Proteins are a fundamental building block in the body. They’re critical for maintaining cellular structure and proper functioning. They also help regulate the body’s tissues and organs. Protein is typically found in animal products, but is also present is beans, some vegetables, and tofu.

Protein may help build up the body, but the building blocks of protein are organic compounds known as amino acids. Proteins come from about 20 different kinds of amino acids, and every type of food containing protein features a different mix of these essential acids.

Humans produce ten amino acids, and the remaining ten must come from the protein-containing foods we eat. 

People who don’t eat foods containing the remaining ten essential amino acids could experience side effects such as fatigue and muscle loss. Protein deficiency may also make the body more susceptible to injury as it loses muscle mass because muscles need protein for repair.

Animal products offer complete proteins, which means they provide all of the essential amino acids. Vegetables frequently provide incomplete proteins, which means they’re low in at least one essential amino acid. You can circumvent this by eating what’s known as complementary proteins–when one food has an amino acid another lacks. An example of complementary proteins is rice and beans.

Because many people in the U.S. eat a meat-based diet, most people eat more than enough protein.

Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) for protein vary by age and gender. They are:

  • Children ages 1 to 3 – 13 grams
  • Children ages 4 to 8 – 19 grams
  • Children ages 9 to 13 – 34 grams
  • Girls ages 14 to 18 – 46 grams
  • Boys ages 14 to 18 – 52 grams
  • Women ages 19 up – 46 grams
  • Men ages 19 and up – 56 grams

For an idea of how much protein different foods contain, consider that a three ounce portion of meat contains about 21 grams of protein while one cup of milk contains about eight grams. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends focusing on eating a healthy diet that supplies your body with all the vital nutrients, and not to worry specifically about eating enough protein. Varied diets typically meet daily allowances without special planning.

When eating protein, take care to make smart eating choices. Big, juicy slabs of fatty meat contain protein, but they also contain a slew of unhealthy fats and calories. Opt instead for lean meats and remove the skin from poultry before consuming. The CDC also recommends substituting low-fat dairy products for whole milk. Starting the day with protein, such as an egg, along with whole-wheat toast or another high-fiber food fuels your body for hours, and keeps you feeling fuller, longer.

What are your favorite sources of protein? 

Image by Juan-Calderon via Flickr

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