Protein is an absolutely essential nutrient, one that plays a key role in the way that our bodies function. Yet, there is still so much misinformation surrounding protein and some people don’t get enough of it.
That misinformation is why so many people ask: What is quality protein? After all, there are many different protein sources out there and they aren’t all the same. At the same time, there is considerable debate about how much protein you actually need.
With this post, we’re putting that discussion to rest. In it, I highlight the scientific evidence that surrounds protein, along with why protein is so critical and which types of protein you should choose.
The Health Implications of Protein
There are many different protein sources out there, including both plant-based and animal-based options. And, each individual source comes with its own implications for the diet and a different nutritional profile. Likewise, some protein options are higher quality than others.
However, regardless of the source, research has highlighted many benefits related to protein intake as a whole. Most of these advantages can be easily achieved by simply increasing your protein consumption – either through whole foods or through protein powders.
Is Essential for Muscle Development and Maintenance
The connection between protein and muscles is well-known and is also absolutely critical. Basically, protein is a key component in muscle development. If you don’t consume enough protein, then you will struggle to improve your muscles and may even lose muscle mass over time (1).
This pattern is why athletes and bodybuilders often rely on protein powder to increase their protein intake. But, protein is critical for everybody – regardless of your fitness and activity level.
For one thing, having a good body composition is a key factor in overall health. In fact, having too much body fat and not enough lean muscle puts you at risk for a range of health issues, including heart disease and diabetes. This is true even if you are skinny by society’s standards (2,3,4).
Because we focus on weight so much, many people end up thinking they are healthy because they are thin – which isn’t always the case. In particular, some thin people still have a relatively high percentage of fat to muscle mass and this has negative implications for health.
So, increasing your muscle mass is very important for promoting health – and getting enough protein is one way to do this.
At the same time, many people find that they lose muscle mass. This is particularly common as people get older. Increasing protein intake and using resistance exercise can significantly help with this issue, reducing muscle loss overall.
Taking this approach is particularly relevant, as muscle loss can increase fall risk in the elderly, as well as the chance of fractures (5). Furthermore, even a relatively minor fall can have serious long-term consequences for seniors, often significantly decreasing their independence (6).
Muscle mass has also been associated with other health benefits. For example, research has found a connection between muscles and longevity, particularly in older adults (7). Likewise, muscle mass can increase metabolism, although the size of the effect is small (8,9).
All of these areas show that muscles are important for health. So, you need to be getting enough protein to promote muscle development.
Can Promote Weight Loss
Many people think protein causes weight gain, partly because many high protein foods are also high in fat and calories, such as red meat. This perception is technically correct. Increased protein consumption can lead to weight gain but only if you’re just adding protein to your diet without making other changes.
But, for the most part, protein is used as a weight loss tool.
It’s also much easier to create a sustainable lifestyle change when relying on fat- and protein-based foods, rather than focusing on low-fat and high-carb options. After all, a diet that focuses on fat and protein is much more satisfying than a high-carb alternative, even when the calorie intake is identical.
These patterns have been seen in practice as well, with researchers finding that an increase in protein intake can lead to long-term weight loss (14).
Decreases Cravings and Food Obsession
One particularly interesting outcome is protein’s ability to impact how we think about food. This is especially relevant to weight loss but it also helps anyone who is trying to improve their eating.
For example, having a high protein breakfast can lower cravings for food between meals (15). For many people, this would reduce the chance that they would snack on something unhealthy.
Decreasing this type of thought pattern is also good for improving a person’s relationship to food, which may even promote better mental health in the long-term.
Improves Muscle Recovery
Protein intake isn’t just relevant for building muscle. It’s also important for muscle recovery after exercise (16).
This impact is critical for anyone who exercises regularly. Additionally, it may mean that protein helps in recovery after people haven’t been using some of their muscles for a while, such as after an illness.
Increases Muscle Performance
The outcome may be especially relevant for people who aren’t actively building muscle, as it means they get more benefits from the muscle mass that they already have.
May Lower Blood Pressure
The connection between protein and blood pressure is an interesting topic because many people assume that protein makes matters worse. In fact, some recommendations suggest that you should follow a vegetarian diet if you want to lower blood pressure.
