Protein is a buzzword these days, but what is protein? And how much protein do you need? What are the ideal plant-based protein sources? Can you have too much protein? And what is protein deficiency? Here’s what you need to know about this critical nutrient.
“But where do you get your protein?”
Anyone who adopts a plant-based diet or even considers going vegetarian is likely to hear this question with alarming frequency.
You don’t have to look far to see what can sometimes border on something of a protein obsession. From protein shakes, bars, and powders to cereals, cookies, and protein-focused diets and meal-delivery services, attention to protein seems to be just about everywhere.
But what is protein? How much protein do our bodies really need? Is more always better? Or is it actually possible that some people could be getting too much?
Let’s take a look.
Protein is something you need to eat almost every day. Why? Because your body doesn’t store it the way it stores fats and carbs — the other two main “macronutrients” in food.
OK, but what is protein?
Protein is an essential nutrient for the building, maintenance, and repair of almost all the tissues in your body, including your bones, muscles, blood, hair, nails, and organs.
Protein also gives your body energy, although that’s not its main role. In addition, protein helps keep your immune system strong (because your immune system is made up of proteins), and eating protein can help keep you feeling full longer.
What we call protein is made up of 21 amino acids. Your body can make 12 of them, but there are nine that are called the “essential” amino acids because you need to get them directly from your food.
As long as you’re eating a variety of whole, natural foods and getting enough total calories and enough overall protein, you should meet your needs for all nine essential amino acids. The notion that you need to combine foods in order to get the right balance of amino acids is, essentially, a myth.