Protein 101

A Peak Into Those 9 Amino Acids

by NatureBox Health Writer Jenilee Matz, MPH 

Protein is essential to our body’s health. Our organs, muscles, and immune system are made up mostly of protein. 

When protein is digested, it is broken down into units called “amino acids”. There are 22 different amino acids that our body needs to function. The body can make 13 of these amino acids on its own, but the other 9 need to be taken in through food.

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Animal sources of protein- such as meat, milk, and eggs- are considered complete proteins because they contain all 9 amino acids. Vegetable sources of protein- like beans and nuts- are often missing one amino acid. If you’re a vegetarian and eat a well-balanced diet, though, you’re likely getting all the amino acids you need. For example, a peanut doesn’t have all 9 amino acids, but the combination of peanut butter on whole wheat toast does.

Where to get your protein
Lean sources of protein are best because they aren’t bogged down with fat. Healthy sources of protein include:

  • Lean cuts of red meat
  • Poultry without the skin
  • Fish
  • Low-fat and nonfat dairy products
  • Soy foods, such as tofu and edamame
  • Beans
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Whole grains, such as quinoa, spelt, and amaranth

How much protein do I need?
Individual protein needs vary. About 10 to 35 percent of an adult’s diet should come from protein-rich foods. This is roughly 46 grams of protein per day for women, and 56 grams of protein for men.

Certain groups of people have higher protein needs, such as:

  • Pregnant women need 10 additional grams of protein per day.
  • Breast-feeding mothers need 20 more grams of protein each day.
  • Athletes. Endurance athletes, such as long-distance runners, need 50 percent more protein than sedentary people.

When to eat it
Make sure you include protein in every meal and snack you eat. Doing so will help you meet your body’s protein needs. Plus, eating protein throughout the day will help with satiety. This means you’ll feel full for longer. 

It’s important for athletes to pay attention to when they eat protein. If you exercise intensely or for a long period of time, eat a snack within 30 to 60 minutes after your workout. Refueling with protein shortly after being active helps muscles rebuild and recover. About one fourth of the calories you eat post-workout should come from protein.

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Jenilee Matz, MPH is a medical writer, health educator, and runner based in Charlotte, NC