When dietitians speak about eating protein, or “proteins”, they usually mean eating foods like these, that have a lot of protein in them.
Image used with permission by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
But what is protein actually? Proteins are large and complex molecules made out of different combinations of amino acids. Amino acids are like the LEGO blocks that make up proteins.
Amino acids combine in nearly endless ways to create nearly endless different types of protein. These proteins are the building blocks that make up animals, plants, bacteria, viruses, and humans.
When we eat foods with protein, our bodies take apart the protein into the amino acids it’s made from (like you might take apart a LEGO structure) and use those amino acids to build new proteins in our bodies that become hair, skin, muscle, hormones, mitochondria, etc.
Our bodies use 20 different amino acids to build the proteins it needs. Nine of these amino acids we must get from the food we eat. The other eleven our bodies can manufacture, but we can also get them from food.
That’s why its so important to eat enough foods with protein in them, so our body has all the materials it needs to grow, maintain bones and muscles, make hormones and neurotransmitters, and heal itself, among many many other things.
Our bodies can also burn protein for energy. If we have enough protein for our building needs, our bodies take the extra protein and either burn it for energy or, if it already has enough energy, will store it as fat for future energy.
On the other hand, if we are not eating enough to meet our energy needs, (and especially if we are also not eating enough protein) our bodies will begin to break down the protein in our muscles to use for energy. Of course, it will also begin to break down stored fat, but most weight loss involves some muscle loss.
Now you know what protein is, but how should you eat it? How much should you eat? What are “lean” proteins? What are plant-based proteins?
Check back next week for the answers! Do you have other questions about protein? Leave it in the comments and I’ll try and incorporate it into next week’s post.
(Sorry, this wasn’t an intentional cliff hanger, it just seemed better to break it up rather than doing a super long post!)
If you want to see a list of foods that have protein, click here.