Breaking Down The Nutrition Panel: Protein

plate of plant proteins like nuts, seeds and beans
Written by Jen Scheinman, MS, RDN

Protein gets a lot of press in the world of health and wellness, and rightly so. It’s essential for so many of our body’s functions. Most Americans get enough protein in the diet, yet not all protein sources are created equally. And as more people turn to plant-based eating, being aware of how much protein you need and what are good sources has become more important than ever. Read on to learn why your body needs protein and where you can find the best sources of it.

Why We Need Protein
Fat is an essential part of the diet, meaning we must eat it to be healthy. It plays many important roles, including helping us absorb fat-soluble vitamins, providing us with energy, and playing a role in hormone production[1]. With all these crucial functions, how did fat get such a bad rap?

Protein makes up the building blocks for many parts of our body, including bones, skin, muscles, and hair. Aside from the structural support it offers us, many of our body’s functions rely on protein as well. Enzymes that trigger metabolic reactions are made of protein, as are our hormones, which send chemical messages throughout our bodies. Transport molecules and antibodies are also composed of protein[2]. Our bodies rely on this macronutrient for just about everything we need to be healthy.

Protein is made up of individual molecules called amino acids. Humans can make some amino acids, but not all. The nine amino acids we can’t make are called essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. Since we can’t make them, we need to get them through our diet[3].

Seven amino acids are called conditional amino acids. While our body can make them, during times of stress like illness or injury, or growth like pregnancy, the need for these amino acids is greater than our ability to produce them. Under these conditions, we need to make sure we eat enough of them[4][5]. These amino acids are arginine, cysteine, glutamine, tyrosine, glycine, ornithine, proline, and serine.

In addition to the many roles amino acids and proteins play in the body, research suggests that eating protein can offer the following benefits[6][7][8][9].

  • Reducing hunger
  • Promoting weight loss
  • Preventing loss of lean body mass while losing weight
  • Preventing age-related muscle loss
  • Supporting muscle building

How Much Protein Do We Need in a Day?
There is some controversy around how much protein we need to eat a day. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight[10]. The RDA is the amount of protein you need to prevent a deficiency, and some argue that we need more of this important macronutrient. Athletes, people trying to lose weight, the elderly, and people recovering from injury or illness may benefit from higher levels of protein. For these people, 1 to 1.5 grams/kg may be a more reasonable amount[11].
Another way to estimate protein needs is as a percentage of the total calories you eat a day. Experts recommend that anywhere from 10-35% of your calories come from protein[12].

What Are Good Sources of Protein?
While protein is found in many of the foods we commonly eat, not every protein source has all the amino acids that we need. Animal products like meat, poultry, dairy, and fish have all the essential amino acids and can supply our bodies with a good source of high-quality protein. They are often referred to as complete proteins.

Many people choose not to eat animal protein for several reasons. Concerns around the saturated fat content, environmental impact, and the ethical treatment of animals rank high on people’s list of reasons to limit or avoid animal products altogether. If you are turning to plant-based alternatives to meet your protein needs, care has to be taken to ensure you get all the essential amino acids. Beans, lentils, soy, legumes, nuts, and whole grains are all excellent plant-based protein sources; however, it is best to include a variety of these foods to ensure that all the essential amino acids are consumed.

Protein powders and bars can be a great way for vegans and meat-eaters alike to boost their protein intake. Munk Pack Protein Cookies use a blend of rice and pea protein to provide 8 grams of protein per serving and include all the essential amino acids.

Decoding the Nutrition Facts Panel
The total number of protein grams in a serving of food is listed on the Nutrition Facts Label. Note that it is not necessary for food manufacturers to list out the %Daily Value of protein on the label unless the product makes a health claim (such as being a good source of protein). The DV for protein is 50 grams per day based on a 2,000 calorie diet, however, your personal needs may be higher or lower than this[13].

References[+]

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