Protein is an essential micronutrient that helps build and maintain muscle. It can come from animal sources (poultry, fish, meat) or plant sources (lentils, beans, nuts). If you're trying to increase muscle mass, you probably pay close attention to your protein consumption. Athletes are especially tuned into getting the right amounts of lean protein, and ensuring it comes from high-quality sources (for example, antibiotic-free chicken).
What is protein?
At its most basic level, protein is a type of molecule that's further broken down into amino acids. Our bodies can create some amino acids on their own. However, there are several essential amino acids that we need, but can only get from food.
What does it do for your body?
Protein is important for many bodily functions. Once broken down into amino acids, it helps build and repair tissue, supports the work of antibodies to protect against viruses and bacteria, forms enzymes which carry out important chemical reactions, gives structure to our cells, and carries messages as hormones to help our systems communicate. In other words, protein is very important and you should make sure you’re getting enough of it. But how much is enough?
How much do you need?
You may not need as much as you think–the current guidelines suggest a range between 10% and 35% of our daily calories. Put another way, you need about 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram you weigh. So a 70-kilogram person (150 pounds) should consume around 56 grams of protein per day, and a 57-kilogram person (125 pounds) should consumer around 46 grams. Many people strive for more—to help feel full, or build or repair muscle tissue.
It’s worth mentioning again that the recent trend towards focusing on protein has led the authors of the latest dietary guidelines to suggest that teenage boys and adult men are eating too much meat, chicken and eggs, and generally getting more protein than they really need. If you eat a balanced diet, with a mix of sources, you are likely getting enough protein. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, you might want to take a closer look at your intake, though there are many great sources of protein that don’t involve meat.
Where can you get it?
Most of us know that poultry and red meat are high in protein. For example, a 6 oz. ribeye steak has about 40 grams of protein–but it's also high in saturated fat. Fish sources, such as salmon and tuna contain around 30 grams of protein, with lower saturated fat. Other foods, such as nuts and legumes are solid sources of whole plant protein. Not all sources of protein are equal. The key is to figure out how much you really need for optimal daily health, and find sources that help you maintain a balanced diet.