Proteins are well-known for their muscle building attributes, but what is not well-known is that proteins are found in every cell in our body from our hair, skin and bones to our blood. Protein is necessary for building and maintaining all of our body tissues, supporting and strengthening our immune system and maintaining fluid and electrolyte balance. Our body breaks down food proteins into amino acids, which are used to create thousands of complex protein structures needed by our body. Although proteins also provide us with energy, we are not efficient at storing proteins, since they have so many other more important functions. What this means is that in order to spare protein for its many other more important purposes, we must eat an adequate amount of carbohydrates and fats.

How Much Protein Do We Need?

The protein needs vary based on age and activity level. To get started, convert your weight in pounds to kilograms by dividing by 2.2. The recommended dietary allowance for sedentary adults is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight and for endurance and strength athletes 1.2 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. 

Example:

  • 150-pound active male (strength and endurance activities most days of the week)
  • 150 pounds/2.2 (pound/kilogram) = 68 kilograms
  • 68 kilograms x 1.5 grams (protein/kilogram) = 102 grams of protein per day
  • Meal Plan — Eat three meals with 30 grams of protein each and one snack with 12 grams of protein.

The recommended percent of energy that should come from protein is 10 to 35 percent of the total calories consumed. Protein needs are increased in growing children and adolescents, pregnant and breastfeeding women and active individuals. Despite popular myths, most active individuals and athletes are able to meet their increased protein needs through whole foods as opposed to supplements.

What Foods Are Good Sources of Protein?

Proteins are found in foods derived from both animals and plants. Good sources of protein include beef, poultry, seafood, pork, dairy, tofu, tempeh, beans, nuts, whole grains and, in smaller amounts, vegetables. Include a variety of both animal and plant sources of proteins in your diet. If you’re a vegetarian, focus on getting an adequate amount of total protein from a variety of plant sources. Plant proteins are also beneficial to health-boosting fiber, micronutrient and antioxidant intakes.

When Should We Eat Protein?

Every meal should include good sources of protein. Plan meals and snacks with a variety of proteins either in one dish or from meal to meal and snack to snack. According to MyPlate, at least a fourth of our plate should include good protein sources. Not only does eating protein help meet our nutrient needs, but it may also play a role in regulating your appetite. Protein foods can fill you up, especially high-fiber plant protein foods such as whole grains, beans and nuts. Combining plant proteins, such as rice and beans and whole wheat bread and peanut butter, offers high-quality protein with all the essential amino acids, which is what animal proteins and soy proteins provide without having to pair foods. High-protein foods have also been linked to feeling full, which may help control appetite.

For active individuals looking to build lean body mass, what and when you eat protein is just as important as your training. Try to plan a small snack containing both carbohydrates and protein at least 60 minutes before your training session and again within 30 to 60 minutes after training. Then, follow up your snack with a well-balanced meal containing carbohydrates, proteins and fats and plenty of colorful produce, which will help to pack in vitamins, minerals and anti-inflammatory antioxidants.