What are Proteins? What do they do? How much do I need to Eat?
Although proteins do not tend to be a macronutrient that is demonized as much as carbohydrates and fats, there are still a lot of misconceptions about proteins. So let’s get right to it. J
- Protein = meat, meat = protein
Meat is an excellent source of protein, but meat is not made up of only protein. Proteins are large and extremely complex molecules made up of amino acids. Protein molecules are essentially large chains of amino acids (not completely unlike carbohydrates being long chains of simple sugar molecules) Check out this photo below if you are a visual person.
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein molecules. As you can see on the right, the molecule starts to become so long and complex that it begins to fold in on itself. The shape that the long chain of amino acids takes (now called a protein molecule) is essential to its function. Protein molecules are used everywhere in our bodies from basic structure, to make hormones, neurotransmitters, worker-bees within the body known as enzymes, antibodies to fight infection, and so much more.
- It’s hard to get enough protein from foods.
This could not be farther from the truth. I once had to construct a low-protein diet for a patient who was in end stage liver disease and it was EXTREMELY difficult to do this. Because proteins are such important molecules within living organisms, they can be found almost anywhere. The foods we think of as good protein sources (meats) are, indeed, very high in protein. But proteins can be found in grains, particularly whole grains, beans, nuts, dairy products, and even some vegetables. We tend to get less protein from fruits and vegetables mostly because the protein in fruits and veggies is bound up in fiber (see our blog on Carbohydrates to remind yourself how undigestable carbohydrates work in the body). Eating a wide variety of meats, grains, veggies and dairy supplies us with all of the essential amino acids we need in a day.
- Athletes need to use protein powders.
Again, see above. An endurance athlete needs about 1.2-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight while a strength athlete needs about 1.6-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. A non-athlete needs about 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. Not drastically different! In fact, it’s more important that athletes balance out their intake of protein to carbohydrates (about a 4 to 1 ratio) so that the protein is available for muscle building and not being used for energy (the presence of the carbohydrate takes care of the energy needs). This is why chocolate milk has become such a popular post-workout recovery drink. It’s a good source of both carbohydrate and protein! And it’s delicious! Win win!
- Protein is the most important nutrient.
Also not true! Basically, the body is not able to use protein for building within the body without adequate carbohydrate and fat available. The body hates using protein for energy, but it will if there is an imbalance within the body. We need carbohydrates and fats available to be used as energy in order for the body to feel safe in using protein for synthesis.
For more Busting Nutrition Myths- Check out Meghan Womack, MS, RD, LD’s blog on CARBS!