Yet, as Dr. Mercola discusses, the evidence for doing so is far from conclusive. At the same time, avoiding meat entirely isn’t the only way to decrease your blood pressure.
The idea stands to reason, especially as some carbs are associated with inflammation (22).
Improves Bone Health
Provides Sustainable Energy
Unlike carbs, protein acts as a sustainable source of energy for the body, one that typically doesn’t spike the blood sugar. This can often improve concentration and overall focus.
For many people, that energy is particularly relevant in the first part of the day, making it easier to get going in the morning and to concentrate at work.
Other Health Implications
There are also other areas where protein can impact health. In general, these have been the subject of fewer studies but they are still powerful directions to consider.
One of these is sleep. Some research shows that consuming more protein can improve the quality of sleep in adults who follow a low-calorie diet (27).
That effect may be partly because a low-calorie diet tends to make people hungry, which can affect sleep duration and quality. Consuming more protein could help offset that effect, as protein is more satisfying overall.
Likewise, protein may help to improve mood, lower stress and even reduce mental illness risk. Research suggests that this is because of the nutrients in the protein sources along with the various amino acids themselves, which can have impacts on the body as a whole (28,29).
For that matter, increasing protein intake could help address nutrient deficiencies, including some that people didn’t realize they had. This impact alone could result in benefits to mood and improvements to a range of other symptoms.
At the same time, there is considerable evidence that diet can affect mental illness risk and symptoms dramatically (30). There is no single way of resolving mental illness but focusing on whole foods in the diet, including protein, is a powerful approach.
The advantages of protein aren’t just limited to the direct roles that protein plays in the body. Instead, most high protein foods are also nutrient-dense, offering a range of advantages for health.
For example, eggs can be a key source of protein and they offer so many different nutrients (31). Indeed, they act as a sustainable source of energy and are extremely cost-efficient, which is great for struggling households. They also provide many health benefits of their own.
A similar pattern is true for red meat, particularly grass fed meat. Despite the negative press that sometimes surrounds meat, it actually contains many different powerful nutrients, some of which are difficult to find elsewhere.
What’s more, high protein foods tend to be unprocessed. That aspect alone makes them good for health, especially as you can prepare your own meals from them, ensuring that you get the best possible outcomes.
As mentioned previously, you may also see other health benefits, simply because increasing protein intake can help to lower some nutrient deficiencies.
What is Quality Protein?
To get the best outcomes from protein and all the benefits, choosing high quality protein is essential. Generally speaking, there are two criteria that define whether or not protein is high quality.
- Amino acid content
As the term suggests, digestibility refers to how the body digests protein. If digestibility were low, much of the protein you consume would pass through your body, leading to limited impacts.
The other term is a reference to the amino acids that are present in the protein, which includes the number of different compounds and also their ratios. Amino acids fall into two groups, essential and non-essential but both are still important in the diet (32).
So then, quality protein is easy for the body to digest and also contains all of the amino acids. Some people also suggest that quality protein is free from additives and preservatives, while also being high in nutrients (33).
The best way to meet these various criteria is with animal-based protein, particularly protein that comes from whole foods, such as red meat and eggs. The key reason for this is that animal-based protein tends to contain all the amino acids we need, while plant-based ones do not. Likewise, animal-based protein tends to be easier to digest (34).
At the same time, some other nutrients are more common in animal products than in plant-sourced foods. The most significant examples are vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. Likewise, a specific form of iron (heme iron) is found in meat. While you can get iron from plants too, heme iron is absorbed more efficiently, which is a key advantage.
You do still need plants in your diet too, of course. But, you should be getting those regardless. Realistically, if you start to turn to plants for your protein source, there is a good chance that you’ll end up with nutrient deficiencies.
Now, the best health benefits really do come whole foods, especially as you’re getting so many other nutrients at the same time.
But, there are also cases where people turn to protein powder instead. After all, this is much more convenient and works well for people who are very busy. You can also make protein smoothies, which gives you the chance to get other nutrients in your diet as well (such as adding kale to your smoothies).
