09 Aug Protein Facts: What You Need to Know to Optimize Your Health
Protein is one of three essential macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fats — the human body needs in large quantities simply to survive. Athletes, bodybuilders, and very active individuals need even more protein to fuel those extra demands on the body.
To better understand the importance of protein and the role it plays in your health, let’s look at some protein facts, including how it’s formed and how your body uses it. We’ll also highlight some nutritious, high-quality protein options for a variety of dietary preferences.
Protein Fact #1: You Need Protein to Live
The word “protein” comes from the Greek word “proteios,” which means “primary” or “in the lead.” It’s an apt term because every cell in your body contains protein and it performs many critical functions.
For example, protein helps to:
- Build and maintain your structural framework and tissues, including bones, muscles, and organs
- Produce enzymes, hormones, and hemoglobin (a protein in your red blood cells that carries oxygen from your lungs to where it’s needed in your body)
- Make energy for your body
- Build antibodies to strengthen your immune system
- Build keratin to keep your skin, hair, and nails healthy
- Keep your eyes working well
- Manage your fluid and electrolyte balance
- Maintain the pH balance in your blood
- Transport nutrients through your body
- Maintain your focus and concentration through a busy day
- Manage your weight by keeping you feeling satisfied
On the other hand, protein deficiency can also lead to a range of issues, including:
- Feeling weak and tired
- Loss of muscle, leading to muscle degeneration
- Fatty liver disease, which can result in liver failure
- Fluid retention, causing swollen and puffy skin
- Vulnerability to viruses and bacteria
- Stunted growth in children
- Brittle bones, increasing the risk of fractures
- Hair loss or brittleness
- Dry skin and nails
- Hormone imbalances
- Mood swings
In short, it’s vital to get enough protein to meet your daily needs.
Protein Fact #2: You Need More Protein If You’re Physically Active
Everyone needs protein, but not everyone’s protein intake should be the same. The amount of protein you need depends on your level of activity.
- For average activity: 0.8 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight per day
- For athletic activity: a minimum of 1.2 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight per day
It’s worth noting that eating more protein than you need isn’t good for you either — processing it puts extra stress on the kidneys and liver. If you’re not actively using that extra protein for fuel or to build muscle, consuming more than the recommended amounts could potentially lead to weight gain.
Bonus Protein Fact: Your body stores carbohydrates and fats, but it doesn’t store protein. As such, you need to eat protein in some form every day.
Protein Fact #3: Essential Amino Acids Come From Your Food and Nutrition
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, joined together into chain-like structures by peptide bonds. There are 22 amino acids and your body can make some of them by combining others, but there are nine it can’t make:
These nine are known as the essential amino acids (EEAs) and you must get them from the food you consume.
High-quality food sources — complete proteins, for example — can provide you with all the essential amino acids. If you’re exercising intensely though, you may need to add a supplement like whey protein to your diet.
Athletic performance, and particularly muscle building, requires high levels of amino acids. This is especially true of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — to ensure you don’t lose muscle mass. BCAAs also help with boosting energy, endurance, and performance, and speeding up recovery, among other things.
Bonus Protein Fact: Every gram of protein gives you four calories of energy to fuel your body.
Protein Fact #4: Before Protein Can Be Used, It Must Be Broken Down and Absorbed
Before your body can use the dietary protein you consume, it needs to break the protein molecules down into their constituent amino acids. This starts in the digestive system, where hydrochloric acid and enzymes called proteases break the peptide bonds. Some proteins break down faster than others and are therefore more quickly available for absorption.
As the amino acids move from the stomach into the small intestine, a certain proportion of them are absorbed through the small intestine into the bloodstream. The proportion that’s absorbed depends on the bioavailability of that particular protein — in other words, how much of the protein can actually be absorbed and used by the body.
For example, Ingredient Optimized ioWhey Protein and ioPea Protein have been scientifically proven to be more bioavailable than non-optimized whey protein. That means a high proportion of the amino acids are absorbed into the bloodstream and can therefore be used by the body.
