We Are What We Eat: Why Protein Matters

By Monique Minahan

Calories, calories, calories. This is a concept we all know far too well, especially when trying to lose weight.

Our cultural obsession with cutting and counting calories makes it seem controlling caloric intake is a necessary evil to maintain a healthy body. This isn't the case.

Calories are simply a measure of energy. They represent the energy our bodies need to grow, function, and work optimally.It's easy to get fixated on calories alone when you're trying to lose weight, but it's important to remember that the type of calorie you're eating is just as important as the number of calories you're eating.

Why Protein is Important

So why are calories from protein so important? First, a short review of basic nutrition. We get caloric energy from our food. All food contains three macronutrients:

  • Protein - 4 calories per gram
  • Carbohydrates - 4 calories per gram
  • Fats - 9 calories per gram

These are the only substances that provide calories besides alcohol. Alcohol is its own category and contains 7 calories per gram.

The body absorbs and uses these macronutrients and the caloric energy they provide in different ways. Protein is especially important for growth, tissue repair, and immune function. Our skin, hair, nails, bones and muscle are made from protein.

Protein is also critical in providing us with a feeling of satiety at the end of a meal, so our body can tell us when we're full and when to stop eating. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that when people ate high-quality protein foods (like eggs or lean meat) for breakfast, they had a greater sense of sustained fullness throughout the day than those who had not.

Not All Protein Is Created Equal

Research suggests that diets high in complete protein (25% of daily calories) produce more weight loss than when complete protein is lower (12% of daily calories).

So what is a complete protein? Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. 20 amino acids are required for growth. Of these 20 amino acids, the human body can make 11. These are known as non-essential amino acids. The other 9 amino acids are essential amino acids. These cannot be made from the body and must be supplied from food.

Foods that have a combination of essential and nonessential amino acids are called complete proteins. If an essential amino acid is missing, the body breaks down its own proteins to obtain it from places like our muscles.

Complete proteins can be found in foods such as meat, eggs, and milk. The protein in vegetables, beans, and grains is not complete because it lacks one or more of the essential amino acids. However, combining one or more of these incomplete protein foods together can sometimes provide all the amino acids required for health, such as combining beans and rice.

How Much Protein?

The question of how much protein is ideal for weight management is an ongoing debate in the fitness and healthcare worlds. The general recommendation is 10 to 35 percent of your total daily calories. Since protein has 4 calories per gram, if you're taking in around 2,000 calories a day, that would be between 200 to 700 calories per day, or 50 to 175 grams of protein. This is a wide window, and your personal needs will vary depending on your fitness or health goals.

Getting Protein On-the-Go

In our on-the-go lifestyle, many of us rely on bars, smoothies, and healthy snacks to get us through the day. Consider adding a scoop of protein powder to your morning smoothie or choose a nutrition bar such as thinkThin that contains 15-20 grams of protein, no sugar, and is Gluten Free.

See for Yourself

The numbers aren't your enemies, they're just an outward representation of the energy we need to live happy, healthy, and energetic lives. In fact, you can use the numbers as a tool to better understand protein's effect on your body. Try keeping a food journal and tracking your protein intake for a week, noting feelings of satiety before and after a meal. Do meals when you eat more protein leave you feeling more full? Let us know your results!

Monique Minahan is a writer, yogi, and lover of life. She's inspired by nature's simplicity and the healing power of love. She finds true liberation in living life fully from the inside out. Her intention is to offer her heart to the world through words that motivate, inspire, and encourage. Connect with her at mindfulmo.com.

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