Of the three essential macronutrients, protein is by far my most favorite one to talk about. Weird, right? I dig the science and importance behind a well-balanced diet supported by proper protein intake. So, let’s get into the basics, benefits, sources and more.
Protein isn’t just chicken and whey powders — it’s actually found throughout the body in muscles, bones, skin, hair, and nearly all other body parts or tissue. It is made from twenty-ish basic building blocks called amino acids that are broken down into two different categories:
- Essential → must come from food because the body cannot create them
- Non-Essential → created by the body from scratch
Protein is also responsible for five main functions:
- Building tissues and muscles → if there isn’t enough protein in your diet, muscle will waste
- Hormone production → the body houses protein hormones responsible for binding to receptors on the cell membrane instead of entering the cell directly
- Immune function → antibodies are actually specialized proteins that provide a specific immune defense
- Energy → protein breaks down into amino acids during digestion which provides four calories per gram, and calories represent a unit of measure of food energy
- Enzymes → these are specific types of proteins that bind to molecules to speed up chemical reactions (such as muscle contraction and relaxation)
DID YOU KNOW?
There are at least 10,000 proteins that make you what you are and keep you that way!
If you know me, you know I don’t toss out facts without knowing they are science-backed and true. Most people eat enough protein to prevent deficiency, but that doesn’t mean they are eating enough to support their bodies with the many benefits it can provide. Recent studies suggest higher protein diets can increase satiety and thermogenesis while improving body composition. That sounds pretty nice doesn’t it? Eat more protein, feel less hungry, increase the generation of heat (i.e. build your metabolism), and see your body begin to change in fat mass to lean mass ratios.
REDUCES APPETITE & HUNGER LEVELS
In comparison to the other macronutrients (carbs and fats), protein is the most filling (aka it makes you feel fuller with less food). It reduces the level of the hunger hormone ghrelin while boosting the levels of peptide YY, the hormone responsible for feeling full and decreasing appetite.
FUN FACT: Increasing protein intake from 15% to 30% of calories has been proven to decrease hunger and result in clinical weight loss (defined as loss of more than 5 percent of usual body weight over 6 to 12 months)
BOOSTS METABOLISM & INCREASES FAT BURN
The thermic effect of food (TEF) refers to the increase in metabolic rate after eating a meal. This means when we eat, our metabolism actually uses TEF as energy for digestion, absorption, and disposal. In comparison to carbs and fats, protein has the highest TEF, and the act of digesting it boosts the metabolism more than other nutrients. This is because protein is the hardest macro to break down!
Through a well-balanced diet, and proper calorie deficit, the thermic effect of food will become effective in increasing the body’s fat-burning potential. We have already learned that protein intake boosts metabolism, reduces appetite and changes different hunger hormones, so it should be no surprise that it has the potential to increase fat burn too. As crazy as it sounds, it works both sides of the calories in vs. calories out (aka it reduces calories in (satiety) and boosts calorie burn (TEF)).
MAXIMIZE TEF: Dropping body fat mass while increasing lean muscle mass will result in an improved and efficient TEF → muscle burns more calories than fat does, even at rest!
In fact, muscle is 8x more metabolically demanding than fat
So now that we know why protein is so important, how do we know what sources to have for optimizing protein’s benefits? Check out these 30 high-protein foods ranked by protein content per 100 grams (keep in mind this is ONLY protein content, carb and fat content is not included).
- Beef jerky 30-40g
- Pumpkin seeds 30g
- Turkey 30g
- Peanuts 25-28g
- Canned tuna 25g
- Beef 20-24g
- Chicken 24g
- Salmon 24g
- Almonds 21g
- Sardines 21g
- Lamb 20g
- Mackerel 20g
- Pistachios 20g
- Pork loin 17-20g
- Tempeh 20g
- Cashew nuts 18g
- Mozzarella 18g
- Mussels 18g
- Chia seeds 17g
- Edamame beans 13g
- Eggs 13g
- Tofu 12g
- Cottage cheese 10g
- Greek yogurt 10g
- Oats 10g
- Lentils 7-9g
- Kidney beans 8g
- Chickpeas 7g
- Peas 6g
- Quinoa (cooked) 5g
So, the bottom line is simple. Eat more protein for greater short and long-term health benefits. What’s even better is getting started toward those changes is just as easy. You can begin by incorporating 30 grams of protein in each of your main meals, and focus on having a protein-rich snack each day. This will help get you started toward a protein-rich diet by small habit changes.