Updated April 10, 2020
It is very important to eat enough protein. But this isn’t always easy to do. It also isn’t easy to get the right kinds of proteins to support our body. Some proteins are better to eat than others. In this article we will explore how much protein is good to eat and what kinds of proteins are best.
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Proteins are building blocks for all tissues in the body
Proteins are macronutrients made of amino acids and are the building blocks of all tissues, enzymes and hormones in our body. Vital for healthy living, proteins are essential nutrients. In our diet, proteins can come from either plant or animal sources.
Each type of protein is different
Not all proteins are created equally, however. Proteins differ from each other by the way the amino acids are combined. An egg white protein has a different combination of amino acids compared to beef, compared to beans and compared to yogurt, for example.
There are 20 different amino acids that the body uses. These amino acids combine in many different ways to give us different proteins. For example, casein is one of the proteins in milk, avidin is a protein in eggs, and legumins is a protein in beans.
When we eat foods containing protein, our digestive system breaks down the protein into its amino acid components. These amino acids are absorbed into our body through our small intestine. Our body then makes new proteins from these amino acids. These new proteins are used to repair our tissues and keep us healthy.
We recycle amino acids too
Food isn’t the only place we get amino acids from. We also recycle amino acids in our own body. Everyday, in the average healthy person, approximately 250 grams of our own body proteins are broken down into amino acids and incorporated into new protein as our bodies heal and rejuvenate. When the body needs to make proteins, it can get most of the amino acids by recycling or making new amino acids
Essential amino acids
However, there are nine amino acids that we cannot make and absolutely must obtain from our diet. These are essential amino acids; phenylalanine, valine, threonin, tryptophan, methionine, leucine, isoleucine, lysine and histadine. During some disease states, our body may also not be able to recycle or make some of the other amino acids. And this is why it is very important to eat good quality proteins. We need to eat foods that contain these essential amino acids.
We need to eat enough high quality proteins
It is important for us to eat high quality proteins, proteins that contain essential amino acids and a sufficient amount of protein to keep us healthy.
For the average person, the current protein recommendation is 45 to 60 grams per day or 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. But this is a minimum value, and many experts believe the majority of North Americans eat too little protein.
For cancer patients, specifically, it is especially important to get enough high quality protein. Cancer and cancer treatments put additional stresses on the body and destroy healthy cells. Our bodies need to regenerate and heal, and require good quality protein to do this. People with other illnesses may need more protein in their diets. It is important to ask your doctor or nutritionist if your illness requires more protein.
Runners will also need enough high quality proteins as they build muscle. Long distance runners also use protein as an energy source, and need to replace the proteins lost in energy metabolism. Thus, runners need higher amounts of protein in their diet than the average person.
The exact amount of protein we need will depend on various factors and is likely different for each person. If you follow the 2019 Canada Food Guide, you will be eating approximately 25% protein.
A word of caution: some illnesses require less protein. So it is very important to talk to your doctor about your specific needs.
Too much of a good protein is not better
While eating enough protein is important, eating too much may be a problem too. When our bodies break down proteins during digestion, nitrogen and waste products are produced. In high amounts, nitrogen and these waste products can be damaging to the body, especially the kidneys.
Diets too high in protein have also been linked to an increase in cancer risk. In part, this may be due to the type consumed, as meat based diets increase the risk for colon, breast and prostate cancers.
Focus on protein quality
Researchers have not been able to determine the maximum level for dietary protein due to conflicting data and multiple factors involved. There are also individual health factors involved. Until we have more research data, it may be best to focus on the quality of protein in our foods, rather than calculating exact amounts to be eaten per day.
Healthy proteins include:
- Fish & Seafood
- Beans & Lentils
- Eggs (contain all amino acids)
- Unsalted nuts & nut butters
- Lean poultry (e.g. chicken & turkey)
- Whey protein & isolates
Whey Protein and Protein Isolates
Whey protein is a component of whey, which separates from milk when they make cheese. It is a complete protein, containing all the essential amino acids your body needs. The nice thing about whey protein is the versatility. You can use it in many recipes, from smoothies and shakes to adding it to muffins, oatmeal and even casseroles (using unflavored protein powder).
Another benefit of this high quality protein is that it is very digestible and is absorbed very quickly compared to other proteins we eat. It is also a concentrated form of protein, especially the isolates, and can pack a big protein punch in a small amount of powder. For these reasons, it is popular among athletes and bodybuilders.
Limit these proteins:
According to the World Heath Organization, there is a link between certain proteins and higher cancer risk. Thus, it is best to limit consumption of the following:
- red meats – including beef, pork, lamb and goat meat
- processed meats – including hot dogs, sausage, deli meats, bacon
- BBQ or smoked meats
- Milk? (conflicting research data)
We hope this article answers some of the questions you may have about proteins. Be sure to eat enough high quality ones to stay healthy. It is probably okay to indulge occasionally in the other proteins, but keep them to a minimum. Your body will thank you!
Tell us what your favorite food proteins are in the comments below. And be sure to check out the Healthy Eating Archives at Pink Ribbon Runner for more article on eating healthy foods.