Protein powder also works well if you are very active – as it may be tough to get enough protein from your food alone.
In this case too, the most benefits come from having a complete source of protein. Specifically, whey protein.
Sourcing Quality Protein
It’s also important to consider where your protein comes from.
For example, grass-fed meat and wild fish tend to offer more health benefits than more conventional counterparts. Obtaining this type of food doesn’t have to be difficult either.
One option is to consider online companies. This works well for anyone in a food desert or other situations where shopping options are limited. There are also companies that have a strong emphasis on quality, so you end up with much better products than you would otherwise.
The company that I personally recommend is Vital Choice, which specializes in wild seafood, along with organic meat and some other health food products. I’ve ordered many different products from them over the years and have been extremely impressed with the quality of their meat and fish, including products like the Yellowfin Tuna in the image below.
If organic and grass-fed isn’t an option, simply relying on red meat and eggs from the supermarket can work well. Either way, you’re getting a complete source of protein and a range of nutrients that help improve health overall.
What About Plant Protein?
Animal-based protein is the best source of protein but this isn’t an option for everybody. For example, vegetarians and vegans chose to avoid animal products, while people may also have lower intakes for other reasons, like medical conditions. The issue is especially common with protein powder because many people cannot consume dairy products, which means that whey powder is not an option.
As a result, some people choose plant-based protein instead. There are some advantages to this type of protein, especially as plant-based options tend to be less allergenic overall.
But, plant protein is a lower quality protein source overall.
In particular, plant protein tends to be incomplete, so you aren’t getting as many nutrients. To get around this, you have to consume multiple types of plant protein, especially if you are relying on plant-based protein powders.
Doing this is still viable, especially if using animal protein isn’t an option for you. But, be aware that plants offer a lower quality protein source, so they will never be as powerful.
If you want to learn more, Authority Nutrition has a good discussion on the differences between plant and animal protein, along with the merits of each.
Additionally, anyone relying on plant-based protein needs to pay close attention to the nutrients that they are consuming. It is possible to get all the nutrients you need on a plant-based diet, especially if you rely on a supplement or two (like with vitamin B12).
However, many people don’t manage this and deficiencies are common on vegetarian and vegan diets. So, if you plan to take this route, do make sure you’re getting all of your nutrients.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
One of the most common debates with protein is how much you should be consuming – and answers vary considerably. This is particularly true when you look online, as some people think that protein intake should be decreased, while others promote higher levels.
‘Risks’ of Too Much Protein
A key aspect of this debate is the idea of eating too much protein.
For example, many sites talk about the risks of eating too much protein. Yet, for the most part, this is a myth that simply won’t go away. Some of the most common arguments are as follows:
Protein contributes to osteoporosis. Some theories suggest that protein leaches nutrients from the bones (particularly calcium), leading to osteoporosis development. Yet, there is no long-term support for calcium excretion and studies have failed to find such an effect (38). Indeed, there is evidence that protein is good for the bones and may lower the risk of fractures (39,40,41,42).
Too much protein leads to kidney damage. Many people say that protein strains the kidneys, resulting in damage. This simply isn’t true. For one thing, the kidneys are always under some stress or strain anyway, that’s simply how they work.
But, more importantly, there is no evidence that protein harms kidneys for healthy people (43,44). Now, if you have kidney disease, eating too much protein isn’t a good idea (45,46), which is probably where the myth comes from. But, for the rest of us, protein does not cause kidney damage whatsoever.
Protein causes dehydration. Yes, if you eat more protein, you’ll need to drink more water to compensate. And yes, if you don’t, you’ll probably get dehydrated. But, the need to drink more water isn’t really a negative thing and certainly doesn’t make protein intake dangerous.
Protein causes weight gain. If you take your regular diet and add in protein (without changing anything), yes, you’ll gain weight. Protein does contain calories after all, so that much is a given.
But, protein can also promote weight loss. In particular, it is especially filling and satisfying, which can reduce how much food you eat in later meals. This is why high-protein snacks are sometimes used for weight loss.