Once the amino acids are absorbed, the blood then moves them to the site in the body where they’re needed. They are then recombined into new proteins through protein synthesis.
Bonus Protein Fact: Protein makes up about 18-20% of your body.
Protein Fact #5: There Are Many Types of Protein
Complete proteins are those that provide all the essential amino acids the body can’t make. These are predominantly animal proteins, which are also more easily used by the human body than plant proteins. However, there are several good plant sources for those who prefer not to consume animal products.
Some examples of animal products that offer the complete range of essential amino acids are:
- Poultry, such as chicken and turkey
- Fish like tuna, salmon, or halibut
- Eggs or egg whites, which are both excellent sources of protein
- Dairy products, such as whey, cheese, cottage cheese, and yogurt
The following plant-based proteins will also give you all the essential amino acids, although not at the same levels as animal proteins. As such, you usually need to eat more of them:
- Pea protein
- Soybeans and soy products, including tofu and tempeh
- Hemp seeds
Incomplete proteins are usually plant-based and the protein found in them is often (but not always) considered lower quality. However, plant foods are lower in fat, higher in fiber, and contain no cholesterol, so they play an important role in your diet.
Plant sources usually don’t provide all the essential amino acids you need by themselves. However, you can combine them with other foods to make sure you get the complete range (see below for more on this).
Incomplete proteins include:
- Tree nuts, especially almonds and walnuts
When you combine certain proteins with others, together they give you all the essential amino acids. For example, you could combine legumes with whole grains, or dairy with nuts or seeds. This doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the same meal — the complementary foods can be eaten over the course of the day.
For example, try one of these combinations:
- Beans, chickpeas, or lentils with brown rice
- Peanut butter on whole-grain bread
- Hummus with pita bread
- Tofu with barley or quinoa
- Muesli or nuts with yogurt
- Whole-grain cereal with milk
- Salad with beans and seeds
Remember that protein-rich foods are just one part of the equation and a high-protein diet will only take you so far. Following generally healthy dietary guidelines — i.e., eating a range of foods that includes a variety of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats along with plenty of vegetables and fruits— will help ensure your overall health and prevent weight gain.
Bonus Protein Fact: While not often found in Western diets, insects like crickets are excellent sources of protein!
Protein Fact #6: Some Proteins May Not Agree With You
Everyone’s body is different, so it’s crucial to pay attention to the signs your body is giving you. For instance, some people have allergies to gluten, nuts, lactose, or even histamines (which are found in many common foods) without being aware of it.
While the symptoms you experience will vary depending on what’s triggering them and your personal physiology, these are some common symptoms to watch out for:
- Stomach discomfort
- Tight chest
- Constricted throat
If you experience any of these symptoms or any discomfort after meals, make a note of everything you’ve eaten and how you feel. Then if it happens again, you’ll be able to look back to find the common thread and identify the culprit. Always speak to your doctor or nutritionist to get a proper diagnosis.
It’s worth noting that even if you have lactose intolerance, you may still be able to tolerate certain refined dairy products — for example, whey isolate, which comes from milk but is extremely low in lactose. Some especially high-quality, treated whey products, including ioWhey Protein, have been shown to cause less stomach discomfort than non-optimized whey and are well worth trying as an alternative.
If any particular type of protein (or any food for that matter) causes you discomfort, try cutting it out for a while and experimenting with other high-quality protein sources. There are plenty of options.
Bonus Protein Fact: When people are allergic to proteins it’s often because the protein structure itself is triggering an immune response.
Always Buy the Best Quality Protein You Can Afford
Protein is essential for a healthy body but there are some proteins that give better results than others. If you’re training intensely, or simply want to optimize your nutritional intake, look for protein products that have been scientifically tested to improve performance
Case in point: ioProtein products have been optimized to deliver the highest quality nutrition through improved absorption to maximize your results. And that’s a protein fact worth remembering.