults are also encouraged to eat lots of protein to build and repair muscles. In response, the general population believes they need more of this essential nutrient in their diets, which can lead to increased consumption of unhealthy amounts of fat and calories.

The grocery industry is making a fortune off our unfounded fears that we are somehow protein deficient. According to research firm Mintel, 19 percent of new food and drink items released in 2012 made high-protein claims. Health food marketing is exploding as companies recognize that protein-enriched products sell. Research shows consumers browse nutrition labels for protein content before they make a purchase.

For example, the Special K brand connects protein to weight loss through a variety of products like bars, cereal, and even flavored water. The market has seen an influx in these kinds of foodstuffs. Walk through the dairy section at the grocery store and see the explosion of Greek yogurts taking over the traditional varieties with the words “more protein” emblazoned on their labels.

Naomi Hass, a licensed registered dietician at Sanford Health, has noticed a rise in concern about protein. “Our American culture wants to find a new fix or a new culprit,” Hass says. “It’s a new buzzword. Protein is on people’s minds as a health food.”

Unfortunately, these fortified products are not as healthy as natural food for a couple of reasons. First, while they may contain all the essential amino acids as meat, they usually don’t have the variety of vitamins and minerals. “If people are going to rely on these sources, they are going to miss out on zinc, iron, fatty acids, and vitamin B12,” Hass says.  Because of the lack of nutrients, Hass suggests this category of food should be treated as a supplement.

The second reason why food with added protein might not be the best choice is that many of these options are loaded with extra calories. Parents may be tempted to purchase protein-fortified snacks for their young athletes. Shakes and bars even come in kid-friendly versions. In general, these items are costlier and higher in calories than natural food. Some meal-replacement protein bars exceed 300 calories. For children, that’s too much for a quick snack, Johnson says.

Young athletes benefit from a snack filled with carbohydrates and protein to aid muscle recovery, but Johnson and Hass recommend a glass of chocolate milk for a post-workout drink rather than a nutrition shake. It’s cheaper and contains fewer calories.

Keep it real 

The best protein options come from their natural state in animal and plant-based forms. While processed products may be convenient, a serving of beans or a chicken breast will give you more nutrients for fewer calories and less money than a protein-fortified food. Getting your daily protein from a variety of plant-based and animal sources ensures you are receiving the essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals necessary for a balanced diet.

Kelsy Johnson works as a nonprofit and freelance writer in Fargo. She divides her time between her two passions: storytelling and martial arts.


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