With that in mind, the impact of protein on your weight strongly depends on your eating patterns, your diet and your lifestyle as a whole. Yes, it can cause weight gain but only if you’re not planning well. Likewise, it can promote weight loss. Either way, the impact on weight isn’t a reason to avoid protein.
For that matter, you may specifically choose to rely on protein to help you lose weight.
Protein intake can make you bulk up. Protein is associated with muscle gain. This implies that too much protein could result in very defined muscles, which isn’t appealing for people that just want to be lean. But, it doesn’t work like that – and you certainly won’t turn into a bodybuilder overnight. In fact, extra protein in a high protein diet doesn’t have any effect on body composition (47).
This is partly why bodybuilders have to plan and put so much work into the outcomes they want. With that in mind, you’re not going to excessively bulk up from consuming more protein.
All of these areas clearly show that the so-called risks of too much protein are overblown and not supported by science. Instead, protein is a critical compound for us and one that offers considerable health benefits.
All of this talk about the ‘dangers’ of protein has meant that many people decrease their intake – to the point where they’re not getting enough.
There are many different signs of protein deficiency, which include the following:
- Challenges in weight loss or weight gain
- A slow metabolism
- Difficulty increasing muscle mass
- Muscle loss (including age-related muscle loss)
- Low energy levels
- Mood swings and moodiness
- Pain in your muscles, joints or bones
- Decreased immunity and/or wound healing
- Sleeping problems
- Issues with concentration
These are general symptoms and can apply to other conditions as well. But, they can all be indications that you need to re-examine your protein levels.
For many people, the simple answer may be to increase protein intake and see what differences that makes. Doing so can offer a range of health benefits, including many of the ones discussed earlier.
At the same time, high protein foods (like eggs and red meat) tend to be nutrient dense. This makes them great for overall health. And, despite the pervasive myths, you’re not going to harm yourself by eating more protein than you need.
Optimal Protein Levels
Protein intake can seem a little confusing because they are calculated in different ways. Protein needs also vary considerably between people, although many recommendations ignore that difference.
For example, the USDA suggests that average requirements are around 56 grams of protein each day for men and 46 for women (48,49). This isn’t a large amount of protein and people who are active or sick will probably need more.
At the same time, many people feel that these requirements are too low and there is research to back that up. After all, the health benefits discussed previously are typically associated with higher protein intakes.
Additionally, the recommended levels of protein are designed to simply prevent deficiency (50). As a result, they won’t be high enough to offer all of the potential benefits that protein provides.
Recommendations also assume that people are eating the ‘conventional’ American diet, which includes a heavy focus on carbs and relatively few fats. This view of the diet is a whole different area of debate, especially due to the way that fat can be healthy.
With these areas in mind, a good starting point is to get around 20% to 30% of your calories from protein.
This seems to be an effective balance that offers the benefits of protein while still ensuring you get the rest of the nutrients that you need.
However, your intake may vary depending on your diet approach. For example, paleo diets are often fairly high in protein intake, as they rely on many high protein foods.
In contrast, most ketosis diets involve moderate protein intake, with the bulk of your energy coming from fats. The site KetoDiet App is a good source for more information on this balance and offers a tool called the KetoDiet Buddy that lets you calculate the best nutrient goals for your own needs.
And, as with any diet and lifestyle approach, the basic idea is trial and error.
Our bodies all respond in slightly different ways, especially as activity levels, genetics and metabolism vary between individuals. As a result, you’ll need to make changes and observe how your body responds. Doing so is the best way to promote health overall, especially when it comes to protein, health and weight loss.
Protein is a heavily debated topic and ideas about best practices vary. Nevertheless, protein does play a key role in health, with many people simply not consuming enough of it.
As a result, many people need to increase protein intake and the best way to do so is through quality protein. This article has highlighted multiple options for doing so, especially protein from natural sources, including grass-fed beef, fatty fish and eggs.
Likewise, some people turn to whey protein powders as an alternative protein source. Doing so can be effective if you’re short on time or are very active. That type of protein powder can be used in a range of ways, with protein smoothies being the most common. Another option is simply putting protein powder in coffee, especially first thing in the morning.
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