Let’s talk protein…

We always hear about the importance of protein in your daily diet especially if you are an active person.  But what is protein, what types exist, and is there any one type or source that is better than another one?

What is it?

Most people consider proteins as something that builds and retains muscles, it is so much more than that.  Technically, proteins are large molecules that perform most of the work in cells to maintain function, structure and regulates the body’s tissues and organs.

They are made up of amino acids which attach to each other forming long chains.  Depending on the combination of the amino acids they perform a large range of body functions such as antibodies to protect the body from viruses and bacteria, enzymes to carry out all the chemical reactions that take place in a cell, messenger proteins like certain hormones coordinate processes between cells/tissues/organs, structural proteins to provide support for cells and transport/storage proteins that carry molecules within cells and throughout the body.

There are 20 naturally occurring amino acids.  When you eat protein containing foods your body breaks the proteins down into the amino acids and then reassembles the amino acids to create the protein structures it needs to perform the functions listed above.

Your body can create 11 of the 20 amino acids out of the protein it consumes but there are 9 amino acids that must be derived from food.  These nine are called the essential amino acids: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.

What types exist?

Foods that fall under the ‘protein group’ are meat, poultry, seafood, beans, eggs, soy, grains, nuts and seeds.

This is where some of the controversy or debate starts on which protein source is better, especially amongst vegans versus paleo type proponents.

Proteins can come from animal or plants as noted above.  Their amino acid ‘profiles’ or composition, impacts how they are absorbed by the human body.

Those that say animal protein is better than plant based protein is because since humans are animals as well, animal based proteins are much more similar to ours and as such, are used more readily and synthesized faster than plant based ones.

Animal based proteins are also more complete, meaning they have complete protein profiles while plant based proteins are usually lacking one or more amino acids.

On the flip side of the argument, vegans will point out that animal based protein normally are higher in fat which too much of that is not good for heart health and increased cancer risks.

Protein Efficiency Ratio (PER)…

In order to assess the ‘quality’ of proteins, a PER is assigned which is basically a measure of a specific protein sources ability to promote growth.

From the healthyeating.sfgate.com website, PER works like this:

Determined in a laboratory setting, the PER measures the weight gain of a growing animal – usually a laboratory rat – that is being fed a diet consisting of a specific protein against the amount of food that animal consumes. The formula for calculating PER divides the grams of weight gained by the grams of protein consumed. For many years PER was the official method of assessing protein quality in both the United States and Canada… On the plus side, PER is relatively simple and economical. However, it does have some drawbacks. The laboratory experiments are time-consuming, and the data derived from animal studies are not always directly relatable to humans. For example, a human’s amino acid needs are not the same as a rat’s, and a young animal’s amino acid needs for growth differ from an adult animal’s amino acid needs for maintenance.

This PER is given a Biological Value.  The chart below gives you the BV of the most common protein sources as well as the amount of the nine essential amino acids:


How much and from what sources?

If you go to many government FDA sites or WebMd they recommend something in the range of 46 grams for women and 56 grams for men per day.  Personally, I think this is way too low.  It may be sufficient if you are a couch potato but if you do any form of physical activity, I feel you need more than that.  Remember protein is used to break down into amino acids to perform ALL the functions your body needs in order to exist!

On the other extreme, if you go to bodybuilding sites you will see numbers ranging from 1.25 to 1.75 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.  So for a 200 pound male that would equate to 250 to 350 grams of protein.  That would be like eating 7 meals a day with 50 grams of protein in each meal!!!!

I am extremely active, workout six times a week and have very low body fat.  Weighing around 175 pounds year round, I try to consume 125-140 grams of protein a day.  That’s six meals with 20-25 grams of protein per meal.  It’s around the .75grams per pound of bodyweight.  Even with those low levels compared to a bodybuilder, it is extremely hard to hit that target each day.

I would suggest for anyone to experiment on what works best for them.  As long as you reach the fitness level you are striving for, ignore what most experts recommend.  I found that the levels I mentioned for myself, are more than sufficient.

As for what I eat, I get most of my protein source from chicken and eggs.  As you can see from the chart above, it has some of the highest BV.  But I am also a true believer in having a complete diet plan. This means also taking in protein from other sources like beans and grains.  I feel vegans are selling themselves short in this aspect unless they are doing it for personal beliefs such as cruelty to animals.

The best meal plan should be one that has a little bit of everything.  Just like the best exercise plan is one that incorporates resistance training with cardiovascular and good stretching or yoga type exercises.

Hope you found this protein post informative in order to achieve…Fit Forlife!

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