The Very Latest Science on the Powers of Protein

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THERE'S NO DENYING the importance of protein.

The food and beverage industry has taken full advantage of that. It’s not just about getting in as much chicken breast as possible anymore. The grocery store shelves are littered with protein-packed everything. Protein powder aisle aside, you don’t have to look far to find protein-loaded cookies, cereals, pancake mix, juice, and even “potato” chips.

Yet, even with seemingly endless protein selections, many still don’t get enough. Nearly 50 percent of older adults are not getting enough, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health, and Aging.

We spoke to experts and filed through the research to uncover everything there is to know about protein right now. Here’s what we found.

What Is Protein?

Protein is one of the three macronutrients (four, if you’re counting alcohol), the other two being fats and carbohydrates. These are the nutrients we use and need the most. Protein is made up of amino acids, chemical compounds made up of different formulations of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and other elements. They bind in different ways, creating the nearly 10,000 different proteins that help carry out several bodily processes, according to Harvard Health.

Proteins provide structural support to our hair, nails, and cartilage. It initiates different chemical reactions, helps regulate hormones, and much more.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein is a modest 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, or 0.36 grams per pound. The RDA is the amount of a nutrient you need to meet your basic nutritional requirements. In a sense, it's the minimum amount you need to keep from getting sick—not the specific amount you are supposed to eat every day. Most people need more than that, closer to 1.2 to 1.6 grams of protein for every kilogram of your target bodyweight.

A 180-pound guy who wants to maintain his current weight would need 100 to 130 grams, or six palm-sized portions of protein-rich foods, every day. That’s about 30 grams at each meal and an additional 10 to 20 grams in two snacks. Chicken breast is great, but so are chicken thighs, tofu, salmon, pork, shellfish, whitefish, lamb, tempeh, and much more.

Within the larger picture of your daily diet, that means you’ll want to consume 30 percent of your daily 2,600 calories from protein.

10 Health Benefits of Protein

Helps You Stay Satisfied

Proteins take more energy to break down than carbohydrates or fats. It also lowers your ghrelin levels, the hormone that producing the feelings of hunger. Because of that, you’re likely to feel fuller, longer when you consume enough protein. Studies have found that those who prioritize protein in meals report higher levels of satiety than those who eat high fat, lower protein diets.

Builds Muscle

Those bodybuilders and their sidekick shaker bottles may be onto something here. Protein is the building block of muscle. If increasing your muscle mass is one of your fitness goals, you’ll need to ensure that your strength training routine is paired with the right amount of protein. Not only will protein help you build muscle, but it’s also been seen to help preserve your muscle mass if you lose weight.

Boosts Metabolism

A study published in Nutrition and Metabolism found that those who ate a high protein diet had a higher energy output than those who ate more carbohydrates or fats—around 80 calories a day more. That’s not significantly high, but muscle build that can accompany eating high amounts of protein may also contribute to a larger calorie burn. According to the Mayo Clinic, those with more muscle mass generally burn more calories, even at rest.

Better Bone Health

The amino acids that come out of proteins help build and maintain bone matter. High protein diets have been shown to prevent osteoporosis and bone weakening later in life.

Regulate Hormone Health

The amino acids found in protein stimulate the release of several hormones that regulate different bodily processes. Most notably, they stimulate the release of growth hormone, used in muscle building.

Promotes Exercise Recovery

Several studies have found that intaking protein prior to, during, or after exercise has a positive effect on muscle recovery. Amino acids are responsible for promotion of muscle growth and repair tissue damage.

Aids Immune System

Amino acids are the building blocks of the proteins that support the immune system. These proteins, including cytokines and antibodies, work to kill viruses, bacteria, and other germs that may enter our systems.

Improve Brain Function

Neurotransmitters that control our cognitive abilities are synthesized by amino acids. They are the chemical messengers of the human body, passing messages from the brain to the rest of the body to carry out tasks.

Regulate Blood Pressure

For years, high protein diets have been shown to significantly lower high blood pressure. In fact, studies have shown that those who maintained a protein intake of around 100 grams per day lowered their risk of high blood pressure by 40 percent.

Stay Fit as You Age

As you age, your muscle mass begins to decrease through a process called sarcopenia. Protein intake helps maintain muscle mass, ultimately preserving functionality and fitness as you get older.

Maintain Weight Loss

Studies have found that diets composed of higher levels of protein lead to reduced subsequent calorie intake. Not only will that help you lose weight, it will also help you keep it off.

What Are Some Good Sources of Protein?

American men eat a lot of chicken and beef. A lot. That’s fine, but sticking to the tried and true may cause you to miss out on key nutrients from other sources—not to mention worlds of flavor.

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Duck Breast (21 grams protein in 3 ounces)

Skinless duck breast is about as lean as chicken breast, and a portion still comes in at under 200 calories. The taste is deeply hearty, savory, and luscious.

Chickpeas (15 grams in 1 cup)

They form the base of hummus, and they make a great addition to soups, chilis, salads, and curries. Bonus: Chickpeas are loaded with gut-filling fiber. One cup has a whopping 13 grams.

Scallops (17 grams in 3 ounces)

Plump, meaty, and satisfying, these mollusks taste best seared over medium-high heat on each side till crispy and then plunked into butternut-squash soup or atop risotto.

Edamame (9 grams in 1/2 cup)

They’re technically soybeans, and beyond being a great go-to sushi-bar appetizer, they’re delicious thrown into salads, noodle dishes, and stir-fry. They’re a solid source of fiber, too.

Fresh Mozzarella (18 grams in 3 ounces)

This cheese tends to have fewer calories than aged cheeses, which gives you permission to stack a caprese salad (but maybe not eat an entire ball).

Mussels (18 grams in 3 ounces)

Dump a bag of scrubbed mussels into a pot with some beer and butter. Simmer until they open. Serve with a hunk of crusty bread for dipping.

Tempeh (17 grams in 1/2 cup)

You’ll usually find this fermented soybean product (tastes savory, not stinky) in the fridge section of a good grocery. Crumble and stir-fry it.

What About Protein Powder?

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It’s a great way to consume more of the nutrient—as long as you’re looking for the right things on the label What makes a perfect protein powder?

1. It’s minimally sweetened: Look for five grams of sugar or less per serving, and avoid fake sugars.

2. It’s made from high quality protein: Aim for whey isolates. If looking for a non-animal product, try pea protein.

3. It has 150 or fewer calories for every 25 grams of protein: Otherwise it’s a high-calorie milkshake.

4. It’s “NSF Certified for Sport” or “Informed-Choice Certified": It's more likely to contain what it says it contains.

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Well, What’s the Best High-Protein Snack?

A shake. Not only do most “high-protein” bars, cookies, and (eye roll) peanut-butter cups on the market fall far short of the protein you need, but they’re also often highly processed. Some bars with minimal ingredients are fine to eat on occasion, especially when paired with produce, but you’d be better off with protein powder made into a shake, per Brian St. Pierre, R.D., director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition.

How Much Protein is Too Much?

If you’re eating too much of these shakes and snacks, a few things can happen. If you’re choosing a lot of animal proteins that are high in fat, like steak and pork, your blood lipids may increase, according to the Mayo Clinic. That can put you at a higher risk of heart disease. It may also increase your risk of kidney stones, Tabitha B. Nicholas, registered dietitian, told Men’s Health. Too much protein has been rumored to cause kidney damage, but more recent findings have proven against that. Though, if you already have kidney damage, too much protein may worsen your situation.

Protein that’s not utilized in the body is converted into fat and stored, possibly leading to weight gain.

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