Most of us are familiar with the terms protein, fat, and carbohydrate as the main components of the food we eat. But do you have a good understanding of why these macro-nutrients are important? They are all essential for supporting various biological functions in the human body.
If you aren’t getting enough protein in your diet, this could be affecting not only your energy levels throughout the day, but also your cognitive function (i.e. feeling motivated, staying focused on a task, making decisions). It could even impact your quality of sleep.
What is a protein?
A protein is a complex structure made up of building blocks called amino acids. Multiple amino acids will bond together in complex configurations to make a larger protein molecule. They are like Lego pieces that fit together to make a larger structure – on its own, a single Lego doesn’t offer much, but when pieced together with other Lego, you can build cars, planes, and houses for all those little Lego men to use: it starts to serve a more complex function.
Amino acids come from the foods that we eat, and our body manufactures some of them too. There is a category of ‘essential amino acids’: this means our body can’t make them, so we have to supply them in our diet. There are nine essential amino acids.
Why is protein important?
Proteins are the building blocks of our cells, and the largest component in the human body after water. Proteins are needed to make hormones and enzymes, antibodies (part of our immune system), and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain). Every tissue and organ in our body is made of protein. So, as you can see, it’s pretty important.
If we’re not getting enough protein in our diet, it can have pretty dire consequences, especially over a long period of time. Let’s consider how insufficient protein might affect your energy levels:
- Protein helps regulate normal blood sugar levels. Most of us know what low blood sugar feels like; and this can occur when we eat carb-heavy foods without the balance of any protein or fiber. Poor blood sugar regulation can lead to feeling jittery, difficulty concentrating, fatigued, irritable, dizzy, or perhaps sweaty or shaky. Support healthy energy levels by making sure you always combine a protein with a carbohydrate.
- Protein is the building block for all neurotransmitters, including those that help us stay focused and alert. Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine: you may have heard of these brain chemicals before, and they all have a role to play when it comes to feeling energized.
- Serotonin helps us transition from sleeping to waking in the morning and allows us to feel alert.
- Dopamine allows us to feel awake, energized, and motivated.
- Norepinephrine causes feelings of arousal, energy, and motivation.
- Protein is the building block for melatonin, which helps us fall asleep. As mentioned above, adequate levels of serotonin help us to wake up in the morning. Conversely, melatonin is secreted in the evening, and this helps us to wind down and fall asleep at night.
How much protein?
As you can see from the points discussed above, protein plays a huge role in supporting energy levels, cognitive function, and even sleep. The next question is: how much is enough?
The generally accepted equation for determining how much protein one should be eating in a day is to take your body weight in kilograms and multiply it by 0.8. This is the number of grams you should be eating in a day.
For example: 65kg x 0.8 = 52g of protein in a day.
It’s best to eat this in divided amounts, so if you are eating 3 meals a day: 52g ÷ 3 meals = approx. 18g of protein per meal.
For individuals who do weight training or moderate to heavy physical activity, protein requirements are slightly higher. These individuals should multiply their weight in kilograms by 1 to 1.2 to determine daily recommended amounts for the days they are being more physically active.
Where your protein is sourced is an important factor as well. While many people equate animal meat with protein, ideally, there should be a good balance of plant proteins in your diet. Consider the following list when choosing healthy sources of protein:
- Organic soy products
- Whole grains (quinoa and amaranth are especially high in protein)
- Nuts and seeds
- Peanuts, almonds, pistachios and cashews are highest in protein
- Pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, and chia are highest in protein
- Free range chicken and their eggs
- Free range turkey
- Grass-fed beef or bison
- Greek yogurt (plain, unsweetened)
One more tip! While animal products are considered a ‘complete protein’ (this means they contain all 9 essential amino acids required to build and repair tissue in the body), plant foods are not (with the exception of soy, quinoa, and hemp seeds). Combine a whole grain with beans/legumes or nuts/seeds to make a complete protein.
Choosing a variety of different protein sources will not only help make sure you are meeting your daily requirements, but will also make sure you are getting enough of the 9 essential amino acids in your diet (as different foods have varying compositions of these amino acids).