Protein is one of the essential nutrients the human organism needs in order to survive and maintain health. The crucial role of protein is reflected by a popular reference: protein is the main building block of the body.

In fact, the very name of protein resounds with its significance: in the old Greek language, “proteios” (from which the modern denomination derives) means “primary”. The nutritional lead role of this nutrient was hyped by the advent of protein based regimens: some suggest that people who want to lose weight should increase protein intake in order to enhance body weight.

On the other hand, critiques such as Colin Campbell’s The China Study blacklist protein – animal-based protein, in all cases – and offer an opposite insight into nutrition.

So, what is the truth about protein?

1. What Exactly Is Protein?

Ingredients for protein diet

Protein is a macromolecule consisting of chains of amino acids. To make it clearer, amino acids are just as vital as oxygen or water. They support life. How?

Protein is digested and, under the influence of hydrochloric acid and protease actions, it’s broken down to smaller amino acids chains.

These chains are transported via blood flow to cells throughout, where they’re put to work. Jillian Michaels summarizes: proteins provide tissue support, fluid and acid-base balance, nutrient, electrolyte and waste transportation, immune response and, of course, energy.

Out of the 22 amino acids, 9 are essential. This means that the human organism needs them in order to survive and maintain health, though it cannot synthesize them out of food. So, we need to take them in as such.

The nine essential amino acids are histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

Some amino acids are classified as semi-essential, which means the human body should normally synthesize them, but in special conditions which prevent the bodies from metabolizing them, they are not produced.

Consequently, patients need to ingest them. Arginine, cysteine, pyrrolysine, proline, glutamine,tyrosine, serine and selenocysteine are considered semi-essential.

Alanine, glycine, asparagine, glutamic acid and aspartic acid are non-essential. They are necessary to good health, but the human body can synthesize them out of ingested food.

Key Point: cells, tissues and muscles need protein to work properly. Proteins perform a series of functions, and protein deficiency – caused by low-protein diets or by the body’s inability to process protein or metabolize amino acids – imperils health and life.

2. Why Your Body Needs Protein to Build Muscle?

muscle shaped man at gym relaxed drinking

Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats: these are the resources our bodies use in order to make the energy that sustains organism’s activities, both vegetative and conscious. But unlike sugars and fats, proteins are also used to a different end: the human body uses food-sourced protein to literally build itself from a cellular level (when in need of repair, regeneration or growth).

Up to 15% to 20% of one’s body is protein, and that speaks for itself about protein’s importance for your organism. On top of these two functions, protein also boosts the immune system.

But back to muscle building. Cells are born, they grow, carry out their mission and then they die. You are literally made of protein (from hair and nails to flash and bones), which means that in order for you to grow, develop and go about your business in complete good health, you need to comply with a constant daily intake of protein. The human body does not store protein as it stores fats, which makes daily protein intake all the more necessary.

Athletes – who use their muscle mass to a greater extent than non-athletes – should definitely increase the daily protein consumption. Intense and prolonged muscle activity means more muscle stress. In order to resist this stress and overcome it, in order to increase performance, muscle mass, strength and resilience must improve.

And that can only be accomplished by enhancing protein intake (associated, as it seems, with an adequate amount of carbohydrates).

Key Point: up to 20% of the body weight consists of protein. All cells and muscles need to be constantly supplied with protein-sourced amino acids in order to perform their functions and improve performance.

3. What “Grams of Protein” Really Means

Big piece of red meat

When you hear the ever present line that a person’s daily protein intake should be around 10% to 35%, what does that mean? These percentages refer how much of the calorie intake per day should be protein-sourced. This means you’ll need to ingest 46 to 56 grams of protein per day (women and men respectively).

But the range is quite generous: clearly there’s quite a difference between 10% and 35% percent.

Which one is the ideal fix for you?

To make it more clear, a study summarized in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health points out that the physically active population should have as much as 1.3-1.8 g of protein per body kilo per day, with the possibility to reach or even exceed a whopping 2.0 grams per kilo per day, depending on how intense training is.

Thus, a 90-kilo active man should consider some 180 grams of protein per day, but then there comes the objective of his training: if the goal is to build muscle mass, more protein is necessary in order to both repair muscle and create additional mass. Athletes don’t just rely on food in order to build up muscle. Protein supplements are a staple of the business, and bodybuilders are no strangers to such adjuvants.

In order to gain muscle mass – which is a prerequisite for some athletes – the math is pretty simple. Basically, one needs to ingest more protein than they break down. They need protein surplus. Nutritionists call this positive protein balance, but due to the fact protein is packed with nitrogen, it’s also referred to as positive nitrogen balance.

This balance should be adapted to the current needs of an athlete. In periods of intense training, protein intake should be increased. Beginners might also need to raise the balance, since in their case muscle strain is considerably higher. But diet alone cannot work miracles.

There is also the necessity of timing your protein intake. Muscle For Life reports some studies conducted by a number of universities, including Victoria University, show increased efficiency when protein-packed meals are served before and after training. On the other hand, other studies downright contradict this notion of perfect timing.

Key Point: the more intense the physical exercise, the more elevated should protein intake be. If your goal is to build mass, consider greater amounts of protein to take in daily either from food or from supplements. You need to create positive protein balance. Always adapt balance to your current needs!

4. What About the Average Person?

Eggs

But the average person does not necessarily work out. In all cases, physical exercise comes down to a minimum. Most sedentary Americans need not worry about eating too little protein: western diets are usually packed with protein. But should excess protein consumption come with risks in tail, you might want to follow the general nutritional recommendations.

Body building cites numerous studies to argue the same notion: protein balance should depend on a person’s physical activity level and precise goals (lose weight, build or maintain muscle mass and body weight, increase physical performance).

Gender, age and various physiological circumstances (pregnancy, breast-feeding) weigh in just as much. General guidelines state a 0.5 to 1-gram amount per kilo per day should cover and average adult’s nutritional needs of amino acids required for maintaining health and repairing muscle mass lost following the occasional or scarce physical strain.

A non-active person might, however, want to manage body weight by, say, turning fat into muscle. Or they might be interested in weight loss altogether. How does food-sourced protein come into play in this case?

Key Point: healthy sedentary adults don’t need to take in as much protein as athletes. Generally, half of a physically active person’s daily ratio should cover an average person’s need for protein.

5. Why Protein Is Good for Weight Loss?

Glass of milk with boiled egg and tape

Weight loss occurs when negative calorie balance is created. This means you need to control the both ends of our regimen: the input – what you eat – and the output –physical exercise, including NEAT activities (non-exercise activity thermogenesis).

Most people think low-carb diets when weight loss becomes a health priority or goal of sorts. Fat is also blacklisted. Protein, in the other hand, is unchallenged. The general understanding is you can’t get fat if your protein dose is higher, and that increased protein consumption actually helps to managing body weight, a merit sugars and fats can definitely not boast.

1 gram of fat has 9 calories. Sugars and protein only amount to 4 calories! But the body processes these nutrients differently. We speak of the thermic effect of food, which basically means a certain amount of energy is needed for digestion itself. Consequently, weight loss happens while digesting!

A Calorie Counter indicates researches and studies show protein has the highest TEF. Your body needs more time to turn protein into energy, and it does it with a certain expense of energy. This is of no little importance for your weight loss program.

Protein helps you slim down while eating and it’s filling, preventing the early onset of hunger. It also keeps cravings at bay. So it’s quite commonsensical: if you replace carbs and fats with protein, you should be able to create calorie deficit without feeling hungry. And that sounds just about right for all weight loss-minded people.

Plus, as Woman’s Health reports, a study conducted by Johns Hopkins University showed diets favoring protein intake instead of carbs resulted in lower blood pressure, reduced cholesterol and triglycerides levels.

Key Point: protein helps you create calorie deficit by making you feel full longer, by preventing cravings and due to their inherent high TEF. You can create negative calorie balance by boosting the positive protein balance!

6. Protein: Health Side Effects

Technician Setting Up Machine To X-ray Patient

But should you completely replace carbs and fats with protein? High-protein diets surely enjoy tremendous popularity. Their benefits are out there, but are they safe in the long run?

We’ve already cited The China Study, which points finger at high-protein diets. But the author only condemns animal-based protein, showing it favors the onset and evolution of cancer cells. On the other hand, it’s common knowledge plant-based protein is not complete. Hence, vegan and vegetarians are recommended to prioritize diversity in order to be able to get all essential amino acids out of their food of choice.

But then other studies show up – as the one cited by Muscle For Life – and debunk the myth of incomplete protein sourced by plants, so vegetarians and vegans are not actually vulnerable when it comes to protein ingestion.

Leaving all this talk about complete and incomplete protein behind, it should be noted than when people think protein, they indeed think animal-based protein. This is the common understanding. While Campbell’s study indicates that high plant-sourced protein diets do not affect the human organism, it seems protein of animal origin is linked to a range of conditions and symptoms, including cancers, diabetes, osteoporosis, ALS and other autoimmune diseases, obesity, high cholesterol, hypertension.

Key Point: plant-based protein might not impact your health like animal-sourced protein does, though the common belief vegetables are not as capable as meat or animal-based foodstuffs are to provide complete protein.

7. How to Get Enough Protein in Your Diet

Quinoa

Protein deficiency is hardly a problem for people following a mainstream Western diet. But the point is to try to get all amino acids into your body in order to make sure you won’t endanger your health.

So, what food is best to eat? Quinoa, green leafy veggies, whole cereals, nuts and seeds, lentils and other pulses are great sources for vegans or vegans in the making. Traditionally recommended sources count: tuna and sardines, eggs and milk and milk derivatives, cheeses (cottage and hard cheeses included), and, of course, meat – poultry and beef in particular.

Key Point: variety is the best policy if you want to make sure your diets offer you the whole range of amino acids. You might want to revisit your dietary views in order to make sure you completely agree with the implications of the mainstream vs. vegan diets.

Final Thought

Did you ever try to up your protein intake in order to lose excess weight or build muscle mass? Did it work for you?

What foods and supplements did you use? How would you recommend others to proceed in order to avoid health side effects?

Share your experience with us and help others make the right choice in regard to changing protein intake!

Protein Intake – How Much Protein Do You Need